Villanova moved to 2-0 in the Big East and 6-1 overall with an 85-66 win over Butler in their 2020-21 home opener. Despite trailing 17-10 to start the game, Villanova led for the final 28 minutes on the way to Jay Wright’s 600th career win.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
The offense continues to improve
Since the loss to the Virginia Tech on Nov. 28, when the offense really bogged down late, Villanova’s offense has steadily improved. There have been fewer possessions with long isolations or back-downs, and more possessions with multiple actions and extra passes. Yesterday, they continued to find rhythm on offense despite having to play some atypical lineups due to foul trouble. A big lineup with Eric Dixon and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl sharing the frontcourt made a run in the first half, with Robinson-Earl hitting two corner threes as the ‘4’ man. Villanova then closed the game on a 13-2 run with Robinson-Earl on the bench, and a 5-out lineup of Gillespie, Daniels, Moore, Swider, and Samuels finished off the Bulldogs.
This team is never going to have the explosiveness of the 2015-18 era where they looked unstoppable at times. They are committed to playing a deliberate pace and they are almost always going to be playing with a non-shooter or two in order to steady the ship on the defensive end. Nevertheless, this team is currently on an elite pace in one key offensive category: Turnovers. Through seven games, Villanova has just 57 turnovers (8 per game), good for the fourth best turnover rate in the country, per KenPom, and better than any previous Jay Wright team. And a number of those turnovers have been offensive fouls by Caleb Daniels, who I think will cut down on those considerably as he gets used to higher competition. He made a key jump stop on a drive late in the game last night, pivoted and then found Gillespie for a wide open three to extend the lead to double digits.
With turnovers low, and the ball moving, this version of the Wildcats is finding its own version of elite on the offensive end. They even have been opportunistic in secondary transition, finding some early open looks after defensive rebounds last night. Of course, repeating that requires getting consistent stops, which brings us to…
On-Ball Defense has to improve
The defensive end continues to tell a different story regarding the long-term aspirations of this team. Once again, Villanova struggled to start the game at the point of attack. There were several straight line drives that led to easy Butler layups or kick outs to Jair Bolden, which helped Butler to an early lead. In fact, Villanova did not get its first live defensive rebound until 11 minutes into the game.
After the flurry to start the game, Butler’s shooting cooled down, but Villanova still struggled to guard penetration, committing 21 total fouls, many of which were committed while simply trying to guard a ball handler. They often resorted to bringing help from the ball-side corner to stop drives, which is a cardinal sin in today’s game. They were only able to get away with it because Butler often was playing multiple non-shooters at a time. That won’t be the case with most other opponents.
The lack of lateral quickness on the perimeter and the lack of a true rim protector is always going to leave this team vulnerable to penetration. But there’s still considerable room for improvement. Many of the Wildcats have a bad habit of being on their heels and playing off drivers, allowing opponents to drive in a straight line past them without much resistance. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, in particular, has a nasty habit of standing up and trying to stop drivers with his hips, rather than getting lower and trying to cut off the driver prior to getting to the rim. All four of his fouls last night were a result of light hip checks.
If the Wildcats want to truly contend for a national title, they will need to improve their ability to slow down penetration.
The new normal is going to take some getting used to
We’re learning that not all pandemic environments are the same. The first four games in Bubbleville were highly produced by ESPN and included some helpful piped-in noise. Texas had a few thousand fans in the stands that actually made a difference in the game when the Longhorns made their second half run. But the first two Big East games have been a bizarre viewing experience. At the Pavilion, there is no piped-in noise, and the natural sound echoed quite a bit. Fox Sports 1 appears to be working with limited production, with the commentators remotely calling the game from Los Angeles, and with a lack of additional camera angles to help the viewing experience.
Every team has to play under the same conditions, and so these circumstances are not laid out as some excuse or hardship for Villanova. Gillespie in particular seems to be doing a great job trying to rally the troops with encouragement despite the lack of fans. But it has to be bizarre for the players and coaches as well. (I’m also working on a theory that referees are more likely to take over a game without fans there to provide “feedback”. Last night’s referees made the game unwatchable at times.) With Bubbleville behind us, and with the Madison Square Garden game cancelled Saturday, each one of Villanova’s remaining games will be on campus sites, many of which are even smaller than the Pavilion. It will be important for the veteran Wildcats to continue to provide their own energy as they strive for another Big East title.