Alaa Abdelnaby, a college analyst for CBS Sports, is calling the Villanova Wildcats' upcoming game against the Bucknell Bison. A a former Duke Blue Devil and professional basketball player, Alaa was nice enough to discuss his observations of the current Wildcat squad and what this season could bring.
"What I liked most is their defense," Alaa responded when asked of his first impressions of the team. "Even with the missed shots, they stayed defensive, and I like that." This was certainly the case in the season opener against the Lehigh Mountain Hawks where the `Cats forced 23 turnovers (13 steals). The shot selection was poor, however, as seen in the 8-33 shooting beyond the arc. "Not only are you taking low percentage shots, you're not getting anyone into foul trouble." Alaa commented on the Wildcats' offensive plan last Friday. "You don't get into the bonus, you don't shoot 1-and-1's early, if at all, and the games becomes harder because now you have to make buckets and not shoot from the free throw line."
One of those key players struggling early on is Darrun Hilliard. Seen as a snubbed-First Team All Big East member, so far he is shooting a poor 26.9% from the field, 14.3% from three, and averaging 10.0 PPG. Even so, Alaa doesn't seem to shaken by this slow start. "It's still too early," he remarked. "Every player is stepping into new roles. The game against Lehigh you can write off going home, [Darrun] was nervous. But he'll embrace his role, he'll figure it out. It's a matter of figuring out 'What I can get away with?'"
He echoed again that if the offense fails, they can fall back on their defense. He calls the `Nova defense the "defense on a string," meaning rotating in-sync. "They are always in position to anticipate cross-court passes or weak passes." He reminds kids that if the jumper isn't falling, you have to realize there's so much more you can do. "There's no time to wallow in misery."
In order to improve on the poor shooting, especially from long-range, early on, Abdelnaby preaches "Don't settle." More specifically he says "anyone can get a 25-footer at anytime, the problem is it's harder to hit." The dribble-drive penetration is the best way to break down the defense; they need to get into the lane. "There's a lot more physical play in the paint- the refs don't see everything." At this point I started to question if Alaa was reading my mind.
He understands, though, that three-pointers are the way of the game today. "It's not just a Villanova situation, it's all over the country." Alaa notes the lack of what he calls "true big men" in the game nowadays. "Most teams don't have two bigs." While Villanova has JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu, they just do not fit the systems in place. It's how the game is played now. "So many guards out there, and not enough that put their backs to the basket." It's pretty frustrating when you can name the two on your own team, but they're not fed the ball enough.
Moving to the Bucknell game, Abdelnaby doesn't believe the Bison are "athletically gifted enough to stop [Villanova.]" He added that in order for the Patriot League foe to even stay in the game, "Villanova has to play poorly, and Chris Haas has to get going." Alaa focused specifically on Haas' ideal as a captain on the team. "This is a big game for them. If he doesn't get going this affects everyone on the team. 'If he can't get it done, what chance do I have?' If those guys get going, that gave [the whole team] confidence. Look for him tomorrow."
Part of the reason the CBS broadcaster has such faith in Villanova is Jay Wright. "I think he's a good man. You need a good man to be your coach because you'll be leading young men. You want to give the guidance on, and more importantly off, the court. He's a motivator. He didn't waiver when things were against the wall a few years ago. He impressed me. He stuck with who he is, and now it's paying off." Emphasizing the character of Coach Wright, "you are a classy school, you deserve a classy coach." While we may not agree with his in-game coaching sometimes, no one can argue that his public image fits the Villanova-style perfectly.
The Wildcat's success this season, no doubt, relies on the guards. "I like the little flashes from Ochefu, so those are good signs. But it's always about the guards. Can they play well? Can they defend? Can they get good shots? But they're not unique. A lot of schools rely on their guards." If the team has a repeat performance from the Lehigh game, could that slide past a Georgetown, or VCU, or Michigan? Most likely not.
Another big factor is foul trouble of the forwards, says Abdelnaby. "If Pinkston or Ochefu get into early foul trouble, they have to sit and you now take attention away from one of them. You can double team the other and take them out."
It will definitely be an adventure watching this team unfold in the coming weeks. Right after the Bucknell matchup later today begins the preparation of the VCU Rams (if it hasn't already begun). The team's performance in the Progressive Legends Classic will surely be a benchmark of the 2014-2015 season's potential.
You can follow Alaa Abdelnaby on Twitter: Follow @alaatweets