What a difference a couple of weeks make. The ‘Cats went from losing by 20 at Creighton to annihilating the Bluejays by 34 at the Pavilion. Not only did Villanova get another important Big East win, it did it in large part thanks to staying with a different intention on offense and more great play on the defensive side of the ball.
Oh, this was also Jay Wright’s 500th win as head coach of Villanova.
*standing ovation at my laptop*
Depth was on display in a win where leading scorer Collin Gillespie didn’t score until a made three-pointer with nine minutes left in the second half. ‘Nova’s super senior would impressively score 11 points from that point. Creighton’s leading scorer, Ryan Hawkins, finished with the worst bagel possible. He scored zero points, missing all six of his shots.
Villanova is now tied with Providence for the most wins in the Big East this year with three.
Point Guard Clamp Crew
Ok, I’m not sure if two is a crew but we’ll go with it. The most interesting takeaway for me in this game was the collective defense from Brandon Slater and Bryan Antoine on Ryan Nembhard.
Nembhard had 14 points and four assists in the blowout in Omaha. He also made an impact at the free throw line and from beyond the arc. Nembhard did none of this in the ‘Cats latest win. Antoine played six minutes in Omaha, and he played 26 minutes in this win. Nembhard felt the brunt of this difference.
Nembhard made zero 3-pointers and made zero free throws while only having one assist and four turnovers. 3-of-9 was the best he could generate to the tune of six points, about half of his 12.5 scoring average.
This performance was due to Nembhard being smothered by Slater and Antoine the entire game. We’ve seen in basketball over the last decade or so the influx of positionless, athletic players being used in cross matchups. This was utilized by Jay Wright all game with Slater and Antoine.
Not much critical thinking is needed here. Size matters and especially when that size has some level of foot speed like Slater and Antoine. Nembhard still had the speed advantage, but he was consistently bothered by the length. This affected many of Creighton’s possessions by stopping tempo before it even began. Whereas the Bluejays set the tone in their first meeting with the ‘Cats, they never had a chance to set any this time around.
Nembhard has been key to super transfer Ryan Hawkins’ success and it’s no coincidence that as Nembhard was in clamps, the performance of Hawkins suffered as well.
We’ve seen lead guards have success against Nova in recent years, specifically ones with great speed. UCLA, Purdue, and Baylor all have great lead guards and if Nova makes a run in March it will have played one of these teams again or a team with a similar guard. Slater and Antoine will be great weapons to use come then.
Feasting In The Paint Continues
For the fourth straight game the ‘Cats got at least 30 shots up inside the arc. A lot of them were good looks, some great. Thie determination to get closer looks has enhanced Nova’s offense and led to a terrific run these last three games. Jermaine Samuels, Eric Dixon, and Brandon Slater went a combined 11-of-17 on 2-pointers.
During this stretch, Samuels has regained his catch and shoot mid-range jumper that we’ve seen in spurts in seasons past but not so much this season. He hit three of these in this game on the way to 18 points. He led the ‘Cats in gaining the free throw advantage going 6/7. Nova doubled Creighton in free throw attempts and were +7 in makes.
As touched on in the last takeaway, Eric Dixon’s presence and increased usage has been a vital part to this improved 2-point effectiveness. His back to the basket game demands the defense’s attention and when he’s left 1 on 1 you can now see the other defenders closest to him thinking about helping. In a game that happens so fast, this low post threat drawing extra attention can give players off the ball the advantage to get an open look. Adding in his great passing feel, he gives Nova a third well versed offensive player.
Justin Moore was the biggest catalyst in Nova getting closer looks, going 6-of-12 in 2-point range and hitting all four of his free throws. I’ve mentioned before the team’s lack of foot speed and ability to get downhill which has contributed to difficulty in getting good looks near the rim. Moore was aggressive throughout and used his hesitation dribble to keep defenders leaning and get by them or create space for a pull up jumper. When Moore makes it a point to dribble drive, he usually finds success. He uses pace and a good handle to get to the rim fairly well. Maybe we will see him use this approach more to score and not only the back to the basket game.
If this paint success continues, we could see ‘the Cats 3-point shooting improve and see this offense get close to its potential.
Seven ‘Cats played at least 20 minutes in this win while eight played at least 17 minutes. Caleb Daniels was unavailable for the second straight game which allowed Jordan Longino to play 20 minutes.
It wasn’t just that the ‘Cats exhibited depth, it was quality depth. It was such quality that when Collin Gillespie picked up his second foul in the first half and spent the last 11 minutes on the bench, the ‘Cats outscored the Bluejays 18-7. There was a point in this season that if anyone in Nova Nation heard that Gillespie would only play around nine minutes in a half, we would have definitely assumed the ‘Cats to be outscored without question and maybe even by a wide margin.
This stretch in the first half is proof that Nova can play and maintain winning basketball without their best player. Proof like this can really motivate players and lead to more confidence when they are playing with Gillespie. If Moore and Dixon have no problem playing like a top option when they share the floor with Gillespie. it really raises the ceiling on what the ‘Cats can do offensively.
In a lot of games, Gillespie will answer the call and be the best player in a Nova jersey. There will be times though when a team limits his touches or finds a way to keep him from contributing like the best player. Moore and Dixon will be much needed in these periods and it’s crucial that Nova be able to play through them. In this third straight Big East win, the ‘Cats were able to do just that.