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Game Preview: Providence Friars

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The Wildcats will gear up for their regular season finale without their senior point guard.

NCAA Basketball: Providence at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After securing another Big East regular season title, but losing a key player in Collin Gillespie during Wednesday’s title-clinching win, the Villanova Wildcats will prepare for Saturday’s season finale.

Villanova enters with a 16-4 record and is currently 11-3 in Big East play.

As for the Providence Friars, they’re 12-12 and 8-10 in conference play. They’ve been up and down, winning only four of their last 10 games. They most recently loss to a Posh Alexander-less St. John’s team by double figures.

Here’s what to watch for on Saturday. The game is scheduled to tip-off at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Learning from the first time out

On Jan. 23, the Wildcats beat the Friars, 71-56. Although the ‘Cats won by a 15-point margin, it was another tale of two halves for Villanova, and a never-before-seen sun delay.

The first half was subpar for the ‘Cats, having just returned from a long COVID related hiatus. Villanova had a stellar second half making 10 of their first 21 shots to start the comeback and erase the lead. They got contributions from six different players, but were led by Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore. The Wildcats kept control from there, maintaining a double-digit lead the rest of the way, outscoring Providence 47-29 in the second half.

One key to this win was Providence’s 19 turnovers. Additionally, the ‘Cats effectively shut out the Friars’ two star players, holding Nate Watson to only 12 points and two rebounds and David Duke to 10 points on 4-of-17 shooting including 1-of-6 from three. Freshman Alyn Breed, however, had a career-high of 18 points, with 15 coming in the first half.

Much has changed since this game, however, including Villanova now being without their senior leader Collin Gillespie. Gillespie is second on the team with 14.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.7 assist per game. He was tied for a team-high 15 points in the previous win over the Friars.

While there is no replacing Gillespie’s leadership and what he means to the team, Villanova will have to find a way to try to replace his points, rebounds and assists.

We can expect to see Justin Moore running the point and Brandon Slater with an increased role. Bryan Antoine should likely take some of Gillespie’s minutes. Slater is steadily improving, and he’s showed glimpses of offense to go along with his ferocious defense. ‘Nova will need more production from Caleb Daniels and Cole Swider, the latter of whom appears to be struggling with confidence issues on the offensive end of the floor.

Villanova is coming off a great win against 14th ranked Creighton, while Providence is coming off of a crushing defeat to St. Johns. Villanova needs to keep this momentum and move past their last three tough road losses by figuring how to play without their leader. Certainly, not an easy task, but maybe it can help provide some fuel.

By The Numbers

Villanova certainly cannot look past any opponent, including Providence. The Friars have two of the best the Big East have to offer in Duke and Watson. Not only do both Duke and Watson average above 16 points per game, but as a team, Providence is superb at defending the three.

They hold opponents to just 30.2% from deep which is 29th best in the country. This is hugely important against Villanova, as the Wildcats love the three-ball and are tied for first in the Big East in three-point shooting percentage.

Conversely, the Friars are 220th in the nation guarding two pointers and opposing teams are shooting above 50% inside the arc, so Villanova will need to take advantage of this and rely a bit more on traditional baskets. The ‘Cats will need to mix it up like they did in the first half against Creighton.

Alternatively, the ‘Cats will not need to worry too much about guarding threes, as only 26.8% of Providence’s points come from distance, while 54.5% come from inside the arc. Additionally, the Friars take pretty good care of the ball and only turn it over on 17% of possessions (68th best turnover rate). However, the Friars don’t seem to force too many turnovers and this will help Villanova, as it adjusts to a new lead guard, one that’s unlikely to face too much on0ball pressure from the Friars.

While Villanova has struggled all year on the defensive end, the big equalizer is that the “Cats are 5th in the country in offensive efficiency. It is yet to be determined how Gillespie’s absence will impact this production. Hopefully that eight-minute long scoring drought against Creighton was only a temporary hiccup.

Why This Game Matters

Villanova just beat 14th ranked Creighton 72-60 to secure themselves the Big East regular season title.

Despite that, Saturday will be their first full game without their senior leader Gillespie. The ‘Cats will have to see how players adjust to bigger roles, and they will need to prove to themselves, as well as the NCAA tournament committee that they are still a top ranked team minus No. 2.

The committee’s eyes will be squarely focused on ‘Nova in these next games leading into the NCAA tournament, as the ‘Cats seeding will depend on how they play without their leader. They will also need to show to themselves that they can win away from home, having lost three straight away from the Finn. This will be a key game to get things organized before the win-or-go-home Big East and NCAA Tournaments.