By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
The 2013-14 Villanova basketball season was an interesting study in the power of expectations. The Wildcats won their first 11 games, along the way winning the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in which they defeated big name programs in USC, Kansas, and Iowa. Then, they ran through the Big East schedule, only losing to NBA lottery pick Doug McDermott and Creighton twice on their way to a 16-2 conference record and their first Big East regular season title since 1981-82. Villanova’s final record ended at 29-5, accounting for the second-most wins in school history and capping a year most programs in America would consider a once-in-a-generation type of season.
Still, for a Wildcats program that has risen to national prominence over the past decade, how last season ended left a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans. First, Villanova was upset by Seton Hall at the buzzer in the Big East quarterfinals. Then, after defeating Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Wildcats faded in the second half of the round of 32 in a loss to Connecticut (who to be fair, never lost again on their way to the national championship). Questions began again (I argued unfairly) about Jay Wright’s ability to win the big games in the postseason. However you look at last season, one things is certain: both the people involved in the program and the fans watching at home are ready for more.
There is little reason to think that Villanova shouldn’t be as good, if not better, than last season, as the team returns almost everyone from last year’s 1st place Big East squad. That ‘almost’ does come with a big caveat, though, as the main guy the Wildcats lost was leading scorer and nearly leading rebounder James Bell. The All-Big East first team selection was the main hub of the offense scoring 14.4 points per game, was the team’s best free throw shooter at 81.5%, and provided a potent threat from the perimeter shooting 37.1% from behind the arc.
Guys like Bell are difficult to replace, but fortunately for Jay Wright, he has a few guys ready to step up and help fill the void. Coach Wright could opt to start 6’2″ redshirt junior guard Tyler Ennis (obligatory mention that he’s the brother of Phoenix Sun Tyler Ennis) at shooting guard, moving the 6’6″ Darrun Hilliard to small forward. The Rice transfer would bring added ball handling to the line-up at the expense of some size. An alternative would be 6’5″ sophomore Josh Hart, coming off his inclusion on the All-Big East rookie team last year. Hart is arguably the team’s best defender and does many of those ‘glue guys’ things Bell brought to the table in addition to his scoring. Finally, also taking on a larger role will be 6’6″ junior Kris Jenkins, who shot 37% from behind the arc in limited minutes last season; he will help the offensive spacing following Bell’s departure.
Even if the Wildcats have a slight drop-off at that position post-Bell, the fact that they return 4 starters from last year’s team should more than make up for the difference. Senior Darrun Hilliard actually took more threes than shots inside the arc last year, with good reason, as he hit 41.4% of those triples on his way to 14.3 points per game. I’d look for Hiliard to take on even more play-making responsiblity this season and put up larger overall numbers, possibly at the expense of a slight dip in efficiency. The other main offensive hub will be 6’7″ 5th-year senior JayVaughn Pinkston, who also averaged over 14 points per game last year and is one of the more unique players you’ll come across in the college game. Pinkston has a well-developed post game that can work even against taller defenders while dominating smaller wings that try and guard him. Then, he also has the quickness to bring those bigger guys outside the paint and take them off the dribble when needed.
Rounding out the starting five will be a pair of juniors in 6’3″ point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and 6’11” center Daniel Ochefu. In addition to earning a reputation for hitting the big shot at the end of games, Arcidacono shot well from behind the arc at 34.5%, while taking good care of the ball with nearly a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Ochefu does all the dirty work on the glass and defending the rim; any development in terms of his offensive game will be seen as a happy bonus. Nevertheless, with the 6’8″ Darryl Reynolds serving as his only back-up, you could argue Ochefu is the most indispensable member of the team given what he brings to the table for this roster.
With all the upperclassmen around to keep things humming, Coach Wright will be able to slowly groom the two promising freshmen on the roster. 6’2″ guard Phil Booth should see backup minutes at both guard positions. The 4-star recruit from Maryland projects as a solid all-around player who is already a consistent shooter from behind the arc. 6’7″ wing Mikal Bridges might have a higher ceiling but could still redshirt a season given the current depth on the roster ahead of him. The 4-star local recruit from Malvern was the 2nd-rated prospect in Pennsylvania, but may need some time to fill out to be able to operate in the paint. Bridges does have good range on offense and the length of athleticism to eventually be a factor on the defensive end.
The Wildcats don’t play the toughest out of conference schedule, but two games which could later impact tournament seeding include a contest against VCU as part of the Barclay’s Classic, and when old rival Syracuse comes to town to play at the Wells Fargo Center. Villanova is currently slotted 12th in both the AP and Coaches polls, and was the unanimous choice among Big East coaches at Media Day to win the conference this season. Once again, Jay Wright’s squad will provide plenty of wins and excitement throughout the winter. However, for a program which has set the bar so incredibly high, what happens in March will ultimately determine how we look back upon this upcoming season.