It's that time of year again. No, not Christmas. I mean yeah, there's Christmas trees in the department stores already, but this is even better.
College. Basketball. Is. Back.
That sent a chill down your spine.
Forget about last year. Forget about the year before that. That bad taste still in your mouth? Use mouthwash; they sell it over-the-counter now.
There's a lot to be excited about this year. Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu are back for one last run at glory, and Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins will still be raining 3s. Darryl Reynolds' number change oozes confidence for a breakout year. Phil Booth will finally be joined by classmate Stretch ArmstrongMikal Bridges on the court.
Remember you kept complaining about the lack of big men? Freshman Tim Delaney is very tall (although sadly he may miss the season) and Donte DiVincenzo can jump through the roof. And then there's 5-star guard Jalen Brunson, who spent his summer leading the United States to a gold medal (and winning MVP along the way). The future is looking bright.
So pick your head up. The sky is the limit with this group. Things will be different this year, I promise. Feeling like we might have increased competition in the Big East? DePaul is somehow still a member, so there's really nothing to worry about.
Now get your game face on. It might look something like this:
(5) Initially borrowed from Danny Leroux on the excellent Dunc'd On podcast
(7) Free throw attempts per field goal attempts
(8) A JVP possession that ended in free throws was worth 1.554 points on average. That's the equivalent of shooting 51.8% from three
(9) Ranked 13th in the country
(10) 22nd highest percentage in the country
(11) 21st in the country
(12) Which just so happens to oftentimes be a 3
(13) Not to mention the team's ability to get open looks at will
(14) 21st nationally
(15) Also 21st nationally
Villanova's end of season rating2
Despite an(other) early March exit3, Villanova again proved they are one of the top programs in the nation last year. This is not a team that won 33 games by accident. Villanova had the fourth ranked adjusted offensive rating and the thirteenth ranked adjusted defensive rating. For what it's worth, Villanova finished fourteenth overall according to KenPom in 2013-2014. Last season, they made the jump from very good to excellent, and one can only hope they begin to translate their regular season dominance into success come tournament time.
Josh Hart's number
Hart was an advanced stat machine last year as his ORating (125.3) ranked 27th nationally and his eFG% (62.2) was good for 23rd. He made 66.3% of his shots at the rim4 and shot 46.4% from deep. Simply put, he took a quantum leap forward offensively and was a very solid second option behind Hilliard. Now comes the hard part: sustaining this extreme efficiency while increasing output. One cause for concern is still his foul shooting, which was a very average 67.0% last year. Hart's troubles at the line suggest the possibility of an imminent drop-off in 3P%, as explained previously by Will5. Finding more ways to generate offense (i.e. dribble-drive penetration) is absolutely necessary as he becomes an even more integral part of Villanova's offense. Hart exploded his sophomore year, and his boundless tenacity and drastically improved shooting were wonderful to witness. Villanova fans beware: you might only have one more year with Josh, so enjoy it while you still can.
Total minutes played by Villanova last year that didn't include Villanova's two graduating seniors (Hilliard and Pinkston) or hired Mercenary of Perimeter Defense (Ennis)
The established all-four-years structure of Villanova's program leads to high minutes turnover every year. A player typically earns playing time as his career progresses, and this philosophy typically leads to a senior-laden minute distribution. Naturally, this leads to large chunks of the minute pie graduating every year, and the available minutes freed up cause mass hysteria. The steady, calming contributions of Ennis, Pinkston, and Hilliard6 can't be understated. Between the three of them, they accounted for a whopping 13.7 win shares last year. Villanova has plenty of players ready to contribute, but the departure of these three will cause growing pains.
JVP's free throw rate7
In JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova graduated a player who could get to the line at will and convert at a high rate (77.7%). The ability to generate free throws is hugely helpful for a roster when the rest of the offense goes stagnant. Drawing fouls was one of JVP's best skills, and he drew them at the 12th highest rate in the country his senior year. However, getting to the charity stripe is not a strength of Villanova's returning roster, and JVP's departure leaves a gaping hole that needs to be filled. Ryan Arcidiacano has the highest FTA/FGA among returning players, and getting to the hole is not exactly a strength of his game. There is no higher value possession than one which ends with a shooting foul8 and the now-departed JVP was an absolute monster in this respect.
Villanova's team eFG%9
Contrary to popular (commenter) belief, Villanova does not ‘live and die by the three.' As suggested by this high clip, Villanova's offense is wonderfully balanced and can adapt its philosophy on a game by game basis depending on opponent. The strategy executed in the second St. John's game was a bit different from that in the second Georgetown game. Villanova took 42.9% of their field goals from three10 and still managed to make 38.9% of them11. Maintaining such a high level of efficiency at this volume is absolutely preposterous. Closely trailing their 3p% was their 2p%, which at 53.0% was good for 22nd in the country. Villanova's elite balance is not even remotely indicative of a team that takes threes in order to stay in the game. Instead, their system often leads to the highest, most efficient shot almost every possession12. Taking a three point shot at a 38.9% clip leads to 1.17 points per possession, which is the equivalent of taking a 2 point shot at an Ochefu-ian rate of 58.5%. Simply put, their approach is optimal and a testament to the endless supply of Villanova sharpshooters13. The spacing and output this approach allows is peak 2015 basketball, and their results are hard to reasonably argue with. As such, the balance and overall efficiency of Villanova's offense make simplifications of their style of play (i.e. live and die by the three) lazy and outdated. In the past, this label was appropriate and it was seen in their team statistics. Villanova's eFG% in 2012-2013 was an embarrassing 47.3% (233rd), jumped to 53.6% (29th) in 2013-2014, and reached 55.3% last year. This undeniable progress and elite balance warrants recognition and shows Jay Wright's suits aren't the prettiest part of his repertoire. Villanova has long grown out of being reliant on the three point shot, and now simply lives (and thrives) as efficiently as possible.
Points per game allowed by Villanova
Jay Wright cares more about keeping the ball out of his own basket than he does putting it in the opposition's. Villanova's switch-heavy defense was an absolute nightmare to face last year, and it began on the perimeter. They held opponents to a 30.5 3P%14 and generated steals on 11.8% of possession15 Losing their two best perimeter defenders (Hilliard and Ennis) and by far their best switching ‘big' (JVP) is going to lead to a huge learning curve this year. Villanova's adjusted defensive efficiency was good for 13th in the country last year and replicating those results will prove very difficult. Sustained success requires defensive prowess, and Villanova needs to work hard to overcome their turnover to go back to forcing turnovers. The stout system orchestrated by Jay Wright remains in place, but development by those players replacing graduating seniors is absolutely necessary.
Percentage of Villanova possessions in transition
The value of transition offense can't be overstressed; teams have less time to set up their defense and shooters/cutters are left much more often than normal. As expected, Villanova enjoyed their highest eFG% while in transition (60.8%). This season, expect the amount of time they spend in transition to increase dramatically, as they have added the appropriately-hyped Jalen Brunson to their offensive arsenal. Brunson does his very best work in the open floor and will add a wrinkle to the Villanova offense that few teams get to experience. He will be surrounded by an array of gunners and two players who love to attack the rim on the break (Hart and Booth). Get your popcorn ready.
As the Big East enters Year Three, one thing is absolutely clear: the league hasn't lost the NCAA Tournament bracket-magic that its BCS predecessor had. The ten-team league put 60-percent of its members into the field in year-two after putting 40-percent in their inaugural campaign. Villanova managed to build a big enough RPI number and resume to earn a number-one seed last season, a fact that seems to speak to the strengths of the league.
That said, Gonzaga has earned one of the top seeds out of a West Coast Conference that is widely understood to be a weaker league than the Big East. So, success in the bracket room doesn't necessarily say everything about the conference.
Villanova was the cream of the Big East the last two years. In the league's inaugural season, the Creighton Bluejays were the league's other strong entry -- and though flawed as well, they exposed the Wildcats' weaknesses twice in league play. Last season, the league was more competitive, and some believe it still looks like a power conference -- but that depends on how you judge power.
The Big East has better brand power in college hoops than any other league outside of the football Power-5. The television money coming in from Fox Sports will keep the programs funded and capable of competing in the near future, and there is no doubt that a few of these programs will make some noise in November and December's non-conference schedule.
A question constantly asked by fans and media alike is when and whether this league will expand. Surely, there are some good basketball schools left languishing in lower-profile leagues, but ten versus twelve isn't the issue that league officials should lose sleep over. Almost no team in the Eastern or Central timezone will surpass what the Big East already has. The real question is whether or not the Big East will ever take home another National Championship trophy from the NCAA?
As currently comprised, the Big East has three national titles, with Marquette earning one in 1977, well before ever being associated with anything "eastern," and the other two belonging to Georgetown and Villanova in 1984 and 1985, respectively. Since the mid-1980s, however, the only school without FBS football to win the basketball title was Connecticut in 1999 -- and they were finalizing plans to begin moving up a subdivision the next season. Reversing that trend may be vital for the league's reputation, and ambition, going forward.
Sure, the American Athletic Conference won a Championship with Connecticut in 2014, and very few are accusing that league of being elite. The AAC is probably better at basketball than most give it credit for, but they are hardly a Big 12 or ACC. Championships aren't everything, the Big Ten had their last win 15 years ago, and the Pac-12 has to count on very-retired Lute Olson for their last net-cutting in 1997. Still, from the 1990s on forward, the true basketball power leagues always seem to have a contender for a national championship. A Big East conference that can legitimately live in the conversation as a home of one of the true contenders is a Big East that can live up to the basketball-bluster that has been thickly-spread in every announcement, every press release, and every interview by league coaches and officials.
The Jalen Brunson Era
Villanova Basketball has an amazing history: incredible coaches, fans that bleed Blue and White, incredible players, historic games, and the biggest upset of all time to bring home our lone National Championship trophy. Through this great history we have seen some amazing players rise to the occasion and make sensational plays, such as Scottie Reynolds' floater. And there have been great teams that have risen to the occasion and played as an incredible unit, as they did in1985. But it does feel like there has been one final piece missing, that one piece that allows us to get over the hump to win another National Title. Welcome to Villanova, Jalen Brunson.
Brunson brings something to Villanova that we haven't seen in an incoming player in some time - hope. He brings the ability to take over a game late, as he demonstrated on multiple occasions while winning a gold medal in Greece this summer. Brunson brings a calming balance to the floor, which should help ‘Nova avoid falling in love with the 3 when the long ball isn't falling.
Villanova has experienced some excruciating losses during the past few NCAA Tournament, and Brunson's winning pedigree is just what the doctor ordered. Brunson brings an uncanny, unmatched will to win where he will not let his team go down without a fight. That type of attitude should rub off on his teammates, and elevate the rest of the roster to become a Championship-caliber unit.
Brunson's ability should be felt immediately on the court, but it will also have a longer-term impact on the program. Brunson is the highest ranked guard to come to Villanova since Kyle Lowry, and his commitment snowballed in to a monster frontline class in 2016, with bruisers Omari Spellman and Dylan Painter giving verbal commitments to the Wildcats. Brunson's presence was enough to sell the talented pair on coming to the Main Line - traditionally a haven for guards and guards only.
Exciting times are ahead and Brunson should be a smashing success at Villanova. Whether he lives up to the enormous hype and takes the program to the promised land is the biggest question mark surrounding him.
The Mortal Locks
11/13 vs. Fairleigh Dickinson
11/20 vs. East Tennessee State
11/22 vs. Akron
12/22 vs. Delaware
Barring an absolute catastrophe, Villanova will win all of these games. Losing any one of these matchups would be the equivalent of The Mountain losing a swordfight to a blindfolded Robert Arryn. Let's just move on.
The Philly Five
12/1 @ Saint Joe's
12/13 vs. La Salle
12/28 vs. Penn
2/17 @ Temple (TRAP GAME ALERT)
The Wildcats have strolled through their Philly Five slate the last two seasons, winning all eight games against the St. Joe's/La Salle/Penn/Temple quartet by an average margin of 21.3 points per game. At a glance, one would be inclined to expect more of the same, as none of these teams are likely to strike fear into the hearts of teams in their own conference, let alone the reigning Big East champs.
Temple may have been the last Philly Five team to beat Villanova, and they are also best bet to be the next team to do so. The Owls replaced last year's leading scorer Will Cummings with a solid 2015 recruiting class (3 Top-200 prospects) to supplement a rotation that is returning four of its top six players in terms of minutes per game. Plus, the Wildcats will have to play Temple on the road, sandwiched in between home games against conference rivals St. John's and Butler. Add all that up and you have the classic set up for a potential trap game. If there is one game that the Wildcats may be in danger of overlooking, it is that one.
The Measuring Sticks
12/7 vs. Oklahoma (Pearl Harbor, Hawaii)
12/19 @ Virginia
Last season Villanova's non-conference schedule waslacking star power. Preseason Top-10ish teams Oklahoma and Virginia change that in a two-week span. The matchup against the Sooners will take place in at a neutral site in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, as part of Fox Sports 1's college basketball double header being held that night to honor the 74th anniversary of the infamous attack that initiated the United States' involvement in World War II. Oklahoma is no slouch, led by 2014-15 Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield and a defense that ranked eighth in the nation in adjusted efficiency last season according to KenPom.
Speaking of defense, Virginia ranked first in the nation in adjusted efficiency last year, allowing only 86.2 points per 100 possessions after adjusting for opponent. Tony Bennett's squad will be without ACC Defensive Player of the Year Darion Atkins (graduation) and star Justin Anderson (NBA Draft) but will be returning three starters, including leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon. That Villanova has to travel to Charlottesville to battle this ACC juggernaut only cements this matchup's status as the toughest on 'Nova's schedule. How Villanova fares against the Sooners and the Cavaliers will tell us a lot about where this team stands moving forward and to what extent they can truly be considered national title contenders.
The Should-Be Marquee Games
11/17 vs. Nebraska
11/26 vs. Stanford (Brooklyn, NY)
11/27 vs. Georgia Tech/Arkansas (Brooklyn, NY)
Some good names in Georgia Tech, Arkansas and Stanford show up on the schedule, but the ‘Cats will catch these programs in down years. The Wildcats will also take on Nebraska at the Pavilion as part of the Gavitt Games in what feels like a missed opportunity.. Villanova should be able to dispatch of a Cornhuskers team coming off of a 13-18 season rather easily, and it's a travesty that the conference couldn't pair them up with a marquee opponent like Michigan State, or even a program with more geographical meaning like Penn State. It wouldn't be the end of the world to lose any of these games, but the Wildcats should outclass these teams without too much trouble.
The Easiest Big East Stretch 12/31-1/6:
12/31 vs. Xavier
1/2 @ Creighton
1/6 vs. Seton Hall
Let's get one thing out of the way here: very little if anything comes easily in the Big East, even if national pundits don't hesitate to remind everyone who will listen that the conference ain't what it used to be. Xavier will be solid once again, but 'Nova handled the Musketeers with relative ease in last season's game at the Pavilion, and there's little reason to expect that to change. The Wildcats then travel to Creighton, who seems destined to be at or near the bottom of the conference yet again this season, before taking on Seton Hall in a home tilt. While the Pirates have been a thorn in 'Nova's side the past three seasons, the Wildcats have taken care of business at home where they are 3-0 with an average margin of victory of 17 points per game over Seton Hall since 2012.
The Toughest Big East Stretch: 1/10-1/23
1/10 @ Butler
1/13 vs. Marquette
1/16 @ Georgetown
1/20 @ Seton Hall
1/23 vs. Providence
Unfortunately for Villanova, their easiest Big East stretch immediately turns into their toughest stretch in conference play. The 'Cats go on the road to Hinkle Fieldhouse to take on Butler in perhaps their most difficult Big East regular season game all year on January 10th. After a home game against a Marquette team that expects to be much improved from last season's nadir, Villanova heads to the nation's capital to face archrival Georgetown in a game that the Wildcats lost by 20 points last year. Georgetown will likely be even better than in 2014-15 and will vie with Butler to be 'Nova's greatest challengers in the conference. The Wildcats will then play Seton Hall away from the Pavilion, where they are 1-3 in their last four meetings. Villanova closes this part of the schedule with a rematch of the Big East Tournament semifinal against Providence at home, a game in which reigning co-Big East Player of the Year Kris Dunn will be out for blood.
The Slog to March
1/31 @St. John's
2/3 vs. Creighton
2/6 @ Providence
2/9 @ DePaul
2/13 vs. St. John's
2/20 vs. Butler
2/24 @ Xavier
2/27 @ Marquette
3/1 vs. DePaul
T.S. Eliot was mistaken when he claimed that "April is the cruelest month" in The Waste Land. Any college basketball fan would not hesitate to tell Eliot that February is far crueler as it is the month when bubble teams pop, title contenders pray to make it through the rest of their conference schedule unscathed, and everyone is mostly sitting around waiting for March to start. Villanova is no exception to this rule, and while this nine game stretch isn't as daunting as the five games that precede it there are still plenty of tough road matchups to watch for -at Providence, at St. John's, and at Xavier. Even the trip to Marquette is more difficult than it seems at a glance, as the Golden Eagles have an excellent class of incoming freshmen headlined by five-star power forward Henry Ellenson and four-star guard Haanif Cheatham. There are no nights off in the Big East, and the Wildcats will have to sharp during the February doldrums if they want to hold on to their conference title belt. If they aren't, any one of these teams will be capable of snatching a game from Villanova's clutches.
The Game That Everyone Needs to Circle on Their Calendars
3/5 vs. Georgetown
Drop whatever it is you are doing and circle/highlight this game on your schedule right now. If things go the way they have the last two seasons for 'Nova, the Wildcats will almost certainly have the Big East locked up by this point. But the Hoyas have the highest upside of all of Villanova's conference challengers, and if the stars align this game could potentially decide the regular season title and make for the most exciting Saturday afternoon of the year for 'Nova Nation.
Best Case: The best-case scenario for the Wildcats isn't far-fetched. Returning two senior starters, the Big East Tournament MVP, and adding the best point guard in the class of 2015, Villanova will once again be a force to be reckoned with in college basketball.
The dream-season for Villanova would begin with an undefeated record in its non-conference schedule for the second year in a row. Assuming the Wildcats win all the games they should against lowly St. Joe's (PA) and the pedestrian Nebraska Cornhuskers, the toughest non-conference games will be against Oklahoma and Virginia.
Facing off against the Sooners will test the Wildcats' defense, which will have to control star swingman Buddy Hield. The ‘Cats will show their defense hasn't taken a step back despite the losses of JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, and take down Oklahoma in a shootout.
The "Wahoos" and their lock-down defense, however, will present more of an offensive challenge for Jay Wright's team. This is freshman Jalen Brunson's coming out party, as he proves he can be a the go-to scorer the Wildcats need against an elite defensive team, carrying his upperclassmen to a gritty victory.
It's unrealistic to forecast an undefeated conference schedule, but the Wildcats can come close. In each of the last two seasons, Villanova has lost only two conference games. With a less experienced, but perhaps more talented team, Jay Wright's squad repeats a 14-2 Big East record and dons a third straight conference crown.
For this to happen, Josh Hart will have to replace the production of Hilliard and Phil Booth and/or Kris Jenkins must make a major leaps in their productivity as well. Of course, Brunson will have to be as good, if not better, than advertised.
Entering the Big East Tournament with only two losses (sound familiar?), the top-seeded Wildcats would be favored to repeat as kings of the conference. There's no reason why Villanova, if their season goes as planned, shouldn't win back-to-back Big East Tournament Championships in Madison Square Garden.
We all want to believe the Wildcats will win the national title, but this season will be a resounding success if this team makes a Final Four appearance for the first time since 2009. In order to fulfill their potential, Brunson will have to transform into Villanova's superstar guard in the mold of Scottie Reynolds or Randy Foye. Daniel Ochefu will have to dominate the glass and go toe-to-toe with some of the top centers in the country. If everything falls Villanova's way, this upcoming season could be the most memorable in the Jay Wright era.
Worst Case: The worst case scenario for any team would be losing a key contributor to injury for any significant amount of time. So assuming a clean bill of health, here's the worst case scenario facing Villanova this season. Strap in Nova Nation, it isn't going to be pretty.
While the wins are easy enough to come by in the early going, advanced statistics suggest that the team isn't quite living up to its lofty expectations. Victories become much harder to come by in the NIT Tournament. The Wildcats escape with two narrow victories, winning each game in dramatic fashion. It's starting to become clear that Pinkston will be missed on the defensive end as the new rotation players struggle to pick up the defensive system.
Coming off the thrilling wins in NYC and looking forward to a trip to Hawaii, ‘Nova falls into a trap game and loses at rival St. Joe's (PA). The slump carries over against Oklahoma, and the real issues with this team are revealed. Hart seems to have hit his sophomore slump a year late. Booth, Brunson, and Archie can't seem to gel in the back court. Ochefu becomes prone to foul trouble and Darryl Reynolds and Tim Delaney aren't ready for primetime. The team is able to rebound against La Salle, but isn't up to the task of taking down what is now a Top 5 team in Virginia. The team seems to stabilize with victories over Delaware and Penn, but they enter Big East play with a lot to prove.
Hope springs eternal as Nova starts off 4-0 in the Big East, including a tough win at Butler. But it's only a mirage as they drop the next two games against a much improved Marquette team and rival Georgetown. Jay Wright is able to rally the team around its seniors, who lead the team to a 6-1 record over the next 7 games. The lone loss comes at the Dunk against Kris Dunn and Providence. But more unfocused play and the exposure of the team's lack of front court defense leads to another Big 5 loss during a late season bout at Temple. The Wildcats suffer a second straight loss as Butler exacts revenge at Nova, and tournament hopes start to become questioned.
The last four games of the season are a roller coaster. A thrilling win at Xavier is followed by a last second loss at Marquette. After a hard fought win over DePaul, Villanova faces Big East front runner Georgetown in the final game of the season. It's a blow out. Nothing goes Nova's way, and Georgetown wins by over 20 points. Villanova finishes the regular season with a 21-10 record and a 5 seed in the Big East Tournament.
Madison Square Garden isn't kind to Villanova this season, as the Wildcats lose to 4th seed Butler in overtime. They're forced to watch from home as Georgetown goes on to win the Big East and secure a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Villanova sweats it out on Selection Sunday, but ends up getting an 11 seed in the West region and must play old rival Syracuse who snags a surprising and controversial 6 seed.
Despite their limited roster, Syracuse is able to easily handle Villanova. Another year of poor shooting and a lack of front court depth puts the Wildcats out of the game early and they're never able to mount a comeback. The Wildcats fail to make it out of the first weekend for yet another season, and seniors Arcidiacono and Ochefu end their careers unceremoniously.
The Staff Has Spoken
We conducted an informal poll around the expectations of the 2015-16 Villanova Basketball team - here are the highlights from the 11-man staff.