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.
-(1) Villanova defeats (3) Michigan in the National Championship