We’re all familiar with the most famous multi-tool in the world. No, not Head of the NCAA Mark Emmert, I’m speaking of the Swiss Army Knife. It’s an all-in-one device that often includes knives, screwdrivers, cork screws, saws, files, and anything else one might need in a number of situations. The objective is to have just one device that provides the perfect solution for a myriad of problems.
And that seems an appropriate metaphor for Villanova Basketball’s bench. Wright has three rotation players with elite skills in specific areas that can really give the Wildcats a boost off the bench depending on the situation. Need a bucket, he’s got a guy for that. Need a stop, he’s got a guy for that. Need to start winning on the boards? Yup, he’s got a guy for that too.
However, there is a drawback to having such specialized skill sets. These bench players are still developing, and while they’ve become elite in some areas they’re still behind in others. If Villanova is going to have a chance at reaching a Final Four for the third time in five years, these players will need to develop all aspects of their skill tree to match their current elite abilities. Today we look at three bench players, how they’re excelling, and where they need to improve.
The Sharp Shooter: Cole Swider
Swider has been Villanova’s 6th man this season, and for good reason too. Despite an inconsistent rookie year and preseason, he’s come out on fire to start 2020. Through the first three games he currently ranks 1st in FT% (100%), 2nd in FG% (50%), 2nd in 3FG% (50%), and 3rd in points (11.7PPG). In fact, with only 21.7 minutes per game (6th on the team) he’s the most efficient scorer the Wildcats have.
While scoring is Swider’s primary role on the offense, he doesn’t force the ball up every time he touches it. He’s an effective passer, averaging 1.3 assists per game with only 2 turnovers on the season. As you’d guess with his efficiency numbers, he’s also been really good with his shot selection. All of this is to say that Jay Wright’s best offensive option off the bench is REALLY good at offense.
The downside with Swider is on the defensive end, where he ranks as the second lowest member of the rotation in Defensive Rating (91.5). The sophomore even admitted as much this preseason, telling fans that defense is something he and the coaching staff have been focusing on as an area for improvement. And to his credit, he is improving. While it’s still a small sample size, he’s improved his rebounding efficiency over his freshman year. And while he’s still leading the team in fouls at nearly three per game, his fouling per 40 min. is also down from last season.
Swider’s biggest issue on defense is guarding on the perimeter and lateral movement. He’s been effective when he gets matched up with forwards, but on quicker wings and guards he’s had some trouble staying in front of his man. It’s not something that there’s a quick fix for, but continued work on footwork and positioning will help him recover in those situations. Of the three bench rotation players we’re looking at today, Swider is the closest to rounding out his game and possibly moving into the starting lineup. But with Bryan Antoine on the mend and solid play from the starting five, he appears to be locked into the 6th man role this season.
The Defender: Brandon Slater
The second player off the bench for the Wildcats has usually been defensive-do-it-all Brandon Slater. Through three games Slater is 1st in Defensive Rating (83), 2nd in blocks (.3 per game) and 3rd in steals (1 per game). Per 40 minutes he’s actually #1 in steals as well. His long athletic build often has him running point on Villanova’s 1-2-2 press and allows him to disrupt passing lanes and alter shots from driving guards and wings. His size allows him to guard 1-4, and he’s a perfect piece in Nova’s switching man defense.
What we haven’t seen much of yet from Slater is on the offensive end. After getting lots of hype in the off-season as a player to watch out for this year, his shooting numbers have been a bit disappointing. It’s still a small sample size with just three games, but so far he’s shooting a rotation low 30% from the field. That’s in large part due to going 1 for 7 (14.3%) from beyond the arc. The good news is he’s still a highly effective slasher with a team high 66.7% from inside the arc, although that’s on just three total shots. I’m by no means suggesting that Slater stops taking good looks from deep. The three point shot is part of his skill set, he just has to get it going from deep to open up the rest of his game. Let’s all remember Eric Paschall’s 1 for 25 start to the 2018 season before he shot 46.1% from deep the rest of the year. I’m not saying Slater turns into the next NBA rookie sensation, just that Villanova’s coaching staff works on shooting fundamentals all year long and eventually it can just “click”.
But there’s also an artificial aspect to Slater’s low offensive numbers too. While Villanova definitely needs a defensive stopper they can call on, they already have a lot of options on offense. They won’t shut Slater down offensively, they still want him to grow and develop. But they also probably won’t call his number very often when he’s sharing the court with guys like Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Saddiq Bey. So even if we don’t see Slater’s offense rise to the level of his defense this season, that’s really not at all concerning for me. Steady improvement and efficiency should be his benchmark. Given that through three games he’s nearly eclipsed his minutes total for all of last season, I think that’s an expectation he’s likely to meet.
The Rebounder: Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree
As the third option off the bench and the last man in the rotation, Cosby-Roundtree’s minutes and production have taken a step down from last year. That said, he’s still been one of the best rebounders on the team when he’s in the game. From an efficiency standpoint he’s still the team’s best offensive rebounder (OR% of 11%), and he ranks second on the team in rebounds per 40 minutes and 100 possessions. The only player who’s been consistently better on the boards on both ends of the court is Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who may be the best rookie rebounder Villanova’s seen since Jason Lawson.
Despite being a huge defender of Cosby-Roundtree’s game, even I have to admit it’s been a disappointing start to the season. And I’m not just referring to the drop in minutes, but rather that the lack of efficiency and production everywhere outside of rebounding.
The big man’s best overall three game stretch came during last year’s AdvoCare Invitational, where he averaged over 29 minutes, 11 points, 11 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block, and 1 assist per game. All of those numbers have dropped significantly to start this season, most notably the minutes and scoring. Part of the reason is the same as we noted above for Brandon Slater. Cosby-Roundtree’s presence on offense isn’t really needed with so many weapons around him. This is especially true at his position, where Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has proven to be a nearly unstoppable scoring option down low.
But Villanova’s junior big man is, well, a junior. His development seems to have stalled, especially compared to the rest of his class in Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels. Cosby-Roundtree is still showing great efficiency on the boards, and he’s undoubtedly an asset when it comes to creating second and third opportunities off of missed shots. But he just seems to be missing something, the “it factor” that’s keeping him from taking his game to the next level. Call it aggression or confidence, but there’s some element absent from his play that we saw flashes of last year. He’s certainly capable of more, but for whatever reason we haven’t seen it this season. Until we do, it’s unlikely he sees more than 10-15 minutes a game.
Despite an early stumble against Ohio State, this young Wildcats team still shows tons of upside. A lot of that improvement will need to come from the starting five and the yet to be seen 5-Star phenom, Bryan Antoine. But Villanova will also need contributions off the bench if they’re going to maintain their “blue blood” status among college basketball’s upper echelon. This bench has some great players with highly specialized, elite skills sets. But it won’t be until they round out the rest of their games that this team can reach its full potential.