The Villanova Wildcats had an uneven weekend of top-25 matchups, blowing out Tennessee in a wire-to-wire win before squandering another late second half lead - and doing a really impressive job reminding everyone of the UCLA game - in a loss to Purdue.
Leaving last year’s Bubbleville at the Mohegan Sun 1-1 after facing two tough opponents isn’t the worse thing out of context, but watching the same issues that sunk the Wildcats in Los Angeles plague them again on Sunday raises questions moving forward. With that said, there are reasons for optimism coming out of the weekend.
Here are three of my takeaways from the two games:
Rotation Strategy is a Problem, but not Insurmountable
Like in the game against UCLA a couple weeks ago, the ‘Cats had built a double-digit lead against Purdue with less than ten minutes remaining in the game. Also like in the UCLA game, unfortunately, the six-man rotation Wright has trusted to play top opponents failed to hold on late. Unlike the Wildcats, Matt Painter’s Boilermakers played nine guys double digit minutes, allowing them to stay fresh and capitalize on Villanova’s tired legs late.
The greatest obstacle to Jay Wright overcoming this flaw in his team is his own willingness to do so and belief in some of his younger players. Frankly, Villanova’s main core of players is good enough that it doesn’t need to roll nine guys to beat Purdue, or even UCLA for that matter as many times than not. Trusting Jordan Longino (who in my opinion has looked good enough whenever on the floor - admittedly in lower leverage situations) to extend the rotation to seven could represent enough of a cushion to the top six’s legs to make a defining difference in some of these bigger games.
Nnanna Njoku is possibly not quite as ready as Longino, but he is big enough and in my opinion has the core skills necessary to manage his inexperience in spot minutes. His presence could have been especially useful in a game like the one against Purdue where foul trouble and other factors limited Eric Dixon to 24 minutes.
Any rotation extension will also, at least seemingly... inevitably... include Chris Arcidiacono, who did play five minutes against Purdue.
Hiccups Aside, This Team has the Potential to Make a Run
As I alluded to above, even the ‘Cats’ two losses this season have showed how high this team’s ceiling is as long as Wright lets some younger guys play. That’s without taking into account Saturday’s blowout 71-53 win over a talented Tennessee team coached by Rick Barnes and his 727 career wins.
It was an ugly game, but the ‘Cats scored enough against a typically imposing Vols team and shut down some big names on defense. If Villanova had not blown it against Purdue, we would still be talking about Saturday’s statement win, then another Feast Week tourney title to top it off.
Ironically, it was the big lead in that game that allowed Wright to feel comfortable extending his rotation to eight, but hopefully reflecting on both games this past weekend will lead him to start giving more guys chances in big spots. It’s not terribly surprising Wright does not trust his freshmen yet, but that does not mean he won’t eventually down the line when it matters most.
Whoever This New Brandon Slater is, He’s Here to Stay
Villanova has played five games so far this season. Before this weekend, Brandon Slater lit up two weaker opponents in Mount St. Mary’s and Howard while putting up 10 in a pretty efficient manner against UCLA. Still, he was quieter against the Bruins and while excited, I was still managing my expectations. Then this weekend came, and Slater put up 14 and 10 against the Vols and the Boilermakers, respectively. Those scoring outputs were not like the outbursts he showed against the minnows, but he has now scored in double-digits in all three games against top-25 teams.
In truth, the box scores are not what convinced me. As opposed to when I thought Slater was a little quiet on offense against UCLA, he made his presence - and obvious newfound confidence - known last weekend. Not only did he feel empowered to take the ball up the floor a few times, he put it on the ground in the half court and at times even beat his defender to drive the ball into the paint.
Brandon Slater has always been a top-tier defensive stopper. We already knew that his ability and willingness to shoot have grown in leaps and bounds since last year. But now, we’re seeing a guy who is somehow already more than a spot up shooter. Against Purdue, I jolted out of my seat in surprise when he took (and made!) a contested three off the dribble.
Villanova beat Tennessee with no one scoring more than 14 because Slater and Jermaine Samuels (continuing his improvement from last season) have developed into three-level scorers alongside Collin Gillespie, Justin Moore, and Caleb Daniels. Long may it continue.