UConn men’s basketball renews a rivalry from the old Big East days on Saturday against Villanova and Eugene Rapay of VU Hoops was kind enough to preview the matchup with us. This game will definitely be a very close one likely to go down to the wire, just like the old Big East days. You can read our answers to their questions here.
1) Villanova is ranked first overall in the AP poll, the Coaches poll, and KenPom. Halfway through the season, does it feel like they’re the best team in the nation? Did you expect to be this good?
To be honest with you--no, I did not. The Wildcats have been fortunate to have some great continuity as of late. There was the Class of 2016, led by Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, that helped pave the way for the school’s first national title since 1985. As revered as those two were, last season’s class--Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds--was actually the winningest class in program history.
I expected Villanova to still be good and definitely the frontrunner in the Big East, but when you lose all that talent and all those key players--can’t say that I expected Villanova to be No. 1-good and able to put up four 100-point games.
Right now, Villanova does feel like the best team in the nation. I feel like there’s no clear cut “this team is a definite No. 1 and will be holding up the national title trophy in April” this year, but the Wildcats have just been so crisp on the court. Since that loss to Butler, Villanova has bounced back in a big way, got its defense back on track, and outside of a couple close calls--this team is right up there with the other No. 1-ranked Villanova teams in recent history. The Wildcats can hurt opponents in a variety of ways, with so many different contributors, and when the defense is on point--it’s a long game for whoever is matched up against them.
2. From an outsider’s perspective, it seems like Villanova is a remarkably well-rounded team. What are their weaknesses?
For a while, it didn’t seem that Villanova had very many weaknesses. I think St. John’s didn’t necessarily expose the Wildcats--maybe if they were better when it came to scoring--but the Red Storm game plan was well-executed. St. John’s was in Villanova’s face for all 40 minutes--pressing, getting into passing lanes, forcing turnovers. Every single Wildcat seemed out of their element, except for Donte DiVincenzo. He really lit up St. John’s, putting together another career performance against the Red Storm. St. John’s forced Villanova to play a more one-on-one type of game and really hindered Villanova’s approach to spread the wealth and move the ball around. The Wildcats don’t seem to have a lot of weapons that would thrive in isolation, except for DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson. However, Brunson struggled a bit in that game. If an opponent were to really force Villanova into isolation, make them uncomfortable, and cut off passing lanes, that would be problematic for Villanova.
Aside from all that, the opponents will have to lock down on the perimeter for sure. It’s no secret that Villanova loves the three-point line--sometimes, maybe a little too much. When the Wildcats virtually have everyone from the ‘1’ to the ‘5’ able to sling it from deep, it’s not going to be easy. A cold-shooting night from long range would spell trouble for the ‘Cats.
3. Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart are gone, and they’ve obviously been two of Villanova’s most important players over the last few seasons. While we’ve seen Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges take over as team leaders, which players have become important new contributors to the rotation?
Villanova has seen a few other players step up. There’s Donte DiVincenzo, who’s coined as an “unofficial sixth starter.” He’s an athletic guard that acts as the sparkplug off the bench. He has a great leaping ability and is the team’s fastest player. He can score, rebound, and looks to make the home run play on defense. DiVincenzo ended the 2016-17 season on a high note and was probably the best player in Villanova’s short 2017 NCAA Tournament. He stood out in those two games and has really expanded on that this season. When he heats up on the floor, he can be just as dangerous as Brunson or Bridges. Also keep an eye out for Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman. Paschall, a redshirt junior, is starting to look like an all-around threat. He struggled from deep to start the season--1-for-25. Now, he’s 9-of-13 from long range over the last five games. He’s no longer just a threat from inside the arc or at the basket, he’s able to knock down the three-point shot. Defensively, he’s only continuing to grow on that end of the court, an area he wasn’t particularly known for when he was at Fordham. As for Spellman, UConn fans must be familiar with him since he was targeted by the Huskies in his high school days at St. Thomas More. The NCAA made him sit out last season, but now that he’s able to play this year, he’s showing off what he can do. He’s a tough big man on both ends of the court, one that can stretch the floor offensively. Spellman adds a scoring threat in the front court, something Villanova didn’t really have much of last season.
4. We know it’s only been two years since Villanova won their last title, but last season they fell in the second round. How has the team become more or less dangerous since then?
There are a number of Wildcat fans that will argue that this team is more talented than that 2016 National Championship squad. This year’s ‘Cats are certainly more athletic, and they have the benefit of having two top NCAA talents in Brunson and Bridges. It was obvious that this was going to be Jalen Brunson’s team, but Bridges has emerged to the forefront as well. Primarily known as a defensive specialist coming into the season, his ability to contribute on the scoring end has been a nice surprise for everyone outside of that Villanova locker room. Jay Wright had seen what he was able to do in the practice gym, but it was only a matter of time before everyone got to see it as well, once it was finally Bridges’ turn.
Looking beyond the two main guys, this team is a lot deeper in terms of quality. There are five guys who are averaging in double figures at the moment--six, if you want to be generous and round up Paschall’s 9.9 points per game. Even the freshmen are coming along well, moving ahead of schedule in terms of development and growth (they just need to get healthy again).
5. What’s your prediction for how much Villanova wins by?
Looking back at the Big East days, the XL Center was a tough place to play in. Unfortunately, I don’t see Villanova having a hard time this year. I think Villanova wins by at least 15 points.