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March Madness: Villanova Basketball’s defense is hot entering NCAA Tournament

The Wildcats defense is catching up to their offense -- that spells trouble for opponents.

Villanova v St John's Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Entering the NCAA Tournament, Villanova’s offense will be ranked #2 in the country by KenPom. That’s to be expected with Jay Wright’s small-ball heavy lineups and uber efficient offensive players like Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges playing heavy minutes.

But that’s just one reason why the Wildcats are a threat to cut the nets down for a second straight year. On the other side of the ball, ‘Nova has quietly begun to operate at peak-efficiency heading into March.

You’ll remember that it was the defense that was the backbone last year -- it’s the part that separates them from a team like UCLA that relies solely on offense. The defense is what gives Villanova the ability to win the rock fights like Virginia and Seton Hall. And when the offense is clicking, look out.

“We might have played our best defensive game of the year,” stated Villanova Wildcats coach Jay Wright after Saturday’s Big East Tournament championship.

It was an eye-catching performance. But the truth is, Villanova’s defense has been playing better and better for a couple of weeks, culminating in Saturday’s domination of a red-hot Creighton Bluejays squad. Since the Butler loss, ‘Nova has allowed 59.6 ppg translating more impressively to just 0.85 points per possession.

(Ironically, their 41-point demolition of St. John’s was their worst defensive performance of the stretch. We’ll excuse it.) So what’s clicked? It’s mostly just the experience in my opinion — but the ‘Cats are finally playing with their deepest rotation of the year as well.

So what’s clicked? It’s mostly just the experience in my opinion — but the ‘Cats are finally playing with their deepest rotation of the year as well.

Small-ball works on defense, too

Analysts and pundits lauded Villanova’s defensive scheme a year ago, when Wright had his team switching 1-4 leaving just Ochefu to protect the rim. This year, the ‘Cats are often switching 1-5. Darryl Reynolds can handle those perimeter duties, and if he’s not in it’s been Eric Paschall or Kris Jenkins as the nominal center.

That flexibility has led to a lot of ball pressure which has translated into a Top-25 steal%. For a team that has played at a slower pace than years past, that creates opportunities to execute on the fast break with the athletes they’re putting on the floor.

They can go big (but there’s some limitations on offense)

Editor’s Note: Will says this lineup is good on offense too, albeit in a very small sample size.

Darryl Reynolds is back healthy and Dylan Painter is serviceable! For all the worry about #FreeOmari hurting frontline depth, things look better now. During the Big East Tournament Wright experimented with lineups like DiVincenzo-Bridges-Paschall-Reynolds-Painter and DiVincenzo-Jenkins-Paschall-Reynolds-Painter.

The goal was to create a defense predicated on length when they set up in the 2-3 zone (a necessity when Painter is on the floor). It did just fine on defense by my eye but had the obvious limitations on offense with many sets resulting in DiVincenzo going into hero mode. While I don’t expect to see it much, Villanova has the depth to go big if they run into a massive frontline at some point in the dance.

For all the worry about losing Daniel Ochefu’s rim protection - Villanova’s defense is statistically inferior to last season’s group - things are trending up at the right time.

The five-game winning streak has Villanova’s AdjD metric up to 92.0 — good for 11th in the country. That puts Villanova in the vaunted group ‘Top 15’ group for both offensive and defensive efficiency. That’s been a benchmark of sorts for National Championship contenders in recent years.

The others on that list in 2017? The Gonzaga Bulldogs and Kentucky Wildcats. Be confident, ‘Nova Nation. This looks like another complete team.