After two wins in the 2K Empire Classic, the Wildcats appeared to overstay their welcome in Mohegan Sun, losing their added game to Virginia Tech, 81-73, in overtime. There were certainly some bright spots, but familiar issues from last year led to the first loss of the season.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
The late game issues remain
In the 2019-20 season, Villanova had a number of large leads nearly disappear late. DePaul closed regulation on a 12-1 run to force overtime, where Villanova eventually prevailed and Marquette finished with an 11-2 run to fall by one point at the Pavilion. At Seton Hall, an eight-point lead with 36 seconds left finished with sweating out a potentially game-winning three at the buzzer to hold on to a two-point win. In those three games, Villanova combined poor clutch free throw shooting and an inability to consistently inbound the ball against pressure.
Although turnovers were not a problem last night, the poor free throw shooting returned and the Wildcats got beat down the stretch by their foes. The pattern finally led to a loss, with a 12-point second half lead disappearing over the final eight minutes. Despite some stagnant offense and hot Virginia Tech shooting, Villanova was still in a position to ice the game, but Gillespie, Samuels, and Moore all missed front ends of 1-and-1s down the stretch. Perhaps finally losing one of these will allow the Wildcats to relax and better close out games going forward.
With injuries, depth is a major concern
Despite it being the Wildcats’ third game in four nights, only six players played more than four minutes and all five starters logged 37 minutes or more. There’s almost no doubt that the late game issues can be tied at least partially to tired legs, but there are bigger picture concerns. With no hope of any spark off the bench, the Wildcats are incredibly reliant on their starters playing well every night. In this game, that didn’t happen. Robinson-Earl, Moore, and Samuels combined to go 8--of-29 from the floor, and there were no answers behind them. Cole Swider made both of his three-point attempts, but continues to struggle to get his shot off and to be consistent defensively. Eric Dixon will hopefully get more comfortable to be able to spell Robinson-Earl for a few minutes each half, but it’s probably unrealistic to expect much more from him in his first year in uniform.
There’s no indication that Bryan Antoine or Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree will be returning anytime soon. If Villanova is going to find more depth among their current healthy players, it’s going to have to come from junior Brandon Slater, who in his third year should be able to contribute as a low usage slasher who can make an impact on the defensive end.
Caleb Daniels has made himself indispensable in under a week
A week before the season started, Jay Wright said that he was unsure who his fifth starter would be. He ended up going with Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels, who in just four days has become one of their most valuable players. Averaging 35 minutes and 15 points per game, Daniels spent most of the opener against Boston College spotting up away from the ball and making impact plays on defense. Against Virginia Tech, he graduated to a primary option, with Jay Wright continually going to him in isolation sets when the Wildcats needed a basket. He continues to be their most athletic perimeter defender, and has also helped out handling the ball against pressure. He played well after the break, as the Hokies scrambled to contain a scorching red-hot start by Collin Gillespie.
Daniels has proven this week that his pure scoring ability is just as effective on the high major level as it was at Tulane. His playmaking and decision making still have room for improvement, but Jay Wright has to be thrilled with the idea of having Daniels as a weapon for two seasons.