Villanova Basketball: A forgotten contender returning post-pause

A modern-day blueblood in every sense, Villanova basketball has emerged as a powerhouse under the leadership of head coach Jay Wright. Of course, two titles in the past five years is the major reason for their rise, but the Wildcats are yet to fall from their peak. They are simply a perennial title contender thanks to Wright’s ability to dominate in all aspects of the coaching triad: recruiting, developing and in-game coaching. There are very few elite coaches in college basketball, but Jay Wright is most definitely one of them.

This season has been no different in terms of the end goal for Villanova but the journey has been an untraveled one. The ‘Cats entered this season widely projected to be a top national title contender alongside Baylor and Gonzaga. After all, they returned all but one key contributor from last year’s roster, a team that would have secured a No. 3 seed, at worst, for the NCAA Tournament had it not been canceled. 

A month-long COVID-19 pause in the middle of the season, though, has turned the Wildcats into the “forgotten contender” of college hoops this season. This isn’t meant to say that Villanova isn’t respected enough — the Wildcats are still the No. 3 team in the polls — but it has faded into the background of college hoops discourse amidst talks of the prohibit favorites (Gonzaga and Baylor) and unforeseen upstarts (Alabama, Texas, and Michigan). 

Not playing for almost a whole month (Dec. 23 – Jan. 19) will do that, but allow me to reintroduce the Villanova Wildcats. They currently hold a 10-1 (5-0 BE) record and a commanding lead in one of the nation’s best conferences. A strong regular season is just the baseline these days, though. This team has similarities to Villanova’s past two title squads, and adding a fourth banner is the end goal.

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An elite, perimeter-centric offense leads the way

There are few brighter offensive minds in basketball than Jay Wright, whose Villanova teams have been in the Top 25 for adjusted offensive efficiency (AdjO) in each of the seven seasons since the birth of the “new” Big East. Perhaps even more impressively, they have held a Top 5 AdjO in four of those seasons and are looking to make 2020-21 the fifth in eight seasons overall.

Villanova was always good, sometimes even elite, offensively under Coach Wright prior to 2014, but that is when a noticeable statistical shift appeared in his team’s shot distribution.

Source: KenPom.com. Click to enlarge.

Among other changes, Villanova now ranks among the tops in the nation year after year in 3-point attempt rate. This is a team that lives behind the arc with exceptional spacing and top-tier ball movement. When people say that Stephen Curry changed the game of basketball, this is what they mean. Coach Wright was well ahead of the game — and still is — when it comes to the 3-point revolution and it has been the driving force behind turning the Wildcats into a national powerhouse.

Coach Wright knows how to recruit to this system and this season is filled with ideal fits to be successful. In terms of the “key offensive statistics” for this perimeter-oriented scheme, this season ranks fairly similarly to many of Villanova’s best teams in recent years:

Source: KenPom.com. Click to enlarge.

Gillespie headlines a strong backcourt

Senior point guard Collin Gillespie is right at the forefront of the Wildcats’ success this season. Ever since Coach Wright took over, Villanova has been a “Point Guard U” of sorts. From Kyle Lowry to Scottie Reynolds to Ryan Arcidiacono to Jalen Brunson, you can always count on Villanova having a top-tier floor general. Gillespie was the most under-recruited of that bunch as just a fringe Top 200 recruit, but he has forged his own path to join those program legends.

This is his third season as Villanova’s full-time starting point guard and he has upped his game each year. Gillespie was an All-Big East selection a year ago and is now averaging career-highs in points (15.9), field-goal percentage (44.3%), 3-point percentage (44.6%) and free-throw percentage (86.4%) while exhibiting his lowest turnover rate (7.1%).

It’s hard to imagine a much better statistical profile for a Villanova floor general than elite perimeter shooting and a 4.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. During the Wildcats’ last two title runs, they have been led by elite lead guards: Arcidiacono (BE POTY) the first time and Jalen Brunson (NPOY) the second. Gillespie is about as rock-solid as they come and already has title experience, given that he was a freshman on that Brunson-led squad.

Gillespie is joined in the backcourt by a pair of other double-digit scorers. Justin Moore, a sophomore, handles the secondary playmaking duties and has improved his all-around game after a strong initial campaign a season ago. His 3-point shooting has taken a nosedive (39.6% to 29.3%) but has otherwise increased his averages across the board. This includes raising his total rebounding rate by 3%, assist rate by 6.1%, and decreasing his turnover rate by 3.2%.

This Year 2 jump is somewhat akin to Donte DiVincenzo’s in 2019. Though Moore is a starter while DDV was the 2018 team’s sixth man, the leaps are similar:

Caleb Daniels is Villanova’s third starting guard. He comes to Philly via transfer from Tulane and has instantly become a major part of the rotation. The New Orleans native is averaging 11.4 points per game while shooting 42.6 percent from beyond the arc. He ranks last on the team in turnover rate but makes up for that with a Top 150 eFG% in the entire country. You aren’t going to find any Wildcats that do not prioritize offensive efficiency.

Eric Paschall was the lone former transfer who played significant minutes on either recent title-winning Villanova team, but that is perhaps the comparison that can be made for Daniels. Albeit playing different positions, both were stars at their former schools who have taken a bit of a backseat as Wildcats while being efficiency darlings in the scoring department. Paschall was fifth in scoring on Nova’s 2018 title team at 10.6 per game, though that was his second season with the team and this is Daniels’ first.

All three of Villanova’s guards take care of the ball, shoot the three well, and are listed at 6-3 or taller. With their size in the backcourt, they are able to shoot over defenders or be utilized in post-up situations, much like Coach Wright often did with Jalen Brunson.

Versatility in the frontcourt forms matchup nightmares

Teams don’t rank 46th nationally in average height with only size at the guard spots, though.

Star sophomore Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is at the heart of Nova’s frontcourt. A 6-9 forward/center combo that wreaks havoc on opponents with his combo of size and athleticism, he is turning in another big season with hopes of making a deep run. JRE is second on the team in scoring (14.8 pts) and rebounds (6.7 rpg) while occasionally stretching the floor in addition to dominating the paint.

Villanova’s 3-point shooting aids JRE the most, as he is the one doing the majority of damage underneath. He attempts nine 2-point shots per game — over three more than other Wildcat — and is finishing on 58.6 percent of those shots. Villanova’s title-winning teams ranked second and third, respectively, in 2P% nationally. This year’s team might only be slotted at 58th right now, but it features an interior star that the two others did not have.

While JRE is clearly one of Villanova’s top players, it was actually fellow starter Jermaine Samuels that is currently the reigning Big East Player of the Week. Samuels, a 6-7 forward, is averaging 9.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game for the year and has been especially strong since the Wildcats returned from their month-long pause. The similarity here draws to Kris Jenkins as a consistent upperclassman forward who can step out behind the arc.

Villanova’s main frontcourt quartet is rounded out by Cole Swider and Brandon Slater. Mostly used for his perimeter shooting, the 6-9 Swider is connecting on 36.7 percent from beyond the arc off the bench. The Wildcats space the floor so well and Swider’s smooth stroke aids in doing exactly that. Slater sees 13.5 minutes per game and is solid in that role. Neither is quite the sixth man that the previous title-winning teams had, but both play their roles well.

Not many teams can claim that their main four frontcourt players have combined for 40 made 3-pointers in 11 games. Villanova can, and its bigs are also contributing to the 14th-best defensive rebounding rate in the nation.

Unpaused. Next goal? Natty.

Villanova has played two games since returning from its pause, securing home wins over Seton Hall and Providence. A three-game road trip approaches but the Wildcats have reemerged as one of the nation’s top teams. They never actually left, but other teams absorbed the vast majority of the spotlight while the ‘Cats were waiting on the sidelines.

One other thing that is important to mention regarding Villanova’s pause is how well a couple of their results have aged. The overtime loss to Virginia Tech that caused people to question their preseason ranking? Well, the Hokies are now nationally ranked and third in the ACC. As for that “solid” road win over Texas, the Longhorns are now ranked No. 5 in the country.

With that in mind, Villanova’s 10-1 record isn’t just pristine, but the loss isn’t as bad as originally thought and its top win has blossomed into one of the best in the country.

Even with a month off, Villanova remains the hunted, a position the Wildcats have found themselves in many times in recent years. With an analytics darling of an offense and similar (although not quite equal) pieces to their last two title-winning teams, could Jay Wright be cutting down the nets once again? It wouldn’t only further his place among the best coaches in the country but would also cement the legacies of seniors Gillespie and Samuels with their second titles.

Is Villanova on the level of Baylor or Gonzaga? Not likely, at least not over the course of several games. But in a win-or-go-home, single-elimination event like the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats will likely be one of the favorites to win it all. Their pause might have taken them out of the national spotlight for a bit, but now they are back …. and the claws are out.

Lukas Harkins
Lukas Harkins

Heat Check CBB national writer and bracketologist