Welp, here we are Nova Nation. For the first time since the realignment of the Big East, beginning in the 2013-14 season, Villanova has a losing record in the conference. Now 0-1 isn’t 5-9 or 3-7 but contextually speaking, it feels close. ‘The Cats didn’t just lose their Big East opener, they got blitzed on the way to losing by at least 20 for the second straight game.
As bad as they played throughout, they found themselves only down two with about eight and a half minutes left in the game. Much like the UCLA and Purdue losses though, 'Nova fell flat on their face in the home stretch. Creighton even topped the Bruins and Boilermakers by completely dominating the most important minutes of the game 23-5.
Here’s what stood out to me as I was fortunate enough to sit courtside (thank you Eugene) in the CHI Health Center in Omaha.
New Faces Work For Others
I’m not going to dwell on the rotation of this team, or the lack thereof. We’ve done a lot of that and understandably so. We had high hopes for incoming players but so far there hasn’t been anything to show for them. Other programs, however, are getting great impact from their new faces.
The two teams who blew the ‘Cats out of the gym recently are getting great impact from freshman. Kendall Brown starts for Baylor and averages 12 points per game while Jeremy Sochan is their second leading rebounder and had a huge game against Nova with nine points and 10 rebounds.
Creighton is getting similar production from their freshmen. Ryan Nembhard, brother of Gonzaga starting point guard Andrew, is their second leading scorer and leads the team in minutes. His quickness and change of direction gave Villanova’s defense severe migraines. In fact, 'Nova was clearly the slower team in terms of foot speed and that led to them being out of position a lot on defense. They also start another freshman, Arthur Kaluma, that plays almost 23 minutes a game. Finally, Trey Alexander plays just under 22 minutes per game and was huge for them against 'Nova. Alexander had 10 points off the bench and his length out on the perimeter was trouble for Nova’s guards.
Former Wildcats Darrun Hillard, Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Kris Jenkins, Phil Booth, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Saddiq Bey, and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are all examples of players with either either starting or playing double digit minute roles as freshmen under Jay Wright.
Both Baylor and Creighton have had a huge boost from the transfer market as well. James Akinjo is leading Baylor in minutes and was their best player against Nova putting up a 16/7/5 line. He transferred to Baylor after already transferring to Arizona from Georgetown.
Creighton’s super transfer is Ryan Hawkins. Hawkins came in from D-II power Northwest Missouri State and is leading the Blue Jays in scoring and rebounding. Hawkins got it done at all three levels offensively. He finished at the rim, hit all his free throws, and knocked down three 3-pointers. He was the best player on the court from start to finish in their win over Nova.
Villanova is one of four teams in D-I to not use the transfer market, the other notable team being Purdue. There obviously isn’t a rule that says new players have to play and teams win all the time with the bulk of their production coming from returning players. It’s just interesting that the two rotations that just ran through the ‘Cats have been built with a different approach.
Ryan Kalkbrenner, the Big East better get familiar. The 7-foot sophomore was a four-star recruit and is averaging 12 points per game and just under seven rebounds per game and almost three blocks per game. His five-block performance against Nova was his fourth game this year with at least five blocks.
“I went and watched him practice at the USA basketball tryouts, Jamie Dixon was coaching the bigs on this particular day and had all the bigs switching ball screens," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "You have some of the best 19 and 20 year olds in the entire country that he’s switching onto and I was like, you know what, he’s doing a pretty good job. He’s not getting beat on angles and making sure that they have to score over a pretty challenged shot. There was a comfort level there you know, if we have to run Justin Moore off the line then Ryan is back at the rim waiting for him."
The ‘Cats lack of size was exploited again as they gave up a season high 42 points in the paint, topping the 38 given up to Purdue. It’s not just that 'Nova is undersized, they really don’t have any size. Eric Dixon will be a great player at some point. He played with the most confidence of any WIldcat from my vantage point. He didn’t get discouraged and kept trying to make plays. Dixon is 6-foot-8 and 255 with decent length but at right under 25 minutes a game, he’s not out there as much as you would want your biggest player to be. That leaves a lot of minutes where Jermaine Samuels is the biggest Wildcat on the floor. Jermaine is tough but against a player like Kalkbrenner, there is only so much he can do. That is a match-up Nova loses every time.
Baylor, Duke, Purdue, and Gonzaga all have terrific size. In the Big East, UConn has great size and Providence runs through Nate Watson. At this point I don’t know what Nova can do to alleviate this problem.
The ‘Cats are 23-of-100 from distance during their last three games. 23% from 3-point range isn’t going to cut it anywhere and especially not for a team that wants to take a lot of shots from behind the arc and whose offensive success is predicated on making shots from distance.
We’ve touched on before how pedestrian this Nova team has been below the arc this year. They are not shooting 2-pointers nearly as effectively as they have the last decade. They don’t have a guard who can impose his dribble drive and get downhill to get into the paint and disrupt a defense.
Villanova probably won’t improve a whole lot more in this regard. Their best shot at easy 2-pointers this year may be letting Eric Dixon go to work 1 on 1 at the low block. If this is the case, then it is imperative that Nova knock down 3-pointers. Also, not just knock them down but get good looks consistently.
They’ve got to figure out a way to free each other up for looks since it’s probably not going to happen via a player making a great individual play. We included in the recap of this loss that Jay Wright thinks the offensive rhythm is lost and it’s due to guys trying to do too much individually.
This is the worst 3-point shooting stretch for 'Nova that I can remember over the last decade. It cannot last with a huge game against Xavier on Tuesday.