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If the Villanova Wildcats Make a Run, Here’s How They’ll Do It

Heading into the NCAA Tournament without their undisputed leader, Villanova will have to retool on-the-fly if they hope to make a run to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Georgetown Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The early return on a Gillespie-less Wildcats leaves much to be desired. In two and a half games, the Wildcats offense has vacillated between chaotically average and borderline unwatchable. For more than nine minutes against Creighton, the Wildcats were held scoreless and nearly squandered a 22 point lead. Against the #71 ranked Providence defense, Villanova could muster only 52 points on 32.7% shooting. In all, Villanova is 0-2 without the Big East Co-Player of the Year and are limping into the NCAA Tournament carrying low expectations.

But wait, all is not lost. The Wildcats still field a roster with the other (other) Big East Co-Player of the Year in Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, a multi-year starter in Jermaine Samuels, and two dynamic guards in Caleb Daniels and Justin Moore. Villanova should have held on to a five-point lead against Georgetown with under two minutes left, and mounted a furious comeback against Providence only to fall just short. Losing is bad, but at least the ‘Cats have been competitive, dropping both games by a combined three points.

Heading into the tournament, Jay Wright and his staff have to figure out how to replace an irreplaceable player and maximize a talented roster. Losing a lead ballhandler is as painful as it gets, and Villanova’s senior point guard has been an ultra-effective facilitator and a competent defender all season.

Gillespie’s 14.0 points per game, the second most on the team, may be the easiest element for the Wildcats to address with their slew of talented scorers. The absence of his playmaking, however, has left a massive hole in VU’s offense. When on the floor, Gillespie assists on 26.4% of made field goals and turns the ball over just 11.7% of the time. Only three (!!) players in all of Division One can claim assist and turnover percentages of that caliber. While Moore has shown signs of improving as a playmaker, the Wildcats should not try and replicate what Gillespie does, and instead focus on maximizing the talent remaining.

Lemons into Lemonade

Villanova is still very, very talented, but there are limitations to what Jay Wright can do with such short notice. The Wildcats offense is more conceptual than scripted. Wright sets up sequences that get players into advantageous positions, but rarely draws up plays to get specific shots. Removing the most important cog in VU’s concept-based scheme destabilizes it, so trying to get the offense back on track may be harder than it appears.

In light of this, the Wildcats should focus on the side of the ball that is less choreographed: the defense. This Villanova team ranks 68th in the country in KenPom Defensive Efficiency, and is especially good at preventing fast break points, second chance opportunities, and trips to the free throw line. The ‘Cats would be smart to run out more defense-heavy lineups in the absence of Gillespie and try and keep games close until the end.

Five Man Rotations without Gillespie

Lineup Combination Possessions Team Off Eff Team Def Eff Adj Team Eff Margin Avg Opp BPR
Lineup Combination Possessions Team Off Eff Team Def Eff Adj Team Eff Margin Avg Opp BPR
Arcidiacono/Daniels/Robinson-Earl/Samuels/Slater 35 135.3 61.1 71.9 16.6
Antoine/Arcidiacono/Robinson-Earl/Samuels/Slater 28 130.8 60.0 68.3 16.3
Daniels/Moore/Robinson-Earl/Slater/Swider 40 103.0 90.8 15.6 27.9
Moore/Robinson-Earl/Samuels/Slater/Swider 33 93.8 82.3 8.1 14.3
Daniels/Moore/Robinson-Earl/Samuels/Slater 61 53.6 80.3 -15.9 42.9
Daniels/Moore/Robinson-Earl/Samuels/Swider 112 100.3 118.2 -19.9 17.0
Arcidiacono/Moore/Robinson-Earl/Samuels/Slater 34 110.5 166.7 -58.0 17.4
EvanMiya CBB Analytics

Villanova features only six lineups that have more than 80 combined offensive and defense possessions, and only one doesn’t include Gillespie. That lineup, which features Moore at the point in addition to Daniels, Robinson-Earl, Samuels, and Swider, is our only lineup with a negative Efficient Margin. Not good!

Our next most used lineup without Gillespie, which swaps Slater for Swider, is also in the negative, but has played against the hardest competition of any five man Villanova group. This lineup is responsible for the Wildcats’ best defensive team efficiency (with a minimum of 80 combined possessions played). The problem for this group has been on the offensive side of the ball, where they boast a putrid 53.6 team efficiency.

Expanding to allow lineup combinations with at least 25 possessions, more interesting groups emerge. Swapping Chris Arciadiacono for Moore and keeping the same group as above, Villanova turns into Gonzaga’s best five man rotation. Swapping Antoine for Daniels produces a similarly dominant group, both offensively and defensively. That said, the sample size is so small that it’s hard to put much stock into these impressive numbers.

If you’re trying to draw a conclusion from this small dataset, you can look at the defensive effectiveness of pairing Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Brandon Slater. Outside of one lineup, every pairing of JRE and Slater has a defensive efficiency better than 90. This passes the eye test as well, with Slater seemingly impacting every defensive possession with his length and tenacity while Robinson-Earl holds down the interior and dominates the glass.

Paging Mr. Daniels

Brandon Slater may be the spark the ‘Cats need to hold down opponent scoring, but Villanova has to figure out how to put the ball through the hoop if they want to win tournament games. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has become the focal point of the offense, and Jermaine Samuels has continued to play well since Big East games began. While it’s clear Justin Moore will need to shoulder a heavy load, the player Villanova needs to get consistent scoring from is Caleb Daniels.

Daniels is a talented guard who frequently struggles to get into games. The Tulane transfer has played just 31 minutes in the Wildcats’ two Gillespie-less games, scoring only 10 points. However, when Daniels is on he’s a dynamic scorer from the triple threat. Daniel’s premier skill is his shooting, where he cashes in on 44.1% of long twos and 39.6% of threes, first and second on the team respectively.

In Villanova’s first nine games of the season, Daniels averaged 12.6 points per game, shot 50.0% overall and 43.8% from deep. After the COVID pause, his numbers took a hit. In the 13 games after the hiatus, he’s averaged only 7.9 points per game, and his shooting percentage dropped to 35.8% overall and 35.4% from beyond the arc. Clearly, Daniels is continuing to work through the aftereffects of the virus.

Still, advanced numbers love Daniel’s chemistry with his teammates. Using a minimum threshold of 450 combined possessions, Villanova’s starting two guard pairs well with each teammate, posting above-average team efficiency numbers factoring in the competition.

Caleb Daniels’ Teammate Chemistry

Teammate Team Off Eff Team Def Eff Team Eff Margin Above/Below Avg
Teammate Team Off Eff Team Def Eff Team Eff Margin Above/Below Avg
Slater 104.8 85.8 19.0 6.0
Swider 115.9 89.0 26.8 5.9
Samuels 114.3 100.0 14.3 1.7
Moore 110.2 97.8 12.4 1.6
Gillespie 115.2 97.6 17.7 0.6
Robinson-Earl 109.3 98.0 11.3 0.3
EvanMiya CBB Analytics

Villanova is especially good when Daniels is paired with Cole Swider’s shooting or Brandon Slater’s defense. With Swider, Villanova is at its most effective offensively, while with Slater, Villanova is a suffocating defense.

For the Wildcats to make a deep run in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Caleb Daniels needs to provide dependable scoring. To do that, VU’s combo guard has to first and foremost avoid foul trouble early in games. From there, it will be on Daniels to make the most of his opportunity as a secondary creator. Without having to initiate, Daniels can focus on catch and shoot threes and attacking closeouts. It wouldn’t hurt if he could get to the line more often as well, where he’s a reliable 80.0% free throw shooter.

Villanova has suddenly found themselves in a tough spot going into their most important games of the season. Without Gillespie it’s hard to imagine the Wildcats making a run to the Final Four, but there are several reasons to be optimistic. Brandon Slater is emerging as a defensive stopper in the vein of a young Mikal Bridges, while Caleb Daniels has all the skills he needs to score in double figures night in and night out, he just needs to channel his performances from earlier in the season. This is still a good team and the ceiling is high if they play their cards right. Onto the games!