In their last big out-of-conference test of the calendar year, the Villanova Wildcats will head south to Charlottesville on Saturday to take on the Virginia Cavaliers. It's a chance to redeem their national image for the Wildcats while the Cavaliers will look to protect John Paul Jones Arena and make it two straight victories over Top 25 opponents after dispatching West Virginia Mountaineers last weekend.
Out of conference home-and-home series rock. What's the atmosphere on campus like leading up to this game? How would it compare to an upper-tier ACC school coming to town?
I couldn't agree more about doing home-and-home series with strong OOC opponents. We just announced another one with West Virginia, in fact. While the atmosphere on Grounds (sorry, that's a UVa thing) is subdued/panicky right now, that's because it's finals season. The timing of this game may work a tad in Villanova's favor, since most of the students will have gone home for break. The most dedicated may return if they live nearby; for a top-15 opponent, anywhere in a three-hour radius ought to be considered nearby enough. But us townies are going to show up in force, so hopefully the atmosphere will be comparable to top-quality conference games.
Virginia is known for their elite defense (which subsequently gave them a reputation for a plodding offense), but so far this season the offense looks great despite losing Justin Anderson. What's changed?
I'm going to give a ton of credit to Darius Thompson on this front. Thompson sat out last year after transferring from Tennessee, and the year off seems to have done him a world of good. Bennett mentioned this in his pre-season press conference, saying guys like Thompson and Anthony Gill (who sat for a year when he transferred after a standout freshman season at South Carolina) who have a redshirt year once they've already played one season tend to get the most out of that time off. Thompson gives Bennett the option to run almost a three-point-guard lineup with Thompson, London Perrantes, and Malcolm Brogdon. That also frees up Perrantes to play off-ball and he's flourished in that role, hitting almost 50 percent from three. Thompson also has the quickest fast-break trigger of any of the guards, which has resulted in taking advantage of scoring opportunities created by that good defense.
Death. Taxes. Tony Bennett?! Would Bennett really leave a great situation in Charlottesville for Madison?
Ugh. I hope not. We talked with John Gasaway about this last night on our podcast, and I think he summed things up pretty well. There's been a lot of time that's passed between Bennett's years in Wisconsin, and a lot of turnover in the UW athletic department as well. It would be, at best, a lateral move between programs. Obviously I'm biased on what's the smart choice but I don't see Bennett leaving, especially with his top-ranked recruiting class coming in 2016.
Both Virginia and Villanova got an early dose of humility this season, but have bounced back nicely. What would constitute a good season for the Hoos, and can they achieve it?
A good season would be finishing in the top-three in the ACC regular season and playing in the tournament title game again. That's what we've pretty much come to expect after the past few years. But the biggest measuring stick is the NCAA tournament. Virginia needs to get past the second weekend to be taken seriously as a power program. With an offense that's capable of dropping 80 on a regular basis now, I think the odds are better for that this year. So long as Michigan State isn't in our draw the first few rounds...
Virginia's defense would appear to be suffering just a little bit from the rule changes as they've fouled more often this year - is there a specific area/players that Villanova can exploit?
Attack off the dribble. Beating a UVa defender one-on-one triggers a series of slides and rotations as the defense collapses in to help. If the ballhandler can get past his man and make a smart outlet pass, the recipient is either going to have room for a shot or find a teammate open with one more pass. Villanova's strong guard play does have me worried in that respect.
Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes and Anthony Gill are the big names - what unsung hero could step up and have a big game on Saturday?
Thompson as I mentioned above would be one candidate. Another would be Isaiah Wilkins. Wilkins has the potential to grow into the Akil Mitchell/Darion Atkins stopper role, but already has more offensive game than either of those guys did in their respective second years. With Villanova running a bit on the small side, Wilkins may get more chances than Mike Tobey or Jack Salt, who are more prototypical big men. He's a great shot blocker and a ferocious rebounder, and I could see him playing a big role if the Hoos are going to win.
Predictions for Saturday?
While the Cats ability to dribble-drive and their zone defense both worry me, I look at three-point shooting as the key to this game. More than half of Villanova's field-goal attempts this year have been three-pointers, but they only hit about 30 percent. The Pack Line defense is more than happy to let teams shoot threes all day. If Nova can get inside the perimeter defense with regularity, they'll keep things far too close for my comfort. I'm going to trust KenPom and stick with a UVa victory, but a close one. Let's say Virginia 63, Nova 60.