After Toppling Kansas, Villanova Beginning To Look The Part Of Big East Title Contender AgainPosted by Bennet Hayes on November 30th, 2013
It’s not too difficult to conjure up memories of recent Villanova glory days. Just three and a half years ago, Jay Wright had his Wildcats heading to the NCAA Tournament as a #2 seed, his program fresh off a Final Four appearance the year before. The Cats had won 12 NCAA Tournament games in the five years prior, and the 2010 team was both deep and young: Of the 11 Wildcats to average eight minutes a game that year, only two were seniors. The future was bright. And then Robert Morris happened. Villanova survived the #15 seed Colonials on that fateful March day (by the thinnest of margins: 73-70 in OT), but Jay Wright is still seeking his next Tournament victory. Saint Mary’s dispatched the Wildcats from the Dance two days later, and the three years since have witnessed a program mired in mediocrity. After a detour to the NIT in 2012, last year’s plucky group managed navigate its way back to the Tournament, but nobody was mistaking those Wildcats for the talent-laden teams of the early Wright era. A team built upon a similar foundation was expected this season – a gritty, defensive minded group that would be capable of stealing wins on their homecourt. All those things may yet be true, but after a convincing win over Kansas on Friday, it may be time to add one more descriptor to the 2013-14 Villanova Wildcats – Big East title contenders.
Last year’s Villanova’s team scored more than its fair share of big wins. They knocked off four of the Big East’s five best teams (all of whom were ranked in the top 20 at the time of defeat), but each of those victories came on the Wildcats’ home floor. Furthermore, when you remove that quartet of signature victories, Villanova went just 2-12 against teams that finished in in the top 75 of the Pomeroy Ratings. Throw in a charity stripe festival or two at the Wachovia Center – a +34 free throw differential assisted in the Nova upset of then #5 Georgetown – and you can see why last year’s team never quite established themselves as an upper-echelon Big East club.
Well, it’s still November, and this Villanova team has a victory over the second ranked team in the nation – and it didn’t come at the Wachovia Center. What’s more, the Wildcats truly looked like the better team for most of 40 minutes against Kansas last night. There is no reason why this team can’t be as effective defensively as any Jay Wright has coached (and that’s saying something); the physical, athletic Villanova wings – JayVaughn Pinkston, James Bell, and Darrun Hilliard prime among them — harassed Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden into a combined 4-of-13 shooting from the field. The heralded Jayhawks’ freshmen duo totaled just 12 points on the night, easily their lowest output of the young season. As a team, Kansas shot just 39 percent from the field (including 2-of-11 from three-point range) and committed 16 turnovers — numbers not befitting what had been the fifth most efficient offensive team in college basketball entering the night.
Defense will still be the calling card for these Cats, but it’s an improved efficiency on the offensive end that could vault Villanova into Big East title contention. It wasn’t on display last evening (Villanova shot just 35 percent from the field), but that trio of wings – Pinkston, Bell, and Hilliard – have all seen a significant uptick in overall efficiency, despite none of them yet shooting the ball well from distance. Ditto the struggles from deep for floor general Ryan Arcidiacano, who was just 5-of-29 from three-point range before hitting the decisive go-ahead three with 10 seconds to play. Jay Wright can hope that a few more shots will begin to drop for his guys, but he could probably live with the struggles from beyond the arc if his team continues to limit turnovers. Last year’s team turned the ball over on 22.9 percent of possessions (313 teams did better); that number is down to 17.4 percent so far this season. Of course, these numbers come with a giant caveat, as the pre-Kansas schedule was hardly a murderers’ row for the Wildcats. Still, last year’s percentage was so astronomical that even a simple reversion to the mean could result in fewer turnovers this time around. Time will tell the full story, but early returns show a more experienced, cohesive group that is valuing the basketball.
The fun part of “Feast Week” (if we all feel okay using some ESPN propaganda) is that seismic victories are often followed by quick opportunities for validation. That chance comes – don’t blink – today for the Wildcats, as they take on a rock-solid Iowa team in the Battle 4 Atlantis final. But regardless of what happens tonight in the Bahamas, Villanova has proven that they deserve to be in the Big East title discussion. Allen Ray and Randy Foye may not be walking through those doors, but for the first time in a long time, Jay Wright’s squad has a shot at being certifiably elite.