Villanova opened up the 2021-22 season with a crowd-pleasing 91-51 over Mount St. Mary’s. Despite the outcome of the game being decided very early on, there was plenty to take away:
The breakout candidates broke out
Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels have seemingly been in Villanova’s starting lineup since the Clinton administration. Nova Nation is thrilled to have them back for an extra year but we mostly know what we’re getting from them. The keys to unlocking a high ceiling to the 2021-22 season rests with other players joining them as premier players. We heard all offseason about two potential breakout candidates – Justin Moore and Brandon Slater. The first game couldn’t have gone better for either of them.
Moore was also a breakout candidate as a sophomore in 2020-21 and despite showing some improvement with his distribution and on defense, his three point shooting cratered from 40% as a freshman to 31% as a sophomore. We heard that that was mostly due to a hand injury. Last night, Moore’s hand looked plenty healthy as he went 6-for-8 from deep on his way to a career high 27 points. If Moore can recreate his shooting from his freshman year, and combine it with the bullish post game he added as a sophomore, he may just end up leading this team in scoring.
Brandon Slater, on the other hand, is joining the starting lineup for the first time as a full-time member. He had an effective junior year, but was purely a low usage role player. He showed flashes but only took 54 total field goals during the 2020-21 season. Ultimately, the most important factor in Slater’s game is his confidence, and so it was a bit concerning when his first two threes barely caught iron. I worried that he might shy away from being assertive from there, but instead his made his next five threes. His last, a step back contested three from the top of the arc resulted in an audible enthusiastic expletive being shouted in my household and likely many others.
It’s unrealistic to think that Slater is going to be an elite shooter all year, but if he remains a confident threat, the rest of his game is going to be unlocked. He looks like a completely different dude with added weight and muscle, and seemed to be playing with energy and emotion we had not yet seen from him.
A preview of a shift in defensive mindset
The most valid argument against Villanova being a true title contender is that Villanova has struggled on the defensive end each of the last three years, and have subsequently lost their best defender off of each of those teams. Since the 2018 national championship, Jay Wright has mostly packed it in and tried to slow the tempo to hide their inability to defend consistently on the perimeter and at the rim.
With this team featuring a lot of the same perimeter defenders that have struggled at times, and even less rim protection, I was curious to see if there were any proactive adjustments.
It’s clear that Jay Wright knows he can’t just throw out his base defense 95% of the time and expect results. In the first 8 minutes of the game we saw the zone press dropping into man defense and a man press dropping into a zone defense. We saw less automatic switches trying to prevent guys like Eric Dixon from having to stay in front of guards on the perimeter. We also saw a much more aggressive attitude on the perimeter that led to a few back cuts for layups but also led to 29% turnover percentage from Mt. St. Mary’s, which exceeded the turnover percentage of any Villanova opponent since the 2015-2016 season.
It remains to be seen how this team will hold up against better competition, but it’s a welcome sign that the team realizes that they may need to be creative in order to defend at the level needed to make a deep run in March.
We’re all ready for Friday night
The non-conference schedule for Villanova is an absolute doozy. It was great to see how fluid the team looked against an overmatched opponent in game 1. But before we can cross off a plethora of offseason concerns, we’re going to need to see what this team looks like against high-major competition. And we don’t have to wait long, with a matchup at #2 UCLA on Friday night.
Will the shooting hold up against a bigger and quicker defensive team?
Will they be able to survive for long stretches without a true big on the floor?
Will reserves like Chris Arcidiacono, Trey Patterson, Nnanna Njoku and Jordan Longino be able to survive against better competition?
Will I be able to stay up until 11:30 p.m. to watch?
All very tough questions we won’t know the answers to until Friday night. Can’t wait.