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Villanova Basketball 2023-24 game preview: Butler Bulldogs

It’s time for the dreaded annual trip to Hinkle Fieldhouse, a place that’s never easy to play, no matter who you are.

NCAA Basketball: ESPN Events Invitational Consolation game 1-Penn State at Butler Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

It’s another challenging leg in Villanova’s journey through a tough late-January slate.

The Wildcats (11-8, 4-4 Big East) are limping into Hinkle Fieldhouse with a three-game losing streak. They’ve lost four of their last five, and as history has shown, it’s never easy playing in Butler’s home turf — no matter who you are.

Butler (13-7, 4-5 Big East) also had a rough patch of its own, but it seems to be breaking free from it. The Bulldogs had a stretch earlier in Big East play where they lost five of six games, but they recently rebounded with wins over bottom-dwellers DePaul and Georgetown.

Saturday’s game is scheduled to tip-off at 3 p.m. ET.

Welcome back to Hinkle Hellhouse

Villanova has gotten its taste of Hinkle Magic over the years. No matter how either team is doing in any given season, there are no guarantees when the ‘Cats come to Indianapolis to play at the historic venue.

Since conference realignment, Villanova is 5-5 in Butler’s home arena. The Wildcats’ wins never came easy, either. With exception to a 19-point win in 2022, all other victories were hard-fought affairs with single-digit margins. The other four wins came by eight or fewer points, including a three-point overtime victory in 2014.

The National Championship teams of 2016 and 2018 had their scares too. In 2016, Villanova scraped by with a five-point win, but the 2018 team was not as fortunate.

The Bulldogs dropped 101 points on them in an early conference-play game.

Since then, the Bulldogs have fared pretty well at home. Butler has won four of the last six meetings with Villanova at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Butler’s new-look team

Thad Matta’s return to college basketball didn’t go so well last season. The Bulldogs struggled, particularly offensively, and they finished just 14-18 overall and 6-14 in Big East play, before getting knocked out in the opening round of the Big East Tournament by St. John’s.

Plenty of moves were made throughout the offseason, which resulted in the Bulldogs retaining just three returners from last year — Jalen Thomas, Connor Turnbull and John-Michael Mulloy.

Thomas and Turnbull were rotational players off the bench, while Mulloy missed all of last season with a foot injury. He is the last remaining player from the LaVall Jordan era.

The roster makeover has yielded some immediate improvement. With a 13-7 record, they’re on-pace to surpass last year’s 14-18 mark.

Butler had a solid showing in non-conference play this year and went 9-2, but since Big East play started, there’s been plenty of ups and downs.

They did sweep Georgetown, won their first meeting against DePaul, and got a huge road win at Marquette. Three of their five Big East losses came on the road, and everybody knows the Bulldogs are a different animal when in the comfort of home.

Portal Power

With only three returning pieces, Matta and his staff worked hard in the transfer portal and recruiting trail.

Leading this new-look team is a quartet of transfers: Pierre Brooks II (Michigan State), Jahmyl Telfort (Northeastern), D.J. Davis (UC-Irvine) and a familiar face, Posh Alexander (St. John’s).

Brooks is a versatile junior guard, who was known for his physicality and slashing play coming in, but he’s taken immense strides as a shooter to become more of a complete player offensively. He also has the ability to guard anywhere from the ‘1’ to ‘4.’

Brooks has scored in double figures in every single game this season, and he enters Saturday’s contest with a streak of three straight 20-point games. This season, he’s averaging 16.8 points and 4.4 rebounds, while shooting 48.2% overall and a career-best 44.1% from long range.

Telfort came to Butler with three years of starting experience at Northeastern. The Quebec native brings versatility to the frontcourt, and he’s averaging 13.5 points and 4.8 rebounds.

As for Davis, he arrived at Butler after a career year at UC-Irvine. He boasts a great shooting stroke and while his three-point shooting percentage has taken a slight dip from his career numbers, he is still one to watch out for at the perimeter. He is averaging 12.9 points per game, while shooting 35.2% from long range after back-to-back 40%+ seasons. He’s also automatic from the free throw line, converting on 97.0% of free throws.

The final remaining member of the standout quartet is Posh Alexander, who Villanova fans should be very familiar with after his time at St. John’s. Alexander is a two-way menace and got a fresh start following a junior season where he plateaued after two solid seasons, then Rick Pitino’s arrival.

Alexander remains a two-way threat though. He’s primarily a slasher, but also a solid facilitator. He averages 11.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game this season.

With Manny Bates gone and Connor Turnbull injured, Jalen Thomas has become the big presence inside. He’s the team’s top rebounder and shot-blocker. He averages 7.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

Team tendencies

The Bulldogs are much improved, offensively, this year. After finishing last season ranked 224th in offensive efficiency, they’ve soared into the top 50 this year. They’re the 12th-best free-throw shooting team in the country and take great care of the ball.

According to KenPom, they have the 29th best turnover rate in the country.

Defensively, they are solid, entering at No. 88 in defensive efficiency. They hold teams to shooting just 31.4% from deep (63rd) and they also play solid defense without fouling — boasting the 10th lowest fouling rate in the country.

One glaring weakness is on the glass. Especially with Turnbull injured, the Bulldogs mostly have Thomas and Andre Screen to clean up down low, but they mostly play a guard lineup. Butler ranks in the bottom-third of the country when it comes to rebounding rate, and slightly below the median for offensive rebounding.