In the 2018 National Championship season, Villanova set a lot of records. To be more specific, they set a lot of three-point shooting records. Most threes made in school history. Most threes made in an NCAA Tournament. Most threes made in a Final Four. And the big one, most threes made in a single season. It was the crowning achievement that capped a five year shift in offensive philosophy for Jay Wright’s program. It’s a complex system to be sure, but when it comes to three point shooting it can be summed up in one simple phrase.
Shoot ‘em up, sleep in the streets.
Now two years removed from their latest National Championship, the Wildcats still play by that mantra. However, the last six games they’ve been struggling from deep. They’re shooting less than 25% from behind the arc and are averaging under 8 makes on over 30 attempts during that stretch. Just looking at the shooting percentages, one could make the argument that Villanova is in serious trouble.
Then again, Villanova is also 5-1 in those six games. Their only loss was on the road at Marquette, a game that they’ve now lost 3 our of 4 seasons. On top of that, that six game stretch includes a win over #1 Kansas and a road win over likely NCAA Tournament bound Creighton earlier this week.
So is this a disturbing trend that needs a course correction, or just a slump they need to shoot their way out of? It’s time for a deep dive on Villanova’s three point shooting from all angles: The past, the present, and the future.
Shoot ‘Em Up: How 2014 Changed Everything
The Villanova Wildcats offense has come to be defined by three point shooting for the better part of the last decade. But for once in the numerous stories about Villanova’s resurgence and recent success, the turning point for their three point shooting wasn’t the losing season of 2012. Instead, this came two years later in 2014.
Villanova had been playing “big” in 2013. JayVaughn Pinkston had been their primary scoring threat with a seemingly unstoppable attack in the paint and ability to get to the free throw line. His running mate was senior Mouphtaou Yarou, another big bodied 1,000 point career scorer. Behind them were a pair of cutting wings in James Bell and Darrun Hilliard, and the whole show was run by freshman scrapper Ryan Arcidiacono.
This attack worked, and the Wildcats used it to upset three Top 5 teams during the regular season and make a return to the NCAA Tournament. But they weren’t really winning with the three pointer. That team shot just 33.2% from three, and only attempted 35% of their shots from deep.
Despite becoming a very guard oriented team since the mid 2000’s, the three point shot hadn’t been a big part of Villanova’s offensive philosophy. Even the best three point shooting team Jay Wright had put on the floor to that point (2002, 39.2% from three) took less than 30% of their shots from deep. The 2006 team that went to the Elite 8 shot over 37% from three, but even they capped out at taking 39% of their shots from deep. Before the 2014 season, no Jay Wright team had ever attempted more than 40% of their shots from behind the arc.
To put the adjustment in philosophy into perspective, no Jay Wright team since 2014 has attempted less than 42% of their shots from deep. The 2014 team’s shift in shooting philosophy was so drastic that they jumped from 35.3% of their attempts from three in 2013 to 44.8% the next year. Along with that jump came an improvement in three point shooting percentage from 33.2% to 35.6%. Again, no Villanova team has finished the season shooting under 35% from deep since 2014 (they currently sit at 32.9%, but more on that later).
So what made this 2014 team so special that they were able to handle this drastic change in philosophy and excel at it? There were really three personnel groups that helped prove Jay Wright’s philosophy that a three point heavy offense could work at the college level as well as it did in the pros: The forwards, the returning guards, and the new recruits.
Villanova lost just one starter from their 2013 team, center Mouphtaou Yarou. While the big man was a great player and a 1,000 point career scorer, his departure wasn’t the big hit most teams would take in that situation. Daniel Ochefu had been coming along and was now entering his first season as a starter, plus they had the team’s returning leaning scorer in Pinkston. But they were also now shifting to this new three point philosophy, and in order for it to work the offense couldn’t be primarily focused on points in the paint. Sure, the offense needed to get the ball down low, but now it was with the primary goal of either getting an bucket at the rim or kicking it out for a three.
Pinkston remained a potent scorer in the paint, but his usage numbers did regress from the previous season. Part of that was due to the new philosophy, but it was also because his teammate’s talent level had started catching up to and even surpassing his own. James Bell became the teams leading scorer, Daniel Ochefu was a great rebounder, Ryan Arcidiacono was becoming one of the conference’s best point guards, and rookie Josh Hart was a tenacious slasher in the post. This was the start of Pinkston taking a step back in the offense because it’s what was best for the team. He was still a massive contributor and fan favorite, but he’d have to adapt his game to this new style of play.
Ochefu excelled at in the new system early on, and only got better throughout his career. The previous year Yarou had posted just a 7.8 assist rate, where in 2014 Ochefu’s assist rate jumped up to 12.1. He was a gifted passer from the post, and was slowly improving his inside scoring as well. This new system fit him perfectly, and was a big part of the reason why he would earn Co-Big East Most Improved Player that season. Of course the guy he shared that award with was one of the main reason this “Shoot ‘Em Up” philosophy worked in the first place.
The Returning Guards
In my opinion this entire shift in philosophy hung on the shooting prowess of two players: James Bell and Darrun Hilliard. Bell was the rock. He was a team captain, the senior leader, and the go to scorer. He improved his 3P FG% despite taking 70 more shots from deep his senior year, and remained one of Villanova’s most consistent outside threats.
But the guy that made this whole philosophy run was Darrun Hilliard. The sophomore made a Herculean leap in his second season, jumping from 31.5% on 124 attempts from behind the arc in 2013 to 41.4% on 169 attempts in 2014. He was by far the team’s best outside shooter, and would remain Nova’s top outside assassin the remainder of his Wildcat career. But on top of the shooting, he also had the team’s third highest assist rate, as he could dribble penetrate just as well as the team’s point guards and kick out to open shooters. If there was one player that proved Jay Wright’s new offense could work at the college level, it was Darrun Hilliard.
Ryan Arcidiacono certainly was an clutch shooter, but his contribution to the three point philosophy came more from creating shots than making them. He was highly skilled when it came to dribble penetration and finding his teammates for open shots, and had a 21.1 assist rate. Tony Chennault beat him out with a team high 22.3 assist rate that season, which was his major contribution given that he wasn’t nearly as big a threat on the perimeter as he was cutting to the basket.
The New Recruits
The new three point philosophy worked because it wasn’t just the team’s leaders that were focused on efficient scoring from the perimeter, but the new role players were as well. Transfer Dylan Ennis along with freshmen Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins all attempted over 80 threes in their first seasons playing for the Wildcats. They had a lot to learn in their rookie seasons (Ennis a little less because of his red shirt year), but they all adapted well.
Hart and Ennis weren’t the best shooters that first year, each averaging around 31% from deep. But Jenkins adapted quickly to the new philosophy and knocked down 37% of his deep shots as a freshman. Two years later, he and the “Shoot ‘Em Up” philosophy would be forever linked with his buzzer beating shot for the 2016 National Championship.
The 2014 season proved that this three point philosophy could work. Over the next five seasons Jay Wright would recruit and develop his players to fit in his system, and the result was an unprecedented run of success. Two National Championships, five Big East titles, and a slew of players who now play in similar systems in the NBA. So with clear evidence that it worked the last several seasons, what’s happening now?
Sleep In The Streets: Where has all the shooting gone?
The “Shoot ‘Em Up” mentality has been wildly successful for Villanova, but it’s only half of the mantra. The other half, “Sleep in the streets”, is the recognition of the other side of the coin. The three point shot can best be characterized as high risk, high reward. The very best shooting teams in the country still miss three pointers at least 60% of the time, so it’s by no means a sure thing. And when those shots aren’t falling, things can get pretty ugly offensively.
Committing to more outside shooting means less paint touches, and that usually also means fewer trips to the free throw line. It’s not just that you’re going to miss more shots, you’re also going to miss more offensive opportunities. Some of those missed opportunities can be mitigated with strong rebounding and effective interior scoring, and those have been areas this team has performed well this season. So if it’s not the extracurriculars that have caused Nova’s shooting to slump, what are the other factors that could explain Villanova’s skid?
Shooting Slumps Happen
Through the first eight games of the season, Villanova was pouring it in from behind the three point arc. As a team they were shooting 40.2% and averaging over 10 made threes a game. Some may say it’s because they were facing “lesser competition”, but I wouldn’t agree. Those games include Baylor and Ohio State, and all of the Big 5 teams Nova played during that stretch were doing their best to force the Wildcats off of the three point line and beat them inside. When your opponents are actively trying to take away the three and you’re still hitting 10 a game, that’s downright impressive.
Then came the last six games, which included four away from home and a matchup with (at the time) the best team in the country. It’s crazy not to think those are all factors in the current shooting slump, but a six game trend is also something that can’t be ignored.
Or can it? Shooting slumps happen in college basketball, even team wide. It’s something that’s happened to the Wildcats in recent seasons too. Just last year Villanova had two 4-game stretches in which they shot under 35% percent from three. The vaunted 2018 team that broke all those three point shooting records had their own three game stretch under the 35% mark. In fact in every season since adopting the three point strategy, Villanova has had at least one stretch of three or more games shooting below 35% from deep.
That said, this is the first time that stretch has extended to six games. On top of that, the trend during that stretch has continued to point downward. So if it isn’t just that slumps happen, what other factors are causing the poor shooting?
Decision Making and Shot Selection
There’s one thing I didn’t mention in the previous section on shooting slumps. We’re talking about players not hitting open shots. It’s a completely different story if players are taking contested threes or settling for poor shot attempts. For the most part Villanova has taken open shots, but their decision making still hasn’t completely rounded into form. Jay Wright has called his team out in multiple post-game press conferences this season about needing to get better at making the right decision on offense, and that includes shot selection.
The good news is that for how many threes Villanova takes, they’re not completely reliant on them. Forcing teams to guard them on the perimeter makes it all the easier when the Wildcats can break into the paint or get open on the elbow for easier two-point shots. Not only has Villanova been fairly consistent in their interior scoring, they rank in the Top 20 nationally in 2P field goal percentage.
If teams are going to continue to push the issue out on the perimeter, than Villanova needs to take advantage of its superior shooting inside. We’ve seen players like Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, Justin Moore, and Collin Gillespie all have success taking their man into the paint in one on one scenarios. Unfortunately we’ve also seen all of those players take contested threes instead of working the ball around and finding an open shot inside or on the perimeter.
This is something that Jay Wright’s teams have traditionally gotten better at over time. We’re not even half way through the season, so I have confidence that it’s an area we’ll continue to see improvement. Unfortunately, when poor decision making is paired with a shooting slump it gets amplified and becomes all anyone sees when they’re watching the game. If teams are going to run Nova off the three point line, I’m fine with taking higher percentage shots on the inside or kicking out to wide open shooters. But if Villanova is forcing shots for the sake of volume shooting threes, they’re not going to keep winning games.
Finding Ways To Win: Defending through the slump
So if we know how we got here and we know what’s going wrong, what comes next? What can Villanova do to overcome their shooting woes besides making good decisions and hitting shots. Well, I have some good news: they’re already doing it.
The most amazing thing about Villanova’s last six games isn’t that the shots aren’t falling, it’s that they’re still winning despite it. During this stretch, Villanova has had three games in which they took more than 25 threes, failed to hit better than 35%, didn’t score 70 points, and still won the game. Less than 10 teams in the country have done that all season, and Villanova is one of only four power conference schools to accomplish that feat. So how has Villanova been winning in spite of their shooting? One word: Defense.
If we can’t make them, you can’t either
Early on, it was clear that one of Villanova’s biggest struggles was defending the perimeter. If you take out the “cupcake” schools like Army, Ohio, and Middle Tennessee, Villanova was giving up an average 3PFG% of 45% in their other five games (Ohio State, Mississippi State, Baylor, La Salle, and Penn) to start the year. Not only was that a ridiculous average, all five of those schools shot at least 35% or better from beyond the arc. So when Villanova’s shots stopped falling, things really could have gotten ugly quickly.
Except, they didn’t. When Villanova’s shots stopped falling, they ramped up their efforts defensively. At this point it was mid-December and the slow but steady progression of Villanvoa’s defense was starting to take hold. In their last six games the only team to shoot better than 24% from deep against the Wildcats was Deleware, and the Wildcats still won that game handily. And it’s not like these were bad three point shooting teams. In the last six games, including the Delaware game, Villanova has averaged holding its opponents nearly 10% below their season averages on three-point shots.
Part of the improved defense is better team play. Players are getting better at switching, helping, and positioning around the arc. But I think a lot of the credit has to go to the individual improvement of two players in particular, and they’re both freshman.
The Anchor and the Front Line
When it comes to individual defense, a lot of fans will default to Saddiq Bey and Jermaine Samuels. They’re big, athletic, and easily the two most versatile defenders Villanova has on the roster. Other fans that look past the starting lineup may also point to Brandon Slater, a defensive specialist who’s been seeing more minutes this season primarily as a gritty defender who can shut players down. But none of those guys are currently rated as Villanova’s #1 defender. That honor goes to Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
While Robinson-Earl was clearly an exceptional talent early on, there were some question marks around his game. The biggest was probably how would he handle defending true centers or larger players with his smaller frame. As a freshman that was also trying to learn the rest of the college game, it was generally assumed that he’d probably get into foul trouble and have a tough time with those defensive assignments. How wrong we were.
The big man has been putting on a clinic in how to guard larger opponents in the paint. He may not be blocking shots left and right, but he is forcing his opponents to alter their shots by playing physical without fouling. The same is true for his help defense, positioning himself to force slashing guards and wings to try acrobatic shot attempts by denying an easy path through the lane. Sure he’s had a few games where his foul count gets up to 4, but he has yet to foul out of a game this season.
By proving himself as a reliable anchor for the defense, Robinson-Earl has made things easier for his teammates on the perimeter. One player in particular that has benefited from this is Justin Moore, who’s been a highlight machine for Villanova on the offensive end. But on defense, things weren’t coming as easily to Moore. For much of the early season, he was ranked dead last in defensive rating for rotation players. It isn’t that he was a bad defender, he ranks 4th in steals and is Villanova’s leading rebounder off the bench. What was lacking for Moore was discipline.
As is the case early on with a lot of freshmen in Villanova’s defensive system, it takes a while to pick up. Moore would sometimes be caught out of position or miss a switch that would lead to an easy basket for the opponent and inflate his poor defensive numbers. But while the season averages still aren’t great, he’s clearly improving as a perimeter defender. In the past few games he’s been more consistent with his assignments while still taking smart risks that result in big defensive plays.
And that can really be said across Villanova’s entire defense. They’re starting to come together as a group with better communication and more attention to detail. We’ve seen this before, and it’s practically become a staple of a Jay Wright defense. Continued improvement over the course of the entire season, peaking when they need it most in March.
Is Villanova’s shooting truly in a downward spiral or is it just a bump in the road? Based on consistent shooting from inside the arc and at the free throw line, I’d have to think that we’re going to see a return to the mean. That doesn’t mean the Wildcats will be shooting at 40% for the rest of the year, but I think by the end of the season they’ll keep Jay Wright’s streak of shooting a high volume of threes at above 35% going.
It’s just not possible that players like Jermaine Samuels (22.4%, down 10% from career average) simply forgot how to shoot from deep. His situation is reminiscent of Eric Paschall’s, who shot poorly for the first third of the season only to lead the team in three-point shooting efficiency the rest of the year. I’m not saying I expect that type of resurgence, but I also don’t expect this slump to continue.
As is the case with every season, the path to March is more nuanced than we’d like it to be. It’s not always straight, and it doesn’t always head in the right direction. There will be setbacks, twists and turns that aren’t predictable or simply answered by pointing to a single cause. But that doesn’t mean the team isn’t moving forward, or that progress isn’t being made. It’s a long season folks, and we’re not even half way through the regular season yet.
In other words, this team’s best is yet to come.