HERE’S WHY NO. 1-RANKED VILLANOVA CAN GO ALL THE WAY

By Peter Gleason

How good is Villanova’s No. 1-ranked Wildcats and why is this year going to be any different from last season’s bunch that got knocked off in the second round of the NCAA tournament by N. C. State?

They are very good, and the reason they can go all the way is obvious:

There is no Big Dog in the NCAA field like Duke or Kentucky that dominates the March Madness discussion, which opens up field for any very good that gets hot at the end of the season.

The Wildcats went 62-8 the last two seasons. They reached the top three of the AP poll and finished in the top 10 both years. They were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament last year and a No. 2 seed the year before. Villanova has mostly provided winters of joy for its fans over the last few years, only for a small postseason sample to mar everything that came before.

There was the Round of 32 loss to seven seed Connecticut, the eventual national champion, in 2014. Then there was the Round of 32 loss to eight seed N.C. State last March, all the positive images of the season quickly being replaced by the image of Crying Piccolo Girl. The Wildcats have not advanced past the first weekend of the tournament since their 2009 Final Four appearance, their last five tournaments ending in early disappointment, including three first-weekend losses as either a one or two seed.

Now comes yet another chance for Villanova to shake its recent reputation. For the first time ever, Villanova ascended to No. 1 in the polls on Monday. Previous No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 2 North Carolina went a combined 1-3 last week, allowing Villanova to jump to the top after it avenged its January home loss to Providence by beating the Friars on the road 72-60 on Saturday.

Villanova is the sixth team to climb to the top of the AP poll. So far, Michigan State had the longest stay at four weeks, and Oklahoma claimed the No. 1 spot the last three weeks. While Villanova is No. 1, five other teams received at least one vote. Villanova — who did win the national title in 1985, but as an unranked eight seed — will play its first-ever game as a No. 1 team on Tuesday night against DePaul, a game it should win in a romp, even on the road.

On the surface, this Villanova team looks similar to most Jay Wright teams since he arrived in 2001-02. The Wildcats are guard-heavy, with a starting lineup that typically includes 6-foot-2 freshman Jalen Brunson, 6-foot-3 senior Ryan Arcidiacono, 6-foot-5 junior Josh Hart, 6-foot-6 junior Kris Jenkins and 6-foot-11 senior Daniel Ochefu. With Ochefu sidelined by a concussion, Nova has turned to 6-foot-8 junior Darryl Reynolds. Nobody else taller than 6-foot-7 plays significant minutes.

With that size comes the identity of a team that makes a living on the perimeter. Again, that is true … in some respects. According to KenPom.com, Villanova ranks 15th in 3-point attempt percentage, with 45.1 of its shots coming from beyond the arc. The only major conference team to attempt a higher percentage of its shots from 3-point range is Michigan. This sort of style causes a team to be boom-or-bust, as a dry spell from the perimeter — without the size to change things up by feeding the post — can cause a disaster. That’s exactly what happened last year, when Villanova went 9 of 28 from deep against N.C. State, with all nine makes coming from Darrun Hilliard and Phil Booth. Arcidiacono, Ennis, Hart and Jenkins went a combined 0 for 14, and the Wildcats offense struggled to find a rhythm in a 71-68 defeat.

What’s strange about this year’s team is that it is not a particularly good 3-point shooting team. The Wildcats shoot just 32.7 from 3-point range, with nobody shooting better than Brunson’s 36.5 percent. To compare, Oklahoma — who has been playing out of its mind from long range — has four players shooting better than 46 percent from outside, led by national player of the year frontrunner Buddy Hield’s absurd 50 percent. With Ennis and Hilliard gone, Villanova has plummeted from 21st to 252nd in 3-point shooting percentage. It’s still shooting a lot from outside, but it’s not particularly good at it.

And yet the Wildcats are still 20-3, rated No. 1 in the human polls and rated No. 2 by Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. The possibility of going cold from the outside remains, but Villanova is compiling a season’s worth of evidence that it can survive cold perimeter shooting. It’s still 20th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, ranking fourth nationally in two-point percentage despite the lack of size around the rim, beyond the injured Ochefu, who is expected to return on Tuesday. Erratic shooting from the outside can cause March humiliation, but this Villanova team has balanced that out by proving to be efficient closer to the basket.

Hart in particular has been a revelation. The 2015 Big East sixth man of the year, Hart has stepped into the starting lineup and become a candidate for Big East player of the year, bringing a well-rounded skill set to the table. He ranks in the top 10 in the Big East in points (15.4) and rebounds (7.7) per game, and according to Sports-Reference’s numbers, he’s tied for eighth nationally in defensive win shares. He plays hard and does just about everything well, bringing versatility to the table with rebounding ability that helps mitigate the Wildcats’ size disadvantage.

Brunson, a five-star recruit who was Wright’s most high-profile signing, has fit in well as one of four Wildcats averaging double figures, joining Hart, Arcidiacono and Jenkins. Booth and 6-foot-7 Mikal Bridges have provided quality minutes off the bench, and with Ochefu hurt, Reynolds is emerging as another post option. After putting up 13 rebounds but just four points against Creighton last Wednesday, Reynolds torched Providence for a double-double, with 10 rebounds and 19 points on 9-of-10 shooting. Villanova isn’t going to get that from Reynolds often, but it’s nice knowing that it’s possible, providing support to Ochefu in the post.

Despite losing Ennis, Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston from a No. 1 seeded team, the Wildcats have a solid eight-man rotation when fully healthy. They share many of the same attributes of Wright’s past teams, but they finish well around the basket, they’re good enough on the glass and they are excellent at the free-throw line.

Most importantly, Villanova is lights-out defensively. Hart is relentless, and when on the floor, Ochefu is a capable shot blocker. Villanova ranks third in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, defending well at all areas of the court with opposing teams also shooting a large percentage of their field goals from the outside without making them at a high rate. At the moment, this is Villanova’s best defensive team of the Wright era.

There is still a month to go in the regular season, plus the conference tournaments. But since Pomeroy’s stats began in 2002, only one national champion has not had a top-20 team on both offense and defense, according to the KenPom numbers (2013 UConn). Villanova, Iowa and Virginia are the only teams in that category this season, although a few others (Maryland, Michigan State, Kansas, West Virginia) are very close.

The wrong matchup could doom Villanova in March, particularly if the Wildcats shoot poorly from the outside in a game in which they run into a team with a substantial size advantage. But everybody is vulnerable this season. The wrong matchup could doom anyone. Villanova has been as reliably good as anybody, with its three losses coming to Oklahoma in Hawaii — yes, an ugly game it lost be 23 — Virginia on the road and Providence in overtime. All three losses are to top-25 teams, while Villanova has wins over eight teams ranked in the KenPom top 50 and a total of 12 in the top 100. The Big East is a fairly strong league, and yet that OT loss to Providence is Villanova’s only conference loss since Jan. 19, 2015.

None of this will matter much if the Wildcats falter on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. But the last few years shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of Wright’s ability to lead teams deep into the Big Dance. After all, Villanova advanced to the Sweet 16 or better four out of five years from 2005-09. Erratic results are always possible in small single-elimination samples, and the Wildcats have unfortunately played their worst at inopportune moments, attaching a stigma that will inevitably result in a lack of confidence from those filling out brackets.

But history does not mean that Villanova is destined to the same fate in 2016. There are red flags, just as there are red flags with every team in the country. Villanova, however, has been as reliable as it gets in a season of chaos. Led by the rise of Hart, Villanova should be favored to carry that resume into the NCAA Tournament and rewrite its March identity.

 

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