Submitted by Jim Hurley on Tuesday, December 6, 2016 at 11:04 AM
Villanova basketball has picked up this season right where they left off in Houston last April. The defending national champs have opened with eight consecutive wins, are ranked #2 in the country and have a high-profile non-conference game coming up Saturday against Notre Dame (Noon ET, CBS). The Wildcats are a 12-1 shot to do what no one has done in a decade and its repeat as NCAA Tournament champs. Can they do it?
In this age of early NBA entries, Villanova is unusual in one respect and it’s that they have three seniors in the starting lineup. Normally a championship college basketball team loses significantly more than that and has to rebuild with highly touted recruits.
Handicappers can split either direction on this. It’s fair to look at Villanova and see a team that simply isn’t talented enough to churn out NBA-caliber talent and consider it highly unlikely they could win it all two straight years. This argument is strengthened by the fact Villanova is a relatively short 12-1 price to cut down the nets in Phoenix this time around.
On the other hand, it could be that head coach Jay Wright has found the right formula for sustained success—find the type of recruits that are good enough to beat the best in a one-game shot, but not so highly regarded they’ll bolt to the NBA as soon as their eligible. In that regard, this season is a good test case for a theory much bigger than Villanova.
Beyond the theoretical, what the Wildcats need to show is improved defense. It was good team defense that keyed last spring’s title run. So far this year there have been some hiccups. Villanova has played two games against notable teams, Purdue and Wake Forest (and we’re really giving the benefit of the doubt in including Wake). The Wildcats allowed 49 percent shooting from the floor against the Boilermakers and 50 percent against the Demon Deacons. That simply won’t get it done at a high level.
Individually, the talent is still there. Josh Hart is an explosive scorer who dropped a combined 54 points in the two games mentioned and he’s averaging 17ppg for the season. Kris Jenkins, the hero of the NCAA title game win, joins Hart in shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range. So does sophomore guard Jalen Brunson. Mikal Bridges, another sophomore in the backcourt, is disciplined in his shot selection and effective when he does put it up.
What Villanova lacks is size—this isn’t a new problem for Wright. His teams were small when he went to the Final Four in 2009, when he won it all last year and the seasons in between when his team made early NCAA exits. A key to success will be whether 6’8” senior forward Darryl Reynolds can at least hang in there against bigger players and ensure the ‘Cats don’t get killed on the boards.
Villanova is a tough team to evaluate in conference play, because the Big East is unlikely to produce another national contender to measure the Wildcats against. That’s what make games like Saturday against Notre Dame more interesting than normal. We’re watching to see if Villanova can start to D it up again.