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Villanova Basketball: Are The Cats Closers?

A deep dive into Villanova’s performance in the closing minutes of games this season.

NCAA Basketball: Villanova at Georgetown Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

“Always Be Closing.”

The iconic line from ‘Glenngary Glen Ross’ has been used in some form on every sales team I’ve ever been a part of. The essential message of the phrase is to stay focused on the goal, always. Everything you do from start to finish has to be done with your end goal in mind. For the Villanova Wildcats, this means winning games. And closing out a win in the final 10 minutes is absolutely crucial.

Villanova fans have been critical of the team’s ability to close out a win this year. While I acknowledged that there were a few instances you could point to, I always thought this sentiment was a bit overblown. So this weekend I set out to see what the data could tell me. Is this really a problem for the Wildcats? If so, what is causing it? If not, why do people think it is? And is this a problem faced by the rest of the top tier programs in college basketball? Well I found the answers, and I have to admit they were a bit surprising.

Closing Time

One of the issues I had with the perception of how Villanova closed games is that the goal posts always seemed to be moving. Whether or not they closed was determined by picking the point where they had their greatest lead, and then comparing that to the final score. It immediately paints a “look how far they fell” narrative instead of telling more of the story. So for this exercise I decided to break down Villanova’s team +/- by quarters (10 minute intervals). The fourth “quarter”, or final 10 minutes of regulation game time, would be what we focused on for seeing if the ‘Cats can close.

I also put a few other stipulations around what was considered a “True Failure” when it came to closing games:

  1. The team must have been winning when entering the final 10 minutes. There’s a completely different mindset in trying to mount a comeback and trying to close out a game. It dictates strategy differently, aggressiveness, and game flow. I’m going to argue that these are different skills, and so I’m separating them out.
  2. The team must lose the final 10 minutes of regulation by 7+ points. The final minutes of a college basketball game can get a little wonky. Especially if the refs decide it’s their time to shine. There was just a little too much variance for my liking in games where the just one or two possessions are being used to say a team failed to close. But if there’s a three possession collapse, there’s really no denying what happened there.
  3. The final must be a loss, single digit win, or any OT result. Closing means maintaining or strengthening a team’s control of the game down the final stretch. Teams can certainly win a game without closing well, and I wanted this data to reflect that. However, the reason I stipulate a single digit win is to weed out games where teams didn’t close because the end of the bench was in the game for a blowout.

So let’s take a look at the data for Villanova’s nineteen games this season.

I’ve ordered these from best to worst 4th quarter performances, and there are a few immediate takeaways that come to mind:

  • Whoa, that’s a lot more red than I was expecting. Villanova loses the fourth quarter a lot more than I thought they did. Specifically, 37% of their games they’ve lost the fourth quarter by at least three points. Even more shocking is that number against just the KenPom Top 50, where it jumps to a shocking 70% (7 of 10 games).
  • Even if we just look at games where the Wildcats lose the fourth quarter by 3+ possessions, we’re talking about 26% of their total games. That bumps up to 50% against Top 50 KenPom teams.
  • Another interesting correlation was more than half of the games where Villanova started slow, either losing the first quarter or trailing at the half, also saw the cats losing the 4th quarter. This happened in 5 of 9 games, or 56% of the time.
  • If there is any good news to be had here, it’s that Villanova makes good adjustments at halftime. The third quarter is by far their strongest and most consistent.

I broke this graph down a little more by the numbers, and here’s what we got:

Based on my initial guidelines to define a “True Failure to Close”, we have to look at the bottom seven games on that initial chart. Baylor was a loss the whole way, so it get’s tossed. Tennessee was a blowout win for Nova, so it’s not a failure to close either. The Creighton road loss was bad, but Villanova was already losing by six heading into the final 10 minutes, and so it doesn’t meet the criteria. That still leaves us with four times that the Wildcats couldn’t close this season. That’s 21% of their games, and 40% of their games against teams they’d likely face in the NCAA Tournament.

Comparisons Are Key

I have to admit, I was surprised by the data. I knew there were some games that Villanova didn’t close well, but I thought some of it was blown out of proportion or skewed by selective data. Seeing it in clear black and white, especially with my own rules that frankly skew a little lenient, I couldn’t believe the problem was this big.

Really the biggest jaw dropping number for me is that Villanova has lost the 4th quarter to 70% of its Top 50 KenPom opponents. That’s 7 out of 10 opportunities, only winning late against Xavier at home, Creighton at home, and Seton Hall on the road. In those games, Villanova has a 2-5 record with the wins coming at Xavier and against Tennessee, the lone forgivable late showing of the group.

But maybe we’re looking at this with Villanova blinders on. How is the rest of the college landscape, specifically the other teams at the same elite tier as Villanova, handling late game scenarios? I performed the same exercise with the other nine schools ranked in the KenPom Top 10 at the time: Gonzaga, Arizona, Baylor, Houston, Auburn, Purdue, Kentucky, Kansas, and Duke. Here are those results for All Opponents and the KenPom Top 50:

Well... that didn’t help. Here are some thoughts:

  • Not only is Villanova one of the worst closers among these elite teams, they also aren’t great when it comes to starting strong in comparison. The Wildcats rank 10th out of 10 in % of 1st Qtrs Lost, % of 4th Qtrs Lost by 7+, % of 1st & 4th Qtrs Lost in the same game, and % of True Failed To Close Games.
  • Even when breaking things down to the KenPom Top 50 level to make the comparisons a little closer due to Villanova’s tough schedule, the Wildcats still finish at the back of the pack when it comes to closing time. I was actually a bit amazed that six of the ten teams have yet to have a “True Failed To Close” game on the season.
  • Again, ever the optimist, Villanova is toward the top of the group when looking at anything involving the 3rd quarter. The question now is becoming if the slow starts are negating a strong second half performance and leading to a late fall off.

So the data tells us that while Villanova does have a peer or two facing similar issues, no one is seeing this problem manifest to the degree the Wildcats are. In fact, for most of the country’s elite team this isn’t a problem. But now that the problem is thoroughly identified, let’s talk about how to solve it.

Start Strong, Finish Strong

While it’s not the case for all teams, Villanova seems to have a pretty clear correlation between slow starts and poor finishes. And if you’ve watched even a handful of games this season, that’s a storyline you’ve seen play out over and over again. Tell me if this sounds familiar:

  • Villanova comes out a little flat early. Energy isn’t up, shots aren’t falling.
  • The sub-par play or close/losing score early on causes Jay to restrict minutes to the bench in the first half. He wants the guys he thinks give them the best chance to win on the floor.
  • Those players come storming out of the gate in the second half, bringing Nova back from behind or building up a lead.
  • The minutes played in the first half plus the effort needed to be more explosive in the third catches up to the starters, who start to fade a bit down the stretch.

Against lesser competition, this isn’t as noticeable and can even be avoided. But when playing really good teams this is a recipe for disaster.

It’s also unfortunately the thing that I don’t know how to fix without being in Villanova’s locker room. How do you get players to feel to come out to start the game the way they do in the second half? That’s a level of effort and energy that the players have to bring to the table. There’s little the coaching staff can do to help prep them for that.

I’m not saying it will always play out this way, but the data indicates that a better starting Wildcat team is a better closing Wildcat team. As for what all of this means for Villanova’s chances in March, it’s not the best time. Winning in the tournament is all about consistency, sometimes even more than being good. Nova’s ability to close throws another wrinkle into their performance, but it doesn’t mean they can’t win. It’ll be interesting to see if these trends continue to play out for the rest of the season, or if Jay and the team can start turning things around for the better.