#9 Villanova Preview 2018-19

-Jim Root

Key Returners: Eric Paschall, Phil Booth, Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree
Key Losses: Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman, Donte DiVincenzo
Key Newcomers: Joe Cremo (Albany), Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater, Saddiq Bey


Outlook: If you’re worried about Jay Wright after Villanova lost so much talent from its national championship squad, don’t be – spend your time worrying about more important things, like if Jay Cutler is the next great reality TV star (he is) or if George RR Martin will ever finish the A Song of Fire and Ice novels (he won't). Wright’s Wildcats will be just fine, with two fifth-year senior leaders and touted freshman and sophomore classes on which to rely.

Indeed, despite four players going pro with eligibility remaining, the Wildcats still retain two players who have been the best player on the floor on the game’s largest stage. Eric Paschall’s virtuoso performance (24-3-3 on 10/11 shooting) in the national semifinals keyed Nova’s destruction of Kansas last year, and Phil Booth’s 20 points on 6/7 from the field, 6/6 from the FT line in the 2016 national title game put the Wildcats in position for the Arch-to-Jenkins beat-the-buzzer bonanza. Both players earned KenPom’s "game MVP" for their respective efforts, so it’s hard to imagine the ‘Cats having better leaders heading into what many perceive to be a transition season. 

The trademark of Wright’s teams over the past few seasons has been high-level skill and court awareness at every position. With the additions to the roster that Wright has made through both recruiting and the grad transfer market, he will still have options with which to get creative in his lineups. Without Spellman, we’ll see more traditional 4-out, 1-in lineups centered around Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (think the way they played around Daniel Ochefu in 2015-16). With Paschall’s skillset and ability to slide down to an undersized center role, they’ll also have the option of rolling out five shooters, as freshman Cole Swider should immediately slot right into the rotation as a big wing with some ability to play stretch four. He’s a natural fit into a Jay Wright lineup given his versatility and cerebral game. Returner Jermaine Samuels is a more attack-oriented version of a bigger wing, and while he was buried last year, his ability to attack the rim may give Nova an athletic slashing element they lacked post-Josh Hart.   

With that group of skilled bigs/wings, the floor spacing should remain pristine, opening up space for the Wildcat guards to drive and dish. Villanova has been ahead of the curve in opening up the court by taking NBA-range threes, forcing opponents to over-extend their defense much further than the college three-point line.  This FanSided article, written by Will Shreefer (@ReferSadness on Twitter), dives into the advantage provided by these "floor-spacing" threes:

"...the Wildcats were also among the country’s leaders in floor spacing 3s, a pattern that continued through their national title. They led the country in pure number of attempts taken from beyond the NBA 3-point line as well as from beyond 25 feet by more than 100 attempts in each category. While the extra games were responsible for much of that gap, 76.0 percent of their total 3s came from beyond the NBA 3-point line, and an astounding 46.0 percent of their 3-point attempts came from 25 feet or more. Those ranked ninth and second, respectively, among teams in the country with an appreciable sample size in the available data."

-Will Shreefer, FanSided.com

To wit, watch how deep Donte DiVincenzo pulls up from in this clip from the national title game:

The constant threat of Villanova shooting from this range forces Michigan to extend too far and go for a pump fake 23 feet from the basket, allowing Phil Booth a straight line drive for a lay-up:

Villanova’s attacking and deep shooting prowess constantly forces the defense to bend and rotate throughout a possession, keeping them in a frenzied state until the Cats finds a crack. Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo were excellent at this last year, but even without them, the perimeter onslaught will continue.

Sean Miller’s loss was Jay Wright’s gain when the FBI investigation around Arizona heated up, as savvy point guard Jahvon Quinerly switched coasts and should slide in comfortably to the Nova rotation (possibly starting lineup). He’s a big guard with good court vision, and while not the most explosive athlete, he fits snugly in an offense based around intelligent ball movement and knockdown shooting. Similarly, nabbing Albany grad transfer Joe Cremo was a coup for Wright, and though he may take the “microwave bench scorer” role from DiVincenzo, his passing vision is not to be overlooked, either. Collin Gillespie was surprisingly effective as a freshman, and his shooting will be even more dangerous as he becomes more comfortable off the bounce.

Defensively, Wright favors man-to-man, but he has been more than willing to switch to zone in favorable matchups or as a curveball. He employed zone only 7% of the time last year (down from 18% and 17% in 2016 and 2017, respectively), but his willingness to adapt to the opponent has long been one of his strengths as a coach. When in man, Booth has been a pest on opposing ball-handlers, and Cosby-Roundtree should be a legitimate factor in the paint with his length. Replacing Mikal Bridges’s presence as an octopus-armed terror all over the court will be a tall task, but Quinerly should be able to use his length against other guards, and Samuels has the tools to become a shutdown defender who can guard a wide variety of players.

Bottom Line: The Wildcats won’t be the juggernaut they were in 2017-18, and with so many new pieces filling key roles, they make take a little time to round into peak form. Wright’s presence makes me comfortable in projecting that to happen, though, and I’m optimistic he’ll put players into the right roles and find lineup combinations that give defenses headaches. The gravy train should keep rolling in Philadelphia, and after a surprising second-place finish in the Big East behind Xavier last season, Nova seems like a solid bet to reclaim the top spot in the league once again.