Friday, November 04, 2022

Villanova Preview, 2022-23

Villanova Wildcats

Head Coach: Kyle Neptune (0-0 at Villanova, 16-16 overall)

Three-Year NET Average: 10.0

Three-Year kenpom Average: 13.3

Projected 2022-23 T-Rank: 17

Projected Starters: PG Mark Armstrong (6'2" Fr), SG Caleb Daniels (6'4" RS Sr), SF Cam Whitmore (6'7" Fr), PF Brandon Slater (6'8" RS Sr), C Eric Dixon (6'8" RS Jr)

Justin Moore's health could determine Villanova's success

Photo by Aaron Gash | AP Photo

The Villanova 2021-22 season was the end of the Big East reformation era. Yes, the league continues with the teams that departed in 2013 plus UConn, but it's probably easy for fans who've come to rely on this new basketball-first league and fans who weren't old enough to be invested in the 2000s version of the league to forget just how tumultuous the years before and after the Catholic 7 split were. The Big East had 11 NCAA bids in 2011, and just three years later didn't even have 11 members. And while most expected Marquette and Georgetown to carry the flag for the year, certainly in light of their then-recent successes, it was Jay Wright and Villanova who first established themselves as a regular season juggernaut, then won two titles to lift the league back to the apex of college basketball. In what became his final season, Wright got off to a shaky 7-4 start, culminating in back-to-back 20+ point losses to Baylor and Creighton. Then they turned it around, going 16-4 in league play and winning the Big East Tournament before once again marching to the Final Four. If not for an injury to Justin Moore in the Elite Eight, it might have been Wright cutting down the nets one more time, but instead they bowed out to eventual National Champions Kansas and Wright quietly retired a couple weeks later.

Kyle Neptune returns from a year at Fordham and takes over a roster that is very talented but also in flux. For the past decade, perhaps no program has had more consistency at the point guard position than the continuity of Ryan Arcidiacono, Jalen Brunson, and Collin Gillespie. Top-50 freshman Mark Armstrong is the most talented option, but don't be surprised if they give some run to redshirt freshman Angelo Brizzi or experiment with sophomore Jordan Longino. One place they feel confident is at the other guard, where Caleb Daniels has developed into a reliable contributor. He's a solid second scoring option and reliable shot-maker. The biggest talent on the roster is freshman Cam Whitmore. While he's a phenomenal athlete who was one of the best players at the 2022 FIBA Americas U18 Championship, he recently had thumb surgery that is expected to hamper the start of his season. Brandon Slater and Eric Dixon will man the front court. Both are stout defenders that can step out and hit shots, but neither are first-line offensive options. The real wildcard is Justin Moore. He averaged 14.8 ppg/4.8 rpg last year and was expected to be the leader of this team before an injury set him back. There has been talk about Moore returning for the start of conference play. A fully healthy Moore could turn Villanova into a Big East title favorite, but without him it's hard to know who will step up as the offensive leader.

Offensively, this will likely be the same Villanova conceptually with a bit of flair. Expect them to be patient, share the ball, and limit turnovers. Villanova works more in concepts of knowing where to go, how to move the ball, and when to make one more pass to get the open look. They'll run pick and roll, likely getting their best chances when they drive and dish. The difference may be in pace. Neptune played faster at Fordham than Wright typically did at Villanova, while even Wright with his talented 2018 team was willing to turn up the pace a bit. Don't be surprised to see a slightly faster tempo this year. Defensively, Nova is primarily a man team that mixes in a little zone from time to time. The interior is the strength of their defense, and despite being a bit undersized, Dixon uses his strength well to deny offensive players down low. This isn't a team that will beat you by blocking shots or forcing turnovers, they will simply guard diligently. The last two years, they were willing to get into shooting contests, which is a risky proposition if the opponent starts hitting.

So what is Villanova this year? So much comes down to health. Moore is a Big East Player of the Year candidate if he's fully healthy, but considering his injury he was originally expected to miss the entire season. Whitmore has all-league upside, but no one knows when he will be 100%. Longino and Brizzi are in the mix for minutes but have had injury concerns of their own. If this team is fully healthy, they have the most raw talent in the league. Neptune was left a great roster, but keeping them healthy and getting the freshmen to blend in will determine how far this team can go. On paper, they should be a league title contender and if not the champs, certainly in the top three. But if they can't overcome their injuries, they could be closer to the bubble.

Marquette Memory: We don't have to think back very far when it comes to this memory. Marquette went into the Finneran Pavilion on January 19, 2022 having never won in that building, going 0-9 previously. It very much looked like that would continue after a 12-0 Villanova run put Marquette down 45-36 midway through the second half, but the Golden Eagles kept chipping away. Greg Elliott scored 11 points in a 14-5 stretch to pull the game within 1. Nova pushed it back out to 54-50, but then it was Justin Lewis time. A bullish drive ending in a layup got Marquette within two. On the next possession, he tied the game with a brilliant spin move through two defenders. Then, with the teams tied at 54-54, Marquette got the defensive stand and Lewis the rebound that gave them the chance to win the game. Tyler Kolek dribbled around the perimeter and tried to hand the ball off to Lewis, but he bobbled the exchange. Caleb Daniels dove for the ball, but Lewis managed to gather it back, step back, and nail a picture perfect three. Nova got a chance to tie, but Moore missed a clean look followed by Gillespie missing a desperation heave.

To put into perspective how unlikely and difficult that win was, Villanova came in 42-1 in conference games in that building since 2014. That 0.977 win percentage in conference play made the Finn the toughest building in the country to play in over that time period. For comparison Kansas was 69-5 at the Phog (0.932), Gonzaga was 66-5 at the Kennel (0.930), Kentucky was 64-11 at Rupp (0.853), and Duke was 64-13 at Cameron (0.831). The one loss Nova did suffer was an improbable one as well, as Butler had just a 6.5% chance of winning (per kenpom) when they trailed 49-42 with under 10 minutes to play. For Marquette, those chances were down to 4.1% when they trailed 45-36 with 11 minutes to play. Going back to those toughest venues, since January 14, 2020, the top two teams on that list in conference play are Villanova at the Finn and Kansas at the Phog, going a combined 45-2. Coincidentally, those two losses both came to the same person. Shaka Smart beat Kansas at the Phog on January 2, 2021 and Villanova at the Finn on January 19, 2022. Let's look back at Justin Lewis' winner at the Finn.

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