Poking Holes in Villanova’s Defense

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 30th, 2018

It’s easy to extol all of the things at which Villanova has excelled this season: for example, the 20-1 record, a #1 AP poll ranking, and Jalen Brunson‘s Wooden Award candidacy. What’s harder is to find a way in which this team can be beaten. But if there’s one area of the game where the Wildcats have room for improvement, it’s with their 40-minute defensive effort. That’s not at all to say that Jay Wright‘s group has been playing poorly on the defensive end, but allowing 0.959 points per possession (32nd nationally) is actually his team’s worst performance since the 2011-12 season. At halftime on Sunday, with the Wildcats holding a narrow five-point lead, Wright’s frustration went from his standard non-verbal cues to a blunt admission on national TV: “We are playing no defense. None. It’s actually an embarrassment.” So what’s “wrong” with Villanova’s defense?

Jay Wright Knows His Defense Isn’t Up to Snuff This Year (USA Today Images)

For one, Villanova’s short rotation isn’t doing anybody any favors. Three different players have suffered hand injuries, the most recent being starting guard Phil Booth, who was averaging 28.2 minutes per game. The other two are freshmen Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, both a key source of rest minutes for the starters at the guard and forward positions. As a result, Wright cannot go deeper than a seven-man rotation, pushing almost every starter to more than 30 minutes per contest. It’s no wonder that Villanova ranks 288th nationally in bench minutes. On the other hand, the Wildcats ranked 320th in the same category last year and 217th the year prior, so this isn’t a new wrinkle. While a short rotation can contribute to greater fatigue, the bigger potential explanation is that Wright has his least experienced roster in five seasons — of the seven rotation players, three are freshmen, two of whom play inside.

The bigger issue has been communication-related, particularly as it relates to switching defensive assignments. Omari Spellman accounts for 73 percent of the team’s minutes at the center position and simply doesn’t have enough experience to serve as a reliable defensive anchor. Opponents have been quick to note his indecisiveness, as the below clip shows Xavier bringing him into a ball-screen situation. He initially stays off the ball-handler before committing to a block attempt and ultimately surrendering an easy basket.

In the next clip, he quickly loses track of his defensive assignment on the perimeter, falling back into the paint and leaving one of the best shooters in the country, Markus Howard, wide open from three.

While Spellman’s offensive contributions and shooting accuracy have already come a long way, his struggles on the defensive side of the ball in the month of January persist.

Additionally, while his team-leading block percentage (5.5%) has been a bonus thus far, Villanova has had an uncharacteristically hard time in preventing shots taken at the rim. Instead, they have expended more effort in chasing opponents off the perimeter and hedging further out on screens. When coupled with an ongoing education in post defense positioning, it shouldn’t be surprising that the numbers reveal a clear weakness.

Given how good Villanova’s help defense normally is — particularly with the rangy Mikal Bridges gliding across the floor — the strategy of forcing opponents to put the ball on the floor is a sound one. That’s also why it has been a frustrating sight for Wright to see all the blown assignments and easy points allowed around the basket. Still, none of this should be surprising considering that team defense has a longer learning curve, and the lack of available depth inside has necessarily thrust Spellman from practice player to a legitimate starting role (26.2 MPG) in Big East play. It’s an area ripe for improvement and, the good news for Villanova is that it also has a rather straight-forward path to attainment.

Justin Kundrat (172 Posts)

Villanova grad, patiently waiting another 10 years for season tickets. Follow Justin on twitter @JustinKundrat or email him at justin.kundrat@gmail.com

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