Sean Kane

Can Villanova get back to the Final Four earlier than expected?

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Can Villanova get back to the Final Four earlier than expected?

Is Villanova ahead of schedule?

It's a question worth considering as this college basketball season careens towards what figures to be an especially wild and unpredictable month of March. 

With no scholarship seniors on the roster, a lot of people - myself included - figured the Wildcats were a year away from seriously contending for another national championship. I expected this year's group to improve as the season progressed, compete for a Big East championship and maybe win a couple NCAA Tournament games. Then, with everyone returning for the 2020-2021 season, they'd be a Top 5 team with a legit shot of winning the program's fourth national title and third since 2016.  

But several factors have me thinking these Wildcats could arrive at the Final Four a year early.

Villanova won its 20th game of the season Wednesday night at DePaul, a convincing 91-71 victory in which the Wildcats made 18 of their 26 three-point attempts. They are ranked 12th in the country, with an opportunity to climb higher with a win Saturday at Xavier. They are 20-6 overall and 9-4 in the Big East, and a three-game losing streak a few weeks ago is starting to feel like a distant memory.  

As is often the case with Jay Wright's teams, this group is picking up steam as February comes to a close. They are playing that familiar selfless brand of 'Villanova basketball' that has served Wright's previous teams so well in postseason play. 

And, maybe most importantly, there aren't any dominant teams in college basketball this season. No teams that would be an insurmountable obstacle to Villanova in the NCAA Tournament.

So does Villanova have a shot to win it all this year? Here are three reasons why it could happen, and three reasons why they could fall short.

3 reasons Villanova can win a National Championship

1. The Gillespie-Bey 1-2 Punch

Junior Collin Gillespie and sophomore Saddiq Bey are as good a duo as any in the country. Both guys are capable of carrying Villanova in March. Gillespie leads Villanova in scoring, assists and steals. He scored a season-high 29 points last Sunday at Temple and is averaging more than 18 points in his last 13 games. He's shooting 43 percent from three-point range over that span and is a strong candidate for First Team All-Big East honors.

Bey is in the midst of a breakout season that has put him squarely on the radar of NBA talent evaluators. He's averaging 15.6 points and 5.0 rebounds and leads Villanova with a 46 percent three-point accuracy. Like Gillespie, Bey has stepped up his production in recent weeks. He's averaging more than 17 points and is shooting 52 percent from three point range in his last 12 games. Of course, Bey is playing himself into becoming a potential first round draft pick, which would throw a wrench into the notion that everyone will be back for Villanova next season.

2. Three-Point Barrage

Villanova shoots a ton of three-point shots. It can be ugly when those shots aren't falling (more on that later). But when the shots are going down, they can beat anyone in the country, and we've seen the Wildcats at their best recently. Dating back to halftime of Sunday’s win at Temple and extending through Wednesday's win at DePaul, Villanova has made 31 of its last 46 three-point attempts, a staggering 67 percent.

It would be silly to expect that type of shooting to continue. But even if they can make close to 40 percent of their long range shots, they'll be a very tough out in March.

3. Freshmen Maturing

Villanova's two freshman starters are X-factors: the Wildcats are very difficult to deal with when Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore are playing well. Robinson-Earl was just named the Big East Freshman of the Week for the sixth time this season. He's averaging 10.9 points and 9.3 rebounds and has established himself as an elite rebounder on the collegiate level. He's also playing with more confidence on the offensive end, trusting his ability to knock down the perimeter jumper.

Moore was terrific against DePaul, scoring 17 points and making 4 of 5 three-point attempts. He's proven to be a very skilled guard capable of getting to the basket as well as scoring from the outside, and he plays a valuable role as a complementary scorer to Gillespie and Bey.

3 reasons Villanova could fall short

1. Trouble on the Boards

The Wildcats have been significantly out-rebounded on several occasions and are particularly vulnerable on the offensive glass. This problem is exacerbated when Robinson-Earl gets in foul trouble. They were out-rebounded by an average of nearly seven rebounds per game during a three-game losing streak in early February. Villanova currently ranks 129th in the country in rebounding margin, pretty average among 350 Division 1 schools. This is definitely something worth monitoring in March when each possession becomes more valuable.

2. Sleeping in the Streets

One of Wright's favorite mottos is 'Shoot 'em up and sleep in the streets'. It means, for better or for worse, Villanova is going to keep shooting. Wright doesn't want his players to hesitate when they have an open look. Shoot first and ask questions later. As mentioned earlier, when the Wildcats are making shots it's a thing of beauty. But when they're not, it can make for some agonizing offensive performances.

Villanova has its share of good shooters, but they also have several inconsistent shooters. In the one-and-done format of the NCAA Tournament, they're one cold-shooting night away from elimination.

3. Slow Starts

Villanova has struggled at the beginning of games quite a bit this season. It's not uncommon to look up at the scoreboard 10 minutes into the game and see them with 10 or 12 points. Sometimes they're able to overcome these sluggish starts, sometimes they're not. As the level of competition picks up in March, it becomes more difficult to climb out of a double-digit hole in the first half. Starting games with more energy will be a point of emphasis with postseason basketball right around the corner.

Jay Wright weighs in on major Villanova storylines at season's midpoint

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Jay Wright weighs in on major Villanova storylines at season's midpoint

Villanova arrives at the unofficial midpoint of the season with a 12-3 overall record and a 3-1 mark in the Big East. The Wildcats have 16 regular-season games remaining, then it’s on to the Big East Tournament and what they hope will be their 15th trip to the NCAA Tournament in the last 16 years. 

I sat down with Villanova head coach Jay Wright for an exclusive conversation about the major storylines concerning his team as they gear up for the stretch run. 

The Big East grind

Villanova has dominated the Big East since the conference was reconfigured prior to the 2013-14 season. The Wildcats won the regular season championship five of the last six seasons and the conference tournament four of the last five years. 

They’ll have their work cut out for them continuing that run of dominance this year. The Big East is one of the toughest conferences top to bottom in the country.

With a 3-1 record in conference play, Villanova is currently looking up at both Seton Hall (4-0) and Butler (3-0) in the league standings. The road ahead is daunting — there aren’t any guaranteed wins on the Big East schedule. 

Wright’s Take: “You can look at any conference in the country and there are certain schools in that conference where you say 'Well, they're a football school.' In our conference there are no football schools, everybody is a basketball school. This means the world to everybody at every university. So whoever is No. 10 (last place in the conference) it’s still the biggest thing on their calendar. When you go there it is a tough, tough game. 

This year, it’s a whole different level because everyone has proven in the non-conference schedule just how good they are. All the teams are going to need to have short memories. We were terrible against Marquette (on January 4th) but Marquette is really good. We played in front of 18,000 crazy, screaming fans. So you can't get down on yourself from that performance, you’ve got to come back and go to Creighton three days later and play in front of another 18,000 crazy screaming fans.”

Inconsistent shooting

Villanova has been at the forefront of the three-point movement in college basketball. Like a lot of teams, the Wildcats take a ton of three-point shots. What separated them from the pack in recent years was their ability to make those shots. They rode terrific three-point shooting to national championships in 2016 and 2018.

But this season has been different. Villanova is shooting a little over 34 percent as a team from long range, ranking in the lower half of the Big East. The Wildcats are still taking a lot of threes - their 418 attempts are second most in the conference. 

Inconsistent is the best word to describe Villanova’s shooting. The Wildcats shot 51 percent from three-point range in Saturday’s win over Georgetown. But their struggles were glaring in back-to-back games against Marquette and Creighton last week. The Wildcats combined to make just 15 of 71 three-point attempts in those games, a 21.1 shooting percentage.   

Wright’s Take: “We have a saying 'Shoot em up and sleep in the streets'. That means we're going to shoot. We're going to shoot first and be aggressive and some nights we're going to be really bad and no one is going to want us in their house and they're going to make us sleep in the streets. That's kind of what we’ve been doing lately. Then we're going to develop our good decision making after that. But we're not going to try to be good decision makers first and not shoot. So that's where we are right now, it's been ugly. We’ve been sleeping in the streets a lot. You ask if I’m happy with our decision making? No. Am I happy with where we are in terms of our commitment to learning those good decisions? Yes.”

Defensive attitude

‘Attitude’ is a word used quite a bit within the Villanova program. It applies to everything the Wildcats do but holds special meaning concerning their defense. 

While the offense has been spotty, their effort on the defensive end is rounding into form. The Wildcats held their last five opponents to an average of 62 points per game. 

Wright gives his players freedom on the offensive end provided they put forth the requisite effort defensively. This year’s group has been keeping up its end of the bargain.

Wright’s Take: “Our defense is starting to get there, we still have a lot of work to do. We're not consistent, we weren't great against Marquette (a 71-60 loss), we were really good against Creighton (a 64-59 win), we were really good against Kansas (a 56-55 win). But then you could see that slip against Marquette. I really like our attitude, I really like guys like Collin (Gillespie), Saddiq (Bey), Jermaine (Samuels) and Dhamir (Cosby-Roundtree) becoming leaders. They're not there yet, but they're becoming leaders. The younger guys are starting to keep their composure on the floor in road games. Nothing is consistent yet but I like the direction we're going.”

Gillespie's heavy lifting

With the departures of fifth-year seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall last year, it was evident that Collin Gillespie would shoulder a heavy burden as a junior. 

He is the unquestioned leader of a roster devoid of any scholarship seniors. Gillespie’s play on the court has been excellent - he is Villanova’s second leading scorer and leads the team in assists and steals. 

The Archbishop Wood product is drawing rave reviews from his head coach.

Wright’s Take: “Collin is in a really tough spot. He has nobody around him with the experience that he has. He’s a third year guy, he's got this team on his shoulders. He's tough as nails, Northeast Philly tough, we love him. He has that Philadelphia Catholic League intelligence. I don’t know if the other guys on the team know what that is, but we do and we take great pride in it and so does he. 

He's got to be patient with these young guys, a combination of patient and demanding. But he's still got to perform. He's doing a great job of it. We don't lighten up on him, we just put more and more on him. We're really proud of how he's handling his leadership role as a junior.”

Antoine's progress

Bryan Antoine was the centerpiece of Wright’s star-studded 2019 recruiting class. He was a McDonald’s All-American and ranked as a Top 15 prospect by all of the top recruiting services. Antoine was expected to make an immediate impact at Villanova. 

That plan took a detour last spring when Antoine underwent major surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He wasn’t cleared for basketball activities until late November and missed the first three games of the season. 

Antoine has played in nine games, averaging a little more than seven minutes of playing time in those games. His progress is a storyline worth monitoring in the second half of the season. Can he develop into an x-factor in February and March?

Wright’s Take: “Brian was one of those guys that even if everything worked out perfect for him, he's 175 pounds, he was going to have come here and get stronger. He was going to have to learn the system, even if everything worked out perfect. The hype about him is warranted because in high school his quickness and athleticism were off the charts and he played on a great team. Now he's playing where his (lack of) strength right now is a weakness for him.

And you add to that the fact that he didn't play basketball since his last high school game. He missed the whole summer, the whole preseason. So he's learning what we do, which would have been difficult even if he was here from day one.  

We are thrilled with where he is. We think he has an incredible future here. I know everybody else wants this quick fix and they want to see this excitement right away. But you have to be patient with him. Just to be fair to him, you just have to give him some time.”

5 biggest Big 5 questions that need to be answered

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5 biggest Big 5 questions that need to be answered

College basketball is officially back. Four of the city's Big 5 teams begin their seasons tonight. La Salle is the lone exception — the Explorers open up on Saturday against Iona. With a new season set to tip-off, here is a look at the five biggest questions that need to be answered in the Big 5. 

Will Villanova's youth movement pay dividends?

Villanova has established itself as one of the premiere programs in college basketball thanks to a steady diet of veteran leadership. The Wildcats averaged 32 wins over the last six seasons and won national championships in 2016 and 2018 because they constantly had a wealth of experienced upperclassmen leading the way.

That won't be the case this season. There won't be a single senior in Jay Wright's rotation. Villanova's junior class of Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree will be counted on to provide guidance for the youngest roster the Wildcats have fielded in quite some time.

Sophomore Saddiq Bey might be Villanova's best all-around player and is poised for a breakout season. Fellow second-year players Cole Swider and Brandon Slater will also be asked to play significant minutes.

But this team will rely on freshmen far more than most Villanova teams under Wright.

Forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was the preseason Big East Freshman of the year and lived up to the billing during the Wildcats' exhibition schedule. Guard Justin Moore will be a big part of the backcourt. Bryan Antoine is the most highly-touted player in Villanova's freshman class. But Antoine is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and likely won't see game action until mid to late December.

With the departures of Phil Booth and Eric Paschall last season, this truly feels like the start of a new era at Villanova. The mainstays of the championship era have all moved on and it will be fascinating to watch this current group write its own chapter.

Is this Steve Donahue's best team at Penn?

For the first time in six years, Villanova isn't the reigning Big 5 champion. That distinction belongs to the Penn Quakers, who snapped Villanova's 25-game Big 5 winning streak last season on the way to a perfect 4-0 record against their city rivals.

Steve Donahue will work with the most talented roster he's had at his disposal in five years as Penn's head coach. Not only are the Quakers talented, they are also deep, versatile and experienced. That tends to be a winning formula in college basketball.

Senior big man A.J. Brodeur is the frontrunner for Big 5 Player of the Year honors. He led Penn in scoring, rebounding, assists and blocks as a junior. Ryan Betley and Devon Goodman join Brodeur to headline the Quakers' dynamic senior class. Expect Betley to provide a significant boost after suffering a season-ending knee injury in Penn's first game last year.

Penn was picked to finish second behind Harvard in the preseason Ivy League poll. Look for the Quakers to battle with the Crimson all season for the regular season championship and accompanying top seed in the Ivy League Tournament.

How will the new coaches fare?

Aaron McKie and Billy Lange are tasked with replacing a pair of Big 5 legends. McKie takes over for Fran Dunphy at Temple, while Lange replaces Phil Martelli at Saint Joseph's. Dunphy and Martelli were mainstays on the local college basketball scene for the last quarter-century. They combined for more than 1,000 career wins and 24 trips to the NCAA Tournament.

McKie is better positioned than Lange for immediate success. He inherits a team that won 23 games and advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season. The Owls will lean heavily on senior guard Quenton Rose, who averaged 16.5 points last year. Junior Nate Pierre-Louis earned Most Improved Player honors in both the AAC and Big 5 last season and will be one of the top two-way guards in the city.

Temple was picked to finish 7th in the AAC. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if the Owls exceed those expectations in McKie's first season as a head coach.

Lange, meanwhile, faces a far more daunting rebuilding project on Hawk Hill. St. Joe's lost its top four scorers from last season and was picked to finish 13th in the 14-team Atlantic 10.

Transfer Ryan Daly will be the focal point of the Hawks' offense. Daly sat out last season after transferring from Delaware, where he averaged 17.5 points during the 2017-18 season. Junior forward Taylor Funk will also do some heavy lifting on the offensive end after an inconsistent sophomore year.

Wins may not be plentiful early on as Lange builds the foundation for his program.

Will La Salle take a step forward in Howard's 2nd season?

This time last year, it was Ashley Howard making his Big 5 head coaching debut. La Salle finished with a 10-21 record in Howard's first year but improved as the season progressed, going 7-7 in the final 14 games. Now the question becomes: Will that improvement carry over into Howard's second season leading the Explorers?

Howard has some nice pieces to work with. Senior Isiah Deas and junior David Beatty will provide scoring punch in the backcourt, while forward Ed Croswell is expected to make a significant leap as a sophomore.

Freshmen guards Christian Ray and Sherif Kenney will play big minutes in their first seasons in La Salle uniforms, as will Clemson transfer Scott Spencer.

The Explorers were picked to finish 10th in the Atlantic 10. Surpassing that prediction would be a good indication of the La Salle program moving in the right direction under its second-year head coach.

Who will make the NCAA Tournament?

Villanova seems like a safe bet to reach the NCAA Tournament for the 15th time in the last 16 years. The Wildcats' youth will likely experience some growing pains early in the season but this is a talented enough team to contend for another regular season championship in a much-improved Big East.

Penn and Temple each have legitimate chances to get into the NCAA Tournament. Both teams have the requisite amount of talent and experience.

Three teams hearing their names called on Selection Sunday would represent a banner year for the Big 5.