“I know we have to answer to the fact that we did not get to the second weekend again. We have to own that. But it’s not going to define us within our program. It’s going to define us outside of our program and we accept that.” – Jay Wright, post-game.
Villanova has won 62 games over the past two years. They’ve done it playing beautiful basketball. They are unselfish, they play hard, and they play with confidence. Villanova has lost 8 games over the last two years. Two of these losses have come in the 1st weekend of the NCAA tournament. They’ve done it trying to play beautiful basketball. They were unselfish, they played hard, and they played with confidence. These are the confusing facts that have led to Villanova fans walking around this morning in a perplexed haze. Where do we go from here? What is the problem? Is this even a problem?
Let’s approach each of these questions one a time.
What is the problem?
This era of Villanova teams is not extremely athletic. That is a fact. Not one player on this team will be drafted in the first round of the NBA draft at any point. It’s likely that none will be drafted in the second round. Unlike past Villanova teams with dynamic guards such as Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Corey Fischer, and Malik Wayns, this group can not and has not heavily relied on isolations or ball screens to create offense.
As a result, Jay Wright has employed a four out, one in motion offense that relies on their ability to swing the ball back and forth to create a close out situation. One of the perimeter players can either shoot a catch and shoot 3 or get past an out of control defender running at him. They are not dribbling off ball screens into 3s (Randy Foye). They are not getting past their guy 35 feet from the basket and getting all the way to the rim (Kyle Lowry). Quick passes, two dribbles max. Get to the free throw line area. Find the next guy. Catch and shoot. In addition, they have two capable post players who, given the right matchup, can create a double team situation where once again, they can find an open shooter. This offensive strategy makes perfect sense for their talent set and is great to watch in most cases.
This year’s Wildcats were fun to watch, but they weren’t nearly as athletic as past Villanova squads.
But how does it go wrong? Quite simply, it can not and has not worked against teams who have the athleticism to simply stay in front of non-NBA talent. How many times on Saturday night did you see a Villanova player dribble to the free throw line, get cut off, and then frantically pivot around looking for open shooters that had been open all season? NC State, like Connecticut the year before and like Georgetown in January, played no-help defense and trusted their athletes to be able to guard 1 on 1 matchups.
The opposite effect was happening on the other end. The speed and athleticism of NC State’s guards was too much for Villanova to handle 1 on 1. They routinely got to the rim and pulled Villanova’s bigs out of rebounding position, allowing their athletic (there’s a theme here) bigs to crash the offensive boards unimpeded. NC State made this a game about 1 on 1 matchups instead of a 5 on 5 game on both ends of the floor. And it worked perfectly.
Is this a problem?
In 2012, led by the most heralded recruiting class in Jay Wright’s tenure playing as juniors, Villanova went 13-19. They weren’t unselfish. They didn’t always play hard. They didn’t always play with confidence. In 2013, that group exited via failed NBA careers and transfers, and made way to a far less heralded young team led by freshman Ryan Arcidiacano and sophomores Darrun Hillard and Jayvaughn Pinkston. They won 20 games in the last year of the old Big East and went to the NCAA tournament. 62 wins in the following two years followed. Regardless of NCAA tournament outcomes, this group rejuvenated Villanova basketball. The 2015 Big East Tournament championship banner will hang in the Pavilion as a reminder for what this group did. This was not even close to a failure.
One true problem does exist, however. In 2013 and 2014, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Louisville left the Big East. These teams were routinely stocked with NBA talent and made for an absolutely brutal January and February schedule. In January 2013, Villanova beat two top 5 teams (Louisville and Syracuse) in a 5 day span. They have played 1 team ranked in the top 5 since. Despite the matchup problems that were detailed above, Villanova could have won their 2nd round games the past two years. There is a difference between a bad matchup and a bad matchup you are unprepared for. The latter is what Villanova faced the past two years.
Unfortunately, there is no immediate solution. Without the departed Big East powers and their size and athleticism to test Villanova on a weekly basis, there is no way to be adequately prepared for a team like NC State. Midway through the 2nd half on Saturday, Jayvaughn Pinkston pump faked on the block and got NC State’s center up in the air. He took a dribble and laid the ball up for a layup. NC State’s small forward rotated over and blocked the ball before it even left his hand. This didn’t happen against Butler. This didn’t happen against Xavier. The new Big East does not prepare a team like Villanova’s current iteration for what it will see in the NCAA Tournament. Second only to the sad departures of Darrun Hillard and Jayvaughn Pinkston, this reality is what has to hurt Villanova fans the most today.
Where do we go from here?
Eighteen months from now, overachieving 2, 3 and 4 star recruits such as Daniel Ochefu, Ryan Arcidacano & Darrun Hillard will be gone. Entering in the 2015-2016 season is the No. 1 rated point guard in the country, Jalen Brunson from Chicago. Entering in the 2016-2017 season is 5-star power forward Omari Spellman from Ohio. Jay Wright has parlayed the success of this group into recruiting at another level. The team and the system will look radically different than it did yesterday.
As Villanova fans found out in 2012, this is a significant gamble. Will the consistent effort and unselfishness combined with increased athleticism solve the problems outlined above? Or will the talent come with egos that not only decrease Villanova’s win total, but decrease how fun they are to root for? Only time will tell. The realization that this team was fatally flawed was tough to swallow. A realization that the program is fatally flawed would be much tougher.