By Michael Bennett
Only two college basketball teams have won consecutive national titles in the past 30 years:
And despite Villanova’s loss to Butler last Wednesday night, Jay Wright’s squad could be the next team to join the pantheon.
The Wildcats (27-3) aren’t simply a reprise of last season’s team; there are several subtle differences that could enable them to accomplish a historic feat.
Fresh off their outstanding performances in the NCAA tournament, much was expected from Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins in their senior seasons, and both have accomplished much. It hasn’t been seamless: Jenkins struggled during the first half of Big East play, posting an effective field goal percentage of just 50 percent (and even came off the bench against St. John’s earlier this month); Hart has been forced to assume more of a playmaking role in an offense short on ballhandlers behind Jalen Brunson.
But it appears both veterans have finally become comfortable. In five games since that win against the Red Storm, Jenkins’ effective field goal percentage has leaped to 60 percent, and the 6-foot-6 forward appears more aggressive in the half-court offense, attempting nearly one-third of his shots inside the three-point arc (as opposed to 22 percent before he came off the bench). Hart, meanwhile, has expanded his pick-and-roll game under Wright: Per Synergy Sports, almost 30 percent of Hart’s offense comes within pick-and-roll possessions, in which he scores 0.98 points per pick and roll, significant upticks from 18 percent and 0.87 a year ago.
Brunson’s emergence has also helped to pick up some of the seniors’ scoring slack. The sophomore guard was instrumental to last season’s offensive effort, but this season he has become one of the Wildcats’ most important options. He is the team’s second-leading scorer, at 14.9 points per game, behind Hart (18.7) and ahead of Jenkins (13.1). His effective field goal percentage of 64.4 leads the team in Big East play, and he is converting 68 percent of his two-point shots, an astounding rate considering that 30 percent of his attempts come at the rim and 71 percent come in the half court. Brunson isn’t just a perimeter threat; he has refined his game as more of an attacking guard, and that has helped jump-start a Villanova offense that could have languished with its most crucial players adopting new roles.
Pace might just be the most fascinating aspect of Villanova’s 2017 game plan. The team is one of the slowest in Division I — a glacial 65 possessions per 40 minutes, which makes its offensive execution and efficiency all the more important. Per Ken Pomeroy, this is the second-slowest team Wright has coached during his Villanova tenure. That said, this squad doesn’t shy away from exploiting transition opportunities.
When the Wildcats run, they are the nation’s most efficient fast-break team. According to Hoop-Math.com, their effective field goal percentage in transition (70 percent) leads the country, and the squad scores 1.30 points per fast break (per Synergy, which again leads the country). Even though the Wildcats grab only about 73 percent of their potential defensive rebounds, ranking just outside KenPom’s top 100 nationally, they are efficient in following opponents’ misses thanks largely to their effective use of three-pointers. More than a third of Villanova’s shots in transition are from beyond the arc, and it converts 41 percent of those attempts (it was just 30 percent last season). So while it doesn’t take many shots within the open court, exploiting transition mismatches is a focal point of its offensive structure, much more so than a year ago.
Villanova uses fewer bench minutes than it did in 2016. Wright allocates just a quarter of his minutes to reserves. But look a bit deeper, and it’s evident this team has much more depth spread across its lineups. In 2016, the most-used lineup, per KenPom, was involved in about 22 percent of the team’s possessions. That group’s efficiency margin was an astounding plus-0.57 per possession, according to HoopLens.com. But its second-most-used lineup, at a shade under 10 percent of total possessions, registered just plus-0.06.
Fast-forward a year later, and the efficiency is much more evenly spread out: Villanova’s top lineup — Brunson, Hart, Jenkins, Mikal Bridges and Eric Paschall — posts an efficiency margin of plus-0.32, while a group with Donte DiVincenzo instead of Paschall registers a plus-0.30. That small-ball lineup allows Hart to slide more comfortably into his slot as small forward and shifts Jenkins to a mismatched five, which is why the team’s offensive efficiency jumps to 1.25 points per possession (from 1.11) when Wright goes to his bench. It’s a small tweak but a significant one: There is no way Wright could replicate his team’s 2016 lineup efficiency, but there is little drop-off when DiVincenzo takes the floor. The third lineup’s efficiency margin is plus-0.16 — a dip, yes, but still overwhelmingly beneficial.
There is, however, one significant cause for concern:
Villanova allows opponents to convert 49.2 percent of its two-point attempts, the most a Wright-led team has ever surrendered. Coupled with the Wildcats’ slow pace, there is an overwhelming pressure on the offense to execute. So far, that hasn’t been a glaring issue, but it is worth noting that in two of its three losses (both to Butler), Villanova allowed the Bulldogs to make nearly 60 percent of their two-point shots. Part of the issue is there’s been no replacement for graduated center Daniel Ochefu, a defensive anchor who was skilled at helping out on perimeter ball handlers while also posting a block rate of more than 7 percent. While the offense is just as efficient as its title-winning predecessor, the defense likely will provide the most hiccups on the Wildcats’ quest for a repeat.