By Drew Dalton (@dutch4885)
For the third consecutive year, the Villanova Wildcats entered the NCAA tournament as a top-10 nationally ranked team and a top-2 seed, even earning its first No. 1 seed since 2006. For the third consecutive year, the Villanova Wildcats were eliminated from the Big Dance during its opening weekend. However, unlike 2014, when the Cats lost as a No. 2 seed to eventual national champion Connecticut, last season there was no shred of consolation to the defeat, only bewildering heartache. Instead, with expectations as high as they had been in years, Nova Nation watched helplessly as the 8th-seeded Wolfpack of North Carolina State thoroughly outplayed the Wildcats, dealing them the final blow to their once-promising season, 71-68, on a Saturday night in Pittsburgh before a stunned audience.
That was a Villanova team that established a school record with 33 victories, clinched the Big East regular-season championship for the second straight year, won the conference tournament for the first time since 1995, and earned its 10th invitation to the NCAA tournament in the last 11 years. They closed out their schedule on a torrent stretch of eight games in which they scored a nation’s best 1.28 points per possession, and had won 16 straight heading into their matchup with NC State. In a top-heavy year defined by elite programs such as Duke, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Gonzaga, and Arizona, for the vast majority of the 2014-15 regular season, Villanova was as good as any of them, making their early exit from the tournament all the more hard to swallow.
Looking ahead to the 2015-16 season, the Cats should have a shot at redemption, as they are the clear favorite once again in the Big East Conference. Ranked 9th in the nation in the USA Today preseason coach’s poll, this year’s squad has lost quite a bit of firepower from a year ago, but welcome in a very promising freshman class, headlined by highly touted point guard Jalen Brunson, a top-25 nationally ranked recruit and McDonald’s All-American out of Adlai Stevenson High School in Chicago.
The Wildcats have lost guard Darrun Hilliard, their leading scorer from a season ago at 14 ppg and a unanimous All-Big East selection, and forward JayVaughn Pinkston to graduation. Those were 2 seniors who gave head coach Jay Wright everything he asked for during their four years—leadership, loyalty, defense and rebounding—in addition to a combined 3,101 points. The team later sustained an unexpected departure in early May when guard Dylan Ennis elected to use his final season of eligibility by transferring to Oregon and fulfill his goal of playing the point guard position on a full-time basis. Ennis was the team’s 4th-leading scorer a season ago averaging just under 10 points per game, while also helping facilitate the offense, averaging 3.5 assists per game. He may be missed the most, however, on the defensive end of the floor, where his strength and athleticism caused havoc for opposing backcourts.
Head coach Jay Wright knows that without Pinkston, Hilliard and Ennis, it may be difficult to match the statistical success the team achieved last season. Hilliard finished as the top scorer, but the No. 2-5 scorers on the team—Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono, Ennis and Pinkston—were separated by 15 points. The offense averaged better than nine 3-point baskets per game, played 15 games with single-digit turnovers, and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of almost 1.5-1. Defensively, the ‘Cats forced 14.1 turnovers per contest and allowed 40.6 percent shooting overall and 30.5 percent from 3-point range. They finished the year ranked 4th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency and 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency, joining Duke, Kentucky and Arizona as the only programs in the country ranked within the top 15 in both categories. Wright and his coaching staff know there is a lot of work to be done in order to come close to replicating those numbers.
The Wildcats return two senior starters—guard Ryan Arcidiacono, the Big East co-Player of the Year, and 6’11 center Daniel Ochefu, who averaged 10.1 and 9.2 points per game, respectively, with Ochefu leading the team in rebounding by grabbing 8.4 boards per game. They’ll elevate swingman Josh Hart to the starting lineup after he won the Big East Conference’s sixth man of the year award last season, averaging 10.1 points per game and shooting 46.5 percent from 3-point range. Wright’s other starters will come from a three-man group that includes a pair of impressive holdovers—junior forward Kris Jenkins and sophomore guard Phil Booth—as well as the aforementioned Jalen Brunson.
Booth, a 6’3 sophomore guard from Baltimore, stepped right in as a freshman a year ago, providing valuable minutes off the bench. He consistently improved as the season progressed, and in his last 11 games, averaged 7.4 points with 26 assists against 10 turnovers, shot 60 percent from the floor, 57.7 percent from beyond the arc and 81.2 percent from the free throw line. Jenkins, a 6’6 junior combo forward out of Upper Marlboro, MD, came off the bench in all but one of the Wildcats’ 36 games last season, mostly to provide 3-point shooting. He enters his junior year in better condition, and will be expected to contribute much more than just his smooth outside stroke this season.
After an outstanding high school career, Brunson was voted last season’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois, joining stars such as Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor on that esteemed list. He performed extraordinarily well for USA Basketball in its gold medal-winning performance at the FIBA U19 World Championship in Crete, averaging 14 points and 5.6 assists per game while shooting 54% from the floor, further cementing himself as one of the nation’s top recruits. Brunson’s father, Rick, played for Philadelphia Big 5 rival Temple, and has passed along to his son the invaluable tutelage he received from legendary Owls head coach John Chaney. Jay Wright himself said this summer of Brunson, “He’s going to come in as touted as probably any guard that we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Also joining the perimeter group will be 6’4 freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo, who Jay Wright recruited out of Salesianum High School in Wilmington, Delaware. DiVincenzo won last year’s Delaware Player of the Year award after leading his High School team to back-to-back state championships. At Villanova, the 4-star recruit will need to distinguish himself in order to earn minutes in the Wildcats’ loaded backcourt rotation. He has impressed early on with his defensive intensity, something Wright could certainly use after losing Ennis, his best perimeter defender.
Arcidiacono and Brunson will combine to form one of the more formidable guard duos in the country, and with Booth, Hart and DiVincenzo contributing as well, Villanova has the talent, experience and depth in the backcourt to match up with any team in the nation.
The frontcourt is the one area of the roster that appears to be somewhat of a question mark heading into the season. Ochefu returns for his senior year, but there is not a whole lot of depth behind him in terms of production and size. Jenkins will likely be paired with Ochefu in the starting lineup, giving the Wildcats a smaller look overall, but still maintaining a defensive, shot blocking presence in the paint. This certainly has to be a cause for concern for Jay Wright, seeing as how their undersized frontcourt a season ago was badly exposed and exploited in their round-of-32 loss to the much bigger NC State in the NCAA tournament.
Darryl Reynolds, a 6’8 junior forward who graduated from Lower Merion in 2012 before spending a prep year at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, is the first and only real post option that Villanova has off the bench,. 6’8 Tim Delaney, a lower-ranked recruit out of Pitman High School in Mullica Hill, NJ, will possibly have to be redshirted for his freshman season due to undergoing hip surgery in mid-October to replace a torn labrum.
One other possible option for helping out in the frontcourt is 6’7 redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges out of Great Valley High School in Malvern, PA, who spent his first year on the Villanova campus adding weight to his lean frame and building muscle in the weight room. His most important contributions may come at the defensive end of the floor where he can use his length and 7-foot wingspan to disrupt passing lanes and block shots, although he is also a talented shooter who could compete for minutes on the perimeter as well.
As good as Jay Wright’s teams have been in the regular season the last several years, it’s been six seasons since Villanova’s last appearance in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, and as a result, fairly or unfairly, the ‘underachiever’ label has been firmly affixed to the program. This year’s squad has more than enough talent, and with Jay Wright’s ability to successfully manage a smaller lineup and find the most effective way of distributing minutes throughout his roster, plenty of optimism surrounds the Wildcats yet again this season. Whether or not it lasts beyond the first weekend of the Big Dance is ultimately up to them.