Villanova guard Jalen Brunson attempts a shot against La Salle guard Pookie Powell at the Palestra.
Over the years, the Villanova Wildcats have been known for their collective team play whether that was a specific Wildcat stepping up on any given night or playing solid team defense against their opponent. Unlike in years past when Villanova’s defense was one of their main strengths, this season their offense has been their calling card as the Wildcats are averaging 87.8 points per game (fifth in country). However, when their offensive production has been matched this year, the Wildcats have been vulnerable and the Butler Bulldogs took advantage of that in late December.
Villanova trailed by 8 at the half against Butler on the road due to their inability to stop the Bulldogs from draining threes. Despite scoring more than their season average and guarding the Bulldogs tighter from behind the arc in the second half, the Wildcats were unable to complete the comeback and suffered their first loss of the season.
The Wildcats gave up 101 points against Butler, which they had not done since the 2013-14 season when Creighton matched that total and beat the Wildcats 101-80 behind a 39-point performance by Doug McDermott.
“This is the best offense we've played against so far and it showed," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright following the game against Butler. "We've really been outscoring teams to this point and we weren't going to outscore this team tonight."
While ‘Nova’s defense was one of the main reasons they lost to Butler, it was the first time all season that an opponent had scored that many points against the Wildcats. Butler shot 68.2% from three against Villanova compared to their current season average of 35%. Since then the Bulldogs haven't come close to matching that three-point effort so they may have just had the hot hand that night. Regardless, for the Wildcats to make a deep run this postseason they must improve on the defensive end.
“We have been talking that we have to get better defensively,” said Wright after Villanova’s victory over Marquette a week after the Butler loss. “You don’t just take four days of practice and say we gotta fix it. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
That improvement starts with the Wildcats defending the three-point line better. Every Wildcat that plays regular minutes for ‘Nova has the capability of creating havoc on defense by playing tight defense against their matchup and disrupting their rhythm from three. In four of their six games that have been decided by ten or less points, they’ve allowed their opponent to take 20-plus threes and shoot at least 36% from three.
Next, Villanova must protect the paint. While redshirt freshman Omari Spellman is averaging 1.5 blocks per game, the Wildcats are in need of another rim protector. Freshman forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree could be the answer as the Philadelphia native has the size and athletic ability to alter opponents’ shots. If Cosby-Roundtree can provide ‘Nova with a strong defensive presence, along with what Spellman has already shown he can do then the duo could make a really scary frontcourt.
This change will help ‘Nova continue to win games but when the Wildcats come across a team that matches their offense production, then they have to fall back on their #1 strength: scoring.
Villanova is averaging more than 80 points per game for the first time since the 2009-10 season when they put up 81.8 points a night. In the Jay Wright era, only two of his teams have averaged 80 or more points. Not only is Villanova scoring more than they have in previous seasons but they are doing it at an efficient rate. The Wildcats are sixth in the nation for FG% (50.2%) and seventh for 3P% (41.3%).
These top 10 rankings are a result of Villanova’s balanced offense attack, as six Wildcats average double-figures in scoring. That is a rare feat on any level of basketball and Villanova has accomplished that despite dealing with injuries to key players.
Juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges have led the Wildcats in scoring, but it is their willingness to get teammates involved and let them shine that allows the team to remain balanced on offense.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive,” said Brunson after ‘Nova took down #10 Xavier on January 10th. “At the same time, I’m trying to get guys open looks and try to create for others. There’s a balance to that and I think honestly I can get better at that.”
With Brunson and Bridges, along with juniors Eric Paschall and Phil Booth (who was recently sidelined with a hand injury), sophomore Donte DiVincenzo, and Spellman, the Wildcats have six players who can all score and have a breakout night when they have it going. Villanova has not had this many players who all score in double-digits on a nightly basis in a long time, if ever.
While the increase in scoring has led to a number of lopsided victories for the Wildcats this season, opponents have benefitted from ‘Nova’s sped up offense. ‘Nova is allowing opponents to score 69.1 points per game which is the most allowed since the 2011-12 season when they went 13-19. This most likely is a result from Villanova scoring at a faster pace and should not be viewed as a issue for them. If the points against ‘Nova continue to rise while their points per game stay the same then there may be a cause for concern but until then Wildcat fans shouldn't worry.
Two teams that could pose a threat to the Wildcats are the Bulldogs and the #8 Xavier Musketeers.
The Bulldogs showed earlier this season that they can compete with the Wildcats by handing them their only lost. Averaging 79.3 points per game, Butler has outscored opponents by about 8 points over the season. Senior forward Kelan Martin has led this charge scoring 19.6 ppg, along with teammates sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin (15.9 ppg) and junior guard Paul Jorgensen (11.5 ppg). This trio could cause problems for the Wildcats if they’re not careful.
Like Butler, Xavier has a potent offense (84.7 ppg) and three players who average double-figures. Senior guards Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura average 18.9 ppg and 13 ppg respectively for the Musketeers while senior forward Kerem Kanter averages 10 ppg. Villanova shouldn’t overlook the Musketeers since they have only lost three games this season.
Though Butler has beaten ‘Nova in their past three contests, the Bulldogs will enter their next matchup against them as the underdog as will the Musketeers but with Butler and Xavier both being high scoring teams, ‘Nova should not relax against them.
Villanova guard Phil Booth.
(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
A large part of Villanova’s success in recent years has been their x-factors. Whether it was Donte DiVincenzo in last year’s run or Darryl Reynolds and his heroic effort in Daniel Ochefu’s absence two years ago, Villanova head coach Jay Wright has thrived off having players step up when it wasn’t expected of them. This year that will be more important than ever, as Wright and company will look to find those new x-factors with the thick of tough conference play right ahead. In this article, we will take a look at two players who may not be on everyone’s radar, but will need to play a major role down the stretch for Villanova to bring home an NCAA Championship banner once again.
Phil Booth returns after sitting out the majority of last season due to injury. The hero from Villanova’s championship victory over North Carolina has certainly picked up where he left off. In 16 games, Booth has averaged 12.4 points per game, 3.2 rebounds, and 3 assists, while shooting 52% from the field and 44% from three. The guard has proved to be an integral part of the team’s success, scoring in double digits in 11 of the team’s 15 wins and in the one game Villanova lost, Booth scored a mere 4 points, his second lowest total on the year. For Villanova to win, they’re going to need Booth night in and night out.
At the same time, Booth has lacked the credit he deserves. Many look to Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Omari Spellman as the main sources of success for Villanova. But the bottom line is that Booth plays just as important of a role. Shifting more to off the ball, Booth has accepted the role perfectly, providing another ball handler in the backcourt to help out Brunson when necessary. He has showed he can hit the three consistently as well. During his freshman year, he did just that, shooting 48%. But he struggled during his sophomore campaign, knocking down only 31%. This year, he has gotten back to those freshman year numbers with the second highest clip on the team.
Jay Wright has made it clear just how important Booth is to the team off the court as well. He called the redshirt-junior “the most revered guy on the team, the most respected” in an interview with the Daily News’ John Smallwood. Coming off a season ending injury, Booth has certainly captured the heart of the team, especially considering the fact that he wasn’t 100% for much of non-conference play.
In early December, following their win at Saint Joseph’s, Wright added that, “You don’t take the year off and come back that easily, but he will get there.” Throughout the long process of working back to 100%, Booth has set an impression on his teammates, showing that he is going to keep fighting through the setbacks. Likewise, he has been one of the team’s most productive players all season, despite the fact that he hasn’t been totally healthy. He may finally be getting to that point of 100% health, as he has scored 15-plus points in three of the last five games, including a season-high 21 points in their last game against Xavier.
Even though Booth may not be Villanova’s biggest or most athletic player, his ability to affect the game both on and off the court cannot be overlooked. He also brings aggression, leadership, and a three-point threat to a team that thrives off those attributes. If Booth can keep up his strong play and continue to be healthy, he provides the perfect complement to the Villanova stars.
With injuries starting to affect the Villanova depth, Jay Wright needs more help from unlikely sources off the bench. After Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels both went down with a hand fracture a few weeks ago, the Wildcats were left with just DiVincenzo and Dhamir “DaDa” Cosby-Roundtree as the only regular bench pieces left from the beginning of the season. While DiVincenzo’s role won’t necessarily change, Cosby-Roundtree’s will have to, as Wright seems unwilling to try out additional options off the bench.
In their only loss against Butler, Wright was uncharacteristically pushed to play four of his five starters (in addition to DiVincenzo) for more than 30 minutes. With the exception of DiVincenzo, who regularly plays a large amount of minutes, the rest of the bench received a total of 8 minutes (6 for Cosby-Roundtree and 2 for Tim Delaney). That left Mikal Bridges as the team leader in minutes per game, averaging 31.7, with Brunson not far behind at 30.6.
They are the only two to average more than 30 minutes per game. Two years ago, when the Wildcats captured their second National Championship, Ryan Arcidiacono led the team in minutes per game with 32.1. Wright doesn’t want his starters to play the whole game and will aim to keep all of his starters’ minutes in the low 30’s or high 20’s as the season progresses. With that said, he will need to have productive players off the bench to spill the starters in conference play when games are closer together. That’s where we get to Cosby-Roundtree.
Cosby-Roundtree has largely been touted as a player with a high defensive ceiling. Listed at 6-foot-9, 220 pounds, the big man’s presence seems much more imposing on the court than his measurements may suggest. He owns the second highest total rebounding percentage of players receiving regular minutes. Cosby-Roundtree brings aspects to the floor that no other Villanova player brings. He represents the new shift of big men in basketball: he’s an athletic, instinctive defensive minded center who can run the floor and finish at a high level. While Spellman is bigger than Cosby-Roundtree, he is used more as a scoring threat for the Wildcats. Their skill sets complement each other and could provide the Wildcats with a scary frontcourt presence (including, possibly, Eric Paschall at the ‘3’) that they haven’t had in recent years.
If Villanova can receive help from Cosby-Roundtree, it could go a long way in maintaining the starters’ minutes and providing an interior defensive presence that would allow the Wildcats to defend the perimeter even harder. The Neumann-Goretti graduate still has work to do, but with the injuries to their bench, Jay Wright is going to need more out of Cosby-Roundtree. His potential as an x-factor will go a long way in another NCAA championship run.
-(1) Villanova defeats (3) Michigan in the National Championship