Over the next few weeks we will be diagnosing some of the weaknesses and reasons behind the struggles of some Big East teams. First up is a look at the 8-9 Villanova Wildcats who are in the midst of one of their worst seasons since Jay Wright took over the program.
It may seem like ages ago, but in 2009 — just three short seasons ago — Jay Wright had his Villanova club playing North Carolina for a spot in the National Championship game. The Wildcats were no strangers to success in the NCAA Tournament, but it was the first time they had returned to the Final Four since they won it all in 1985 and it seemed as if Wright finally had his team poised to compete for a National Championship on a yearly basis. Then the bottom started falling out. First there was the second-round exit in 2010 after losing to a less-talented Saint Mary’s team. Then, last season, the Wildcats were bounced in the first round after being beaten soundly by a solid but not spectacular George Mason team. And now, following this week’s defeat at the hands of No. 1 Syracuse, Villanova is just 8-9 overall and is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004. This is not exactly the type of bounceback season Jay Wright was hoping for, and here are some of the reasons it has gone so poorly.
1. Villanova’s offense benefits excellent three-point shooters, of which the Wildcats have none.
Wright is one of the main proponents of the 4-Out and 1-In motion offense which, as its name suggests, features four perimeter players and one post player. The offense uses a lot of ball movement, basket cuts, and pick and roll to create open outside shots and easy touches for the player in the post. Center Mouphtao Yarou gives the Wildcats one of the conference’s better post players, and point guard Maalik Wayns is very difficult to keep out of the lane and away from the basket, but Corey Stokes is gone and not coming back, and neither is Scottie Reynolds or Taylor King or Mike Nardi or Shane Clark or any of the other accurate outside shooters the Wildcats’ lineup used to boast. What’s left is James Bell — the only player on the team shooting better than 32% from downtown — and Wayns and Dominic Cheek — both of whom shoot more than four three-pointers per game — yet have the lowest percentages on the team (27% and 28.3%). Villanova still has a relatively efficient offense, but they are ranked No. 290 as a team in KenPom’s three-point percentage calculations. So let’s state the obvious, it is usually a bad thing when your primary offense set is predicated on the use of shooters you don’t really have.
2. The ballyhooed recruiting class of 2009 hasn’t exactly worked out as planned.
Rivals pegged Villanova’s 2009 recruiting class as the No. 3 class in the entire country. Yarou, Wayns, Cheek, and Isaiah Armwood were a collection of top-100 prospects that was easily the best and deepest class Jay Wright had assembled in his time on the Main Line. Their task was to follow in the footsteps of Nardi and Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry and usher in the next great era of Villanova basketball. Instead they have been at the forefront of its regression. The gritty Armwood transferred to George Washington in August of 2011, and none of the other three has emerged into a star yet. As I said earlier, both Wayns (16.6 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.6 RPG) and Cheek (11.8 PPG and 4.3 RPG) are talented offensive players, but their shot-selection leaves plenty to be desired and the result is inconsistent output. Yarou is the conference’s seventh-best rebounder and a effective interior scorer, but he barely protects the rim (0.6 BPG) and doesn’t get enough playing time or touches to really assert himself as a problem in the post. Assuming Wayns doesn’t turn pro, this class will have one more chance to live up to its potential or else its legacy will not be looked upon fondly by ‘Nova fans.
3. The defense hardly puts any pressure on their opponents.
Villanova has never exactly been known as the last bastion for defensive basketball, but this season the Wildcats have been more inept than ever, particularly when it comes to forcing turnovers. The Wildcats rank No. 327 in KenPom’s defensive turnover percentage, right their alongside such luminaries as Towson and Illinois–Chicago. I have been watching Jay Wright try to employ his full-court press for a half-decade and its hard to remember even one occasion where that press gave the Wildcats’ opponents any trouble. The team is undersized up front with Yarou and redshirt freshman JayVaughn Pinkston carrying the load but one would think with all that length and athleticism in ‘Nova’s that they would be able to do a better job of harassing the opposition but only Wayns averages more than one steal per game.
4. What in the world has happened to James Bell?
At 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds, Bell should be the team’s most versatile player, but instead he has practically disappeared all together. He is still the team’s most talented shooter and he obviously has the size to attack the rim, but for whatever reason, he has fallen out of favor with Wright. After starting 11 of the team’s first 13 games, Bell has came off the bench in the past four games and played eight minutes combined in back-to-back losses to Marquette and South Florida. After losing Stokes and Corey Fisher, Bell was the top candidate to receive the additional minutes and was expected to replace a portion of their scoring as well. But so far this season Bell has been content to sit on the perimeter and shoot threes, while rarely stuffing any of the other categories in the box score. To be fair, Wright hasn’t exactly been consistent with his rotation, but Bell should have made himself indispensable by now.