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Villanova Basketball 2021-22 game preview: La Salle Explorers

The Wildcats are back in action, and the Big 5 is also making a return.

NCAA Basketball: Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

After a restful week off and a Thanksgiving holiday to recharge, the Villanova Wildcats are back in action.

They’ll look to bounce back from a tough loss to Purdue with a Sunday showdown against former Villanova assistant Ashley Howard and the La Salle Explorers.

La Salle enters with a 2-2 record. The Explorers have been in a series of close battles so far this season, with three-point wins over Albany and Army, and overtime losses to Sacred Heart and Delaware.

Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. ET on Sunday.

Big 5 is back

The Philadelphia Big 5 is back for the first time since 2019. Ill-timed COVID-19 pauses and postponements canceled the round robin gauntlet last season.

Although the Wildcats tried to play La Salle and other Big 5 opponents in 2020, they weren’t able to get going.

As the world inches closer to normalcy, the ‘Cats are prepared for the return of Big 5 play. They will fittingly open up against their in-city neighbors at the Palestra.

La Salle hasn’t beaten Villanova in almost a decade, with the Explorers’ last win over the Wildcats taking place in 2012.

Villanova defeated La Salle in their last meeting on Dec. 1, 2019. The Wildcats won, 83-72, and it was a breakout game for Justin Moore, who dropped a game-high 25 points off the bench.

Exploring La Salle’s roster

The Explorers got a boost from the transfer portal, with former Louisville guard Josh Nickelberry making an immediate impact through his first four games at La Salle.

He bursted onto the scene with a 22-point, seven-rebound debut, where he also made six three-pointers in an 86-81 overtime loss to Sacred Heart. Nickelberry has been up-and-down since then, but he can be dangerous when he gets going.

Through his first four games at La Salle, he already has scored more points than he did in 24 games over two years at Louisville.

Jhamir Brickus (11.3 points per game) and Jack Clark (10.8 points per game) are two other players that average in double figures and lead a balanced scoring approach for La Salle.

Nickelberry, Brickus and bench option Sherif Kenney are top perimeter-shooting threats on this team.

Also keep an eye on Christian Ray. La Salle isn’t the biggest team around, but Ray plays much bigger than his 6-foot-6 frame. A hustler and hard-worker on the court, he’s assertive when it comes to crashing the glass. He’s averaging 9.0 points and a team-high 8.8 rebounds per game.

Debates and takes aside

Think the freshmen should play more? Did fatigue play a role in the Purdue loss?

Regardless of where you stand on those hot topics, it probably won’t be a pressing issue on Sunday. The Wildcats will be well-rested going in, and this is looking like a game where Villanova gets to bounce back and go deep into the bench.

Villanova is a clear favorite to extend its winning streak over La Salle, and for good reason. The Wildcats have been shooting the ball well from deep early in the season, cashing in on 43.7% of takes from long range. (fourth-highest in the country). Brandon Slater’s revamped three-point shooting stroke has been a pleasant surprise and a welcomed addition, as he leads the team with a 58.8% clip from deep.

Jermaine Samuels, Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore are also shooting above 43.0% individually.

There isn’t much room for error when teams play Villanova, and La Salle might set itself back. The Explorers have had issues with taking care of the ball, turning it over on 20.9% of possessions, ranking 251st in turnover rate according to KenPom.

They’ve been a decent defensive team, but have shortcomings on the offensive end. Aside from turnovers, they also struggle at the free-throw line, where they just make 64.8% of foul shots as a team.

Offensively, La Salle ranks 232nd in offensive efficiency according to KenPom. While it has been able to score by committee and in balanced fashion, there’s no true go-to scoring threat.