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Villanova Basketball Analytics: Four Factors vs USC Trojans

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is something special.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: OCT 18 Villanova at USC Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is a very special player. If you didn’t believe the hype coming into the season, it’s hard to deny it after his 20 point, 9 rebound debut performance. But one man does not an entire team make, and as a team the Wildcats struggled in the second half of last night’s loss to the USC Trojans.

Not to make excuses, but it’s really not as bad as it sounds. Villanova played two true freshman for more minutes than any other combination of players. They were also missing their starting backcourt in Collin Gillespie (broken nose) and Bryan Antoine (shoulder surgery). So while this game may not have necessarily been indicative of things to come, there are certainly some positives (and negatives) to take away from it. With that in mind, we’re bringing back the Four Factors to take a deeper dive into the stats that matter most to see how Nova’s improving.

Special thanks to Whitey Rigsby for tweeting out the box scores.

Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) - USC wins by 6.8%

Offense: Game - 44.0%, Last Year - 53.2%

It wasn’t the best shooting night for the Wildcats, and hind-sight being 20-20 it shouldn’t have been unexpected. Villanova was playing with out arguably their two best outside shooters in Gillespie and Antoine, along with playing a much larger lineup. When that’s the case and the team still takes 57% of its shots from deep... yeah, it’s going to be a long night:

  • Jermaine Samuels: 1-8 from deep
  • Cole Swider: 1-7 from deep
  • Justin Moore: 2-8 from deep
  • Brandon Slater, Chris Arcidiacono, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl: combined 0-4 from deep

The lone perimeter threat on the night was Saddiq Bey, who went 4-7 including a perfect 2-2 in the second half. Everyone else shot under 30% individually, and an awful 17.3% as a group. You’re not going to win many games shooting like that in volume. Again, this should improve as some of these guys just had cold nights and the Wildcats will get their premier shooters back.

But if you’re looking for your silver lining here, it’s the 56% Villanova shot inside the arc. One of the reasons the Wildcats get such open shots on the perimeter is because they’re traditionally lethal inside, forcing teams to pack the paint. Tonight’s performance was above last year’s average (53.7%), and Robinson-Earl was an other-worldly 10-14 (71.4%) inside the arc. And this wasn’t an everything 3-ft from the rim or closer 10-14, he was popping from the elbow, putting up baby hooks, and of course had some terrific slams for good measure. We’ll be talking about Robinson-Earl all article long, but he’s going to make us all fall back in love with Villanova bigs.

Defense: Game - 50.8%, Last Year - 50.4%

While last night’s defensive efficiency wasn’t too far off from last year’s, that’s not a good thing. Last season Villanova ranked 81st in defensive efficiency after not ranking anywhere below 12th for the previous five seasons. Yes, USC got hot from three in the first half thanks to Daniel Utomi’s 4-5 shooting in the first 20 minutes, but the trojans were also finding success inside the arc on dribble penetration.

The biggest issue was defending the perimeter, and the most noticeable culprit last night was Cole Swider. It’s no secret that the stretch forward can be a double edged sword that can hurt you on defense as much as he helps on offense. The problem was that last night the sword was only cutting one way as Swider finished the night with only three points on 1-8 shooting from the floor and 1-7 from deep.

Swider is going to be a streaky shooter this year, and he’ll have his nights where he goes 6-7 from beyond the arc. But when he doesn’t have it going, his perimeter defense is a liability that this team can’t afford. He openly recognized his need for improvement on defense at the Blue/White Scrimmage, saying that it was an area he’s been working on. But until those results show up in a game, he may start seeing his minutes go to more reliable defenders like Brandon Slater.

Turnover Percentage (TO%) - USC wins by 0.9%

Offense: Game - 21.1%, Last Year - 16.9%

When your primary ball handlers are a true freshman and a forward, turnovers are going to happen. Despite being +5 in turnovers at halftime, Villanova actually had four more turnovers than the Trojans in the second half. A lot of that came from silly offensive fouls and some errant passes, but this is probably something you can chalk up to missing Gillespie as the primary ball handler.

But in the bigger picture, let’s take a minute to talk about the ball movement. It actually looked pretty good at times last night, but there were clearly points where this teams youth was apparent on offense. It’s not that passes were necessarily sloppy, they were just... off. Robinson-Earl and Bey were the biggest culprits in this area with 4 turnovers a piece.

At first you might think, well they’re big men and they’re not supposed to be handling the ball that much. But with the lack of proven ball handlers, I think Villanova is going to try to run the offense through the paint the way they did with Daniel Ochefu in 2016. In order to do that, it’s going to rely on the interior passing and kick-out abilities of Robinson-Earl and Bey. In that light, I’m okay with Villanova pushing the ball with those two if that’s the direction the offense is headed. But if it’s not, then as two of the team’s premier scorers they need to do a better job with the ball in their hands.

Defense: Game - 20.2%, Last Year - 18.0%

Villanova’s defense almost looked like a tale of two halfs out there tonight. In the first half they played with a lot of intensity, disrupting passing lanes and causing eleven USC turnovers. But in the second half they let a shooting drought effect their defensive intensity, and the lack of energy gave way to easy dribble penetration for the Trojans. Villanova only turned USC over five times in the second half, even though they took nearly three times the number of shots inside the arc as they did in the first half.

The defense may be in a better spot than we anticipated to start the season, but it’s still very much a work in progress. The good news is they have the athletes to play the man defense Jay Wright prefers, and now they just need the discipline and execution required to play it for the entire game.

(First Half) Offensive Rebounding Percentage (OR%) - Nova wins by 26.3%

Note: The final box score above didn’t break out offensive and defensive rebounds, so I only have the first half box score (which did break it out) to go off of.

Offense: Game - 35.0%, Last Year - 30.3%

Even though Villanova was outrebounded in the second half, I think it’s still safe to say they won the OR% battle after such an impressive first half performance. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Saddiq Bey each had two offensive rebounds in the first half, and the rest of the team combined for three more to account for over 13 of Nova’s boards.

While the Trojans did beat Nova out on the boards in the second half and for the game, Villanova clearly won on the offensive glass. Overall, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl led the cats with nine rebounds while Bey and Samuels each had seven.

Defense: Game - 11.1%, Last Year - 27.7%

Villanova’s defense was really strong in the first half, but I can’t help but wonder what these percentages looked like in the second half. Robinson-Earl kept the intensity up all game and Cosby-Roundtree is still the team’s best offensive rebounder, but the Wildcats clearly lacked the energy to attack the boards the same way in the second half. Justin Moore gets a pass as a guard that still pulled down two boards, and Chris Arcidiacono and Eric Dixon barely saw the court enough to make a difference. But Cole Swider and Brandon Slater, Villanova first two players off the bench, combined for zero rebounds in 39 minutes played.

If the Wildcats are going to play big as they did tonight, they need to win on the boards. They don’t need to be as big as other teams if they’re more athletic and disciplined, something they showed in the first half but not the second. This could end up being one of Jay Wright’s best rebounding teams, but they need to really work toward that goal together if they’re going to achieve that goal.

Free Throw Rate (FTRate) - USC wins by 9%

Offense: Game - 23.7%, Last Year - 28.2%

When Villanova is raining threes, you’re not going to have all that many trips to the line, but that gets balanced out IF the threes are falling. If not, it hurts double. But the thing to keep an eye on from last night wasn’t the low rate, but the low free throw percentage of 64.3%.

It’s not like Villanova doesn’t have off games from the line. Last season Villanova shot under 65% from the charity stripe in 9 of their 36 games. That said, Villanova has never shot under 71% from the line for a season under Jay Wright. It’s very possible (and likely) at this point that it’s a blip on the radar. But given that Nova shot in the 60’s in both halfs, it’s something to keep an eye on just to be sure.

Defense: Game - 32.7%, Last Year - 26.7%

This one got away from the Cats late, so there was some extra fouling. But still, they went over the limit in both halves. When your team lacks experience, fouls is usually one of the byproducts. Players are still learning the defense and at times find themselves out of position and end up fouling while trying to recover. Overall that doesn’t concern me.

But let’s just keep an eye on two guys in particular. Jermaine Samuels and Brandon Slater are supposed to be two of the teams best defenders, and yet they each had two first half fouls. Samuels ended the game with four, while Slater fouled out late. This year Villanova has length and depth, so a guy off the bench like Slater fouling out isn’t as big of a deal. But Samuels needs to be more disciplined and stay on the court. Again, it’s one exhibition game so it’s nothing to get bent out of shape over yet, but it’s something to keep an eye on.

Lasting Impressions

The loss isn’t great, and there’s certainly a lot to work on, but I still felt pretty good coming out of this game. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is who we thought he was, and that’s going to pay dividends early. The defense is in a better spot to start the season than I anticipated, which is great news given how good Wright has been at developing team defense over the course of a season. The offense showed signs of ball movement, pushing the ball, and faster play than the Bottom 10 speed from last season. And all of that happened without two starters. Get excited Nova Nation, this is looking like it could be a really fun season to be a Wildcat fan!