The No. 23-ranked Villanova Wildcats are set to take on the No. 18 Xavier Musketeers on Tuesday night at Finneran Pavilion. The two teams are currently trending in opposite directions as ‘Nova has dropped two straight, while the visitors enter the game riding a seven-game winning streak.
Scouting the Muskies
Coming into the year, Travis Steele’s squad was thought to be a dark horse in the Big East race, and they have impressed early on. They boast wins over Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech and Cincinnati, and their lone loss came against a red-hot Iowa State team. It’s a veteran team that has plenty of familiar faces — namely fifth-year point guard Paul Scruggs. The Wildcats didn’t play Xavier last season due to COVID pauses on both sides, but Scruggs has hurt Villanova in the past, including a 28-point, 11-rebound performance in the 2019 Big East Tourney.
Given the way the Villanova offense has struggled over the past two weeks, they might want to slow this one down to a crawl and muck it up. In that case, rebounding will be the key to the game. And this Xavier team rebounds extremely well (31st in the country). In the frontcourt they’ll roll out Zach Freemantle alongside 7-foot Iowa transfer Jack Nunge, who has been awesome so far this year.
Nunge averages nearly eight rebounds per contest off the bench, and had a breakout game in their drubbing of Cincinnati — a 31-point, 15-rebound double-double. It’s not just the frontcourt, however, their guards also rebound exceptionally well. The aforementioned Scruggs, Nate Johnson and Colby Jones make up a trio of athletic guards who match Villanova’s positional size pretty well. The 6-foot-6 Jones leads the team with 8.2 rebounds per game.
What’s Wrong with the ‘Cats?
It’s no secret that this team is struggling on both ends of the floor, but much more concerning in my eyes is the offense. There’s been far too much dribbling (but no successful penetration) and a lack of any sort of rhythm. They’ve forced a bunch of late-possession shots, which have not been falling, and that’s seemed to have knocked everyone’s confidence.
The shooting splits speak for themselves — this should be a team full of shooters and they’re 23 for their last 100 from behind the arc. Couple that with just nine assists as a TEAM over the past two games and there’s no wonder why they’ve gotten blown out twice. Moore looks lost, Slater looks invisible, and Samuels has regressed to 2018 form.
Here’s the thing, though, every team goes through a rough patch. I can’t compare them to the juggernauts of 2016 or 2018 but there is plenty to suggest they’ll turn it around. They’re as experienced as they come, they have shot makers and we’ve seen them go toe-to-toe with two of the premier teams in the sport for 35+ minutes each. Maybe Jay needs to let the boys run loose and push the tempo. Maybe we need some more creators in the rotation (Hello, BA). Or maybe the past two games were just an anomaly. Something is broken right now but we have the personnel on the court and with the clipboard to fix it.
Big East Implications
An 0-2 Big East start would certainly be something considering the expectations we had for this team. Oh, yeah, and the next conference game after this? Seton Hall in Newark. For me, this is a must-win game. The league looks even stronger than anyone had anticipated. COVID has already shaken up the schedule (see Seton Hall forfeiting vs. St. John’s), so there’s no guarantee things will go as planned. It feels like the league will eat each other up over the next few months and the regular season champ will end up with 6+ losses. So protecting home court will be a really big key, and it all starts Tuesday night.
I’ll be in attendance for this one, which will be my first game at the Finn. I’m not sure what to expect from the crowd with the students on Christmas break and the Eagles playing a huge divisional game at the same time, but it’s hard to picture our guys not getting up for this, so I’m hopeful we make enough shots to get the ranked win and get back on track.