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.