Certain aspects have become familiar for this time of year. Many people can anticipate frigid cold weather in January and in the last few seasons, they can also anticipate Villanova on top of the Big East standings. The Wildcats are ranked number 6 in the AP poll and have the highest ranking in the nation in accordance with the RPI poll. While these achievements are noteworthy, the question can still be asked if Villanova is a legitimate threat to cut down the nets in Houston.
Since the advent of the new Big East in the fall of 2013 Villanova has been at the summit of the conference. Winning the regular season championship in 2014 and the regular season and Big East tournament championship in 2015 has allowed Villanova to prove themselves as the beast in the east. Unfortunately, Villanova has not made it past the first weekend in NCAA tournament play in the same two seasons. While the Wildcats could be equipped to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament this year, ‘Nova will not be the last team standing on April 5 this year.
There are three flaws with ‘Nova that can prevent them from being crowned champions. One issue with Villanova is how they play when they are away from the friendly confines of The Pavilion or Wells Fargo Center. As of this moment the highest quality road win was against a Butler team that is no longer nationally ranked. As the season progresses this victory over Butler might lose its luster because the Bulldogs only have beaten DePaul and St. John’s in conference, who are both at the bottom of the Big East.
A second issue that is challenging for the Wildcats is how they played against top ranked competition either on the road or in neutral sites. The toughest opponent faced this season as of now was against national player of the year candidate Buddy Hield and Oklahoma on Dec. 7th in Hawaii and the Sooners were able to pummel Villanova that day. Another loss came on the road in Charlottesville when the Virginia Cavaliers were able to upend Jay Wright’s squad by a score of 86-75. The matchup against Virginia exposed the weaknesses in Villanova’s defense as the Cavaliers shot 56.5% from the field.
There is also a blueprint to beat Villanova and that is to have the Wildcats attempt over 28 3 point attempts. In their loss against NC State in the 2015 NCAA tourney, along the losses against Oklahoma and Providence this season, they struggled mightily with poor three point shooting. Many basketball experts will say “live by the three, die by three” and Villanova is proof of that proverb.
Villanova is a great team on paper but they are not playing college football in the 1980’s. A national champion will be won on the court not via a ballot box. To bring the program's first national title since 1985, Villanova will have to play solid teams on neutral sites and come away with six victories. While Villanova has mastered Big East play the last two seasons, that feat, unfortunately, does not have the attributes to make the final hurdle that will allow them to be national champs.
Photo: Nati Harnik/Associated Press
When Jay Wright and Villanova walked into legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse they were gearing up to face a team that was expected to be atop the Big East Conference and ranked nationally. Both the Wildcats and Butler Bulldogs had a strong showing in their nonconference portion of their schedule, but the two schools have gone in different directions upon the beginning of the Big East schedule. While ‘Nova has a clean slate in their first three conference tilts, the Bulldogs have an unanticipated 1-2 conference record after three conference contests.
The game was a tale of two different halves as Butler had a 6 point lead at halftime mainly because of Villanova’s poor shooting. ‘Nova was able to regroup after intermission and claim a 60-55 road win against a nationally ranked team.
One major positive was the nearly flawless free throw shooting from Villanova. Out of their 13 attempts from the charity stripe the Wildcats converted for 12 of them (92.3%). In college basketball, many teams shoot 60% sometimes 50% from the line, but being able to convert free throws especially late in the game, will enable Villanova to seal many victories when the opposition is forced to foul.
Secondly, the team was able to out rebound Butler, 39-30. If there is a weakness on Villanova it is their lack of size and frontcourt depth. The opportunity to expose this weakness was increased by Daniel Ochefu’s foul trouble only allowed him to play 19 minutes. But the Bulldogs were unable to take advantage of this opportunity and struggled to control the rebounding margin and subsequently, the pace of the game. While a well played road win always helps build the NCAA resume, there were still some negatives taken away from this game.
One negative was Villanova’s inability to convert from three by shooting 4-15 (26.7%). In the past two seasons, in order to defeat the Wildcats, the opponent had to stop them from hitting from downtown. This was not the case against Butler. Even though there was no killer outside threat for the ‘Nova offense yesterday, they were able to come away with the victory.
A second major struggle was their inability to force turnovers from Butler. The Bulldogs only made 8 turnovers and while credit needs to be given to their team, the Villanova defense needs to be more tenacious. They need to force more turnovers to be successful. By being able to force live-ball turnovers, it will allow for the Wildcats to get opportunities for easy offense. This will especially be helpful when the three ball is not dropping.
Next up for Villanova is the Marquette Golden Eagles who are currently 2-2 in conference and have a road win against Providence as their marquee win for now. The two biggest offensive threats for the Golden Eagles are 6-foot-11 Luke Fischer (13.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.9 BPG, .600 FG%) and a potential one and done freshman forward Henry Ellenson (15.9 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 1.5 BPG, .428 FG%). With the strength of their team as the interior, it means that more responsibility will have to fall on Ochefu’s shoulders.
What cannot happen is for Ochefu to pick up early fouls, especially on moving screens, because Marquette is more equipped to take advantage of a smaller lineup. The Golden Eagles are also not as experienced as the Butler backcourt which means the Marquette guards will be more prone to commit turnovers.
The biggest correction for Villanova will be their three-point shooting. With the talented guards Villanova has, there should be very few nights where connecting from downtown should be an issue. However, returning to the friendly confines of The Pavillion will hopefully remedy the poor shooting performance. They will need to find a way to shoot the ball well if they want to find themselves on top against a tough Marquette team.
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Jalen Brunson has become accustomed to winning accolades, which have built up a big name for him. Villanova’s young guard was named Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois in 2015 and to the McDonald’s All-American games and Jordan Brand Classic. On top of that, he even played in the FIBA Under 19 World Championship, where he was named MVP of the entire tournament.
By accumulating all these awards, Brunson received a top 50 ranking by major recruiting services and was heralded as the crown jewel of the incoming freshmen class at Villanova. The only issue is that recruiting rankings do not win basketball games, excellent basketball plays do. While certain athletes may crumble under the pressure of grand expectations, Brunson has been an asset for Jay Wright’s team this season.
Brunson’s value has been widely represented in his 13 starts out of Villanova's 14 total games this season. And this comes sort of as a surprise, as Villanova’s roster is filled with talented guards in Ryan Arcidiacono, Phil Booth, and Josh Hart. Brunson was not anointed a starter but he had to outperform other talented players in practice to receive the playing time.
Statistically, Brunson has been a solid contributor this season. He is the 3rd leading scorer for ‘Nova, averaging 11.7 points a game. What also shows Brunson’s poise is his 1.90 assist-to-turnover ratio. Many freshman guards especially in the Big East have historically been exposed by the fierce competition and wilt under pressure. As of now, Brunson has been able to quell rookie mistakes, which has proven him not to be a liability for ‘Nova, despite his young age.
However, there is a lingering issue that could eventually hurt the Wildcats with Brunson’s spectacular play. There have been rumblings that Brunson will enter the NBA draft after the 2016 season and the better he plays the more likely Brunson makes the jump to the NBA.
While Brunson making it to the NBA will boost recruiting for Jay Wright, it will have a negative impact in the 2016-17 season. Ryan Arcidiacono will graduate and there could be up to three starting spots that need to be filled if Brunson leaves for the NBA. Although he may have the talent, it is a worrisome issue.
As stellar as Brunson has played, there are still two facets of his game that can improve. Firstly, it starts with his willing to earn the reputation as a defensive stopper. While many of the guards on Villanova can score, none of the talented guards have stepped up to become a go-to lockdown guy. Being able to contain or stop the opposition's best perimeter player would be advantageous for the Wildcats and Brunson’s draft stock.
Secondly, Brunson needs to improve his three-point shooting. While 33% percent from deep is not terrible, if he wants to be considered one of the elite all-around guards in the nation, Brunson needs to be shooting 40% from three.
If he is able to write these wrongs, the Wildcats will be looking at another year as a high NCAA tournament seed. However, Brunson has the tools and feel for the game to be a college superstar.
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-(1) Villanova defeats (3) Michigan in the National Championship