Game Preview: Villanova

Scheduling an elite team for the dog days of conference play feels slightly out of season; it’s like spotting a hippie on the Mall in shorts and Birkenstocks four days after the last snowfall or being offered an eggnog in May.

I don’t mind it, though. In case our guys were feeling like their path through the ACC regular season was a little staid, along comes a game against the top-ranked defending national champs in an NBA building. If you can’t get up for this, you can’t get up for anything.

Last year’s game was an all-timer. We’ve been treated to a number of these wins where it feels like we handle a very good team with relative ease, but being part of a frothing JPJ crowd and watching us beat an obviously-elite ‘Nova team by double digits was great. There were elite point guards (London had 19 points, Ryan Arcidiacono had nine assists without a turnover), big guns (Malcolm went 12–12 from the line and scored 22, Kris Jenkins took all manner of bad threes but hit five), and an intense finish (the teams combined for 68 points in the last 10 minutes), with the outcome swinging Virginia’s way because we had Anthony Gill (who scored 22 with seven boards) and Villanova didn’t. It was great college hoops, and I hope we get a worthy encore.

Virginia basketball is 1–28 all-time against top-ranked opposition, with the win coming in 1986.

Factor in that many of those 28 losses probably came when we weren’t a top-15 team ourselves, and this situation probably isn’t as dire as that stat might lead you to believe. There’s another fun stat in here: Villanova hasn’t lost at home this season, has won 15 straight home games, hasn’t lost there in over a year, and has won 47 of 48 at their two homes since a 28-point home loss to Creighton in the 2014 season. A counter: Virginia is 8–1 away from JPJ this season.

Villanova is 19–2 this season, with road losses to Butler on the 4th and Marquette on Wednesday. The teams that beat them gashed them inside; Marquette’s 6'11'’ Luke Fisher scored 15 points and Butler hit 58% of their twos as a team. Kris Jenkins shot a combined 4–18 in the two games and scored a total of 13 points — he’s averaging 13.7 for the year — and the Wildcats as a team combined to hit just 12 of 60 threes in the two losses.

‘Nova has the 4th-most efficient offense in college hoops (122.3 ORTG). Jay Wright’s four-out, perpetual motion, spaced floor offense is similar in form and function to both what the Golden State Warriors run (quick passes, lots of cuts) and what we just saw from Mike Brey and Notre Dame earlier this week, which should at least help. Villanova takes the most threes — 45% of their shots — of anyone we’ll see this season (barely eking out fellow Catholic university St. Francis of Brooklyn, who is not in the same neighborhood in anything else), and assist on 54% of their baskets while very rarely (16.7% of the time) turning it over.

Isaiah (and Devon, Marial, and anyone else who plays the four) are going to be very important to us. Villanova’s offense starts a big — usually Jenkins — at the top of the key to siphon off help on drives and create mismatches on big/small pick and rolls. It hurts teams who start two immobile big guys, but hopefully Wilkins is able to move his feet enough to keep Jalen Brunson out of the lane and is able to provide help when necessary while still getting back to contest Jenkins, who is not shy about his appetite for three point tries (they make up 68% of his shot attempts for the season at more than seven per game).

They’re experienced, but not deep. Villanova’s gone just seven deep in three of their last five games and only went further into the bench in the other two because they won those games by a combined 55 points. Six of the seven rotation guys played big minutes on the championship team, so the guys who play have at least seen big moments. I think you can give ‘Nova an edge in the starting five, but they don’t have anything close to the depth of talent we do, which is something that could really help us if this game runs with anything close to the intensity of the last one.

Josh Hart leads four Wildcats averaging double figures at 19 points per game. Hart turned down a situation similar to Malcolm’s (he was told his range was late first to definite second) to return to Villanova and attempt to improve his jumper and his standing, and it’s worked — he’s taking and making more threes, adding a higher volume perimeter game to his slashes to the rim. He’s savvy (22.3% assist rate and 3.5 per game) and mixes it up at 6'5'’ to the tune of 17.8% of defensive boards and 6.6 rebounds per game, which will provide an interesting matchup with the similarly inclined Devon Hall.

Jalen Brunson (14.9 points, 4.2 assists per) is posting remarkable efficiency numbers (61.6 EFG%, 125 ORTG) based on an almost unfair 75% mark around the rim (Mike Tobey never topped 70%), 43.6% on two point jumpers, and 41.4% on the three threes he takes per game. He’s not a high-volume shooter (he has less shot attempts for the year than Hart or Jenkins), but he makes them count.

Jenkins (13.7 ppg) is there to play Pop-a-Shot from three. As mentioned above, he’s taken more than seven per game so far this season, and has hit at least four in a game eight times.

Mikal Bridges (10.2) is the rare top-100 guy (though obviously less rare in these parts) who redshirted. He’s a springy athlete, a solid driver, and is 40% three point shooter. Darryl Reynolds (12.1% offensive rebound rate) cleans up when any of the above miss (but they rarely do).

Defensively, Wright likes to run man but has grown increasingly willing to throw in zones in certain situations. ‘Nova opponents take a lot of early threes (41% of shots against Villanova this season have been threes), but they’ve only hit 30.2% and the Wildcats are owning the defensive boards (75.4% of defensive rebound chances). Brunson can get lost on the perimeter and Jenkins isn’t particularly big for a four (to the extent he even is one, the Big Bad Wolf was not Grandma even in a bonnet), but the other three Villanova starters can hold their own against anyone.

I’m worried first and foremost about going down flailing in a hail of threes and second about our ability to lock down the glass.

The thing about Villanova’s reliance on threes — and it’s an important thing — is that they, as a team, aren’t that great at shooting them. Brunson and Jenkins are streaky, their sixth and seventh men are at 29.6% on six tries per game, and those stats lead one to believe that a team with good wing length (ahem) that contests very well (*gulp*) would be a good one to limit Villanova’s offense.

The glass, I’m not sure about. Jack Salt will need to warrant continuing his string of 20-minute outings, Isaiah Wilkins will need to heroically swing from Jenkins behind the arc to crash the defensive glass, and the guards — especially Devon, who is not a guard anymore really by the Naismith or even Dean Smith definitions — will need to chip in.

On offense, Villanova’s allowing solid percentages around the rim (59.1%) and on two-point shots in the lane and from mid-range (39%). Teams fall into the trap of taking too many threes against ‘Nova and they’re off for easy baskets. I hope we emphasize working the ball to the blockers (not even necessarily for shots, just to remind the defense that they’re there) and get Marial (14.8 ppg over our last five games, 47.4% in that dreaded midrange grey area)’s funky in-between game going in the gaps. Perrantes will obviously need to be great, but that’s going to be the story in every game against elite competition.

G: London Perrantes — 6'2'’ sr #32 
Mark Titus is right:Perrantes has been too good when rotating to shooting guard to regularly play the point.” I think our best lineups in recent games have put the ball in Devon or Darius’s hands (or Ty’s — especially Ty’s) and allowed London to hunt shots. Relieving him of the responsibility of being our leading scorer and primary playmaker will keep him fresher. Ty absolutely should have been playing this whole time, and is only going to get more valuable. Tony Bennett is a prophet. 
G: Devon Hall — 6'5'’ jr. #0
Will match his 17.7% defensive rebound rate with Hart’s 17.8%. Has 12 assists and two turnovers over our last three games, and has scored in double figures in eight of 10. His FG% around the rim, in the 30s in early-to-mid December, is up to 52.2%. 
F: Marial Shayok — 6'6'’ jr #4
Shayok and Wilkins are my two wild card keys to Sunday’s game. Marial’s ability to find offense in couch cushions could be very important if he’s on — and he’s been on a lot. 
F: Isaiah Wilkins — 6'7'’ jr #21
Wilkins has been one board shy of a double-double in two of our last three games. 
F: Jack Salt — 6'11'’ so #33
Jack wasn’t great against Notre Dame, but he did a lot right, including three offensive boards and a couple of nice stints as the screener-in-chief of the four guard group. 
G: Darius Thompson — 6'4'’ jr #51
I only have my own eyes to support this, but Darius has been very good as the lead guard with London at the two. Thompson didn’t score against ND, but had five assists and three steals. 
G: Kyle Guy — 6'3'’ fr #5
Fingers crossed that the three Guy hit in garbage time against Notre Dame reminded him what it feels like to see one go down.
G: Ty Jerome — 6'5'’ fr #11
Welcome to The Eights, big fella. I’m in favor of more time for him so long as he’s committed to doing stuff with it and not going for four trillions.

G: Jalen Brunson — 6'2'’ so #1
Biggest steps up in his game are strength (he’s finishing twos 10% better) and assist rate (not a surprise as the game slows). It’ll be interesting to see who he guards. 
G: Josh Hart — 6'5'’ sr #3
Hart is KenPom’s Player of the Year as of tonight. Coincidentally, he’s been destroying the ACC: he’s scored 67 points in two games vs. ACC teams, hitting nine of 12 threes to get there. 
F: Mikal Bridges — 6'7'’ so #21
Bridges has scored in double figures in four of six games and has hit a three in six straight. Freshmen — especially ones on veteran teams — tend to warm up slowly, and this should be just about prime time for him. 
F: Kris Jenkins — 6'6'’ sr #2
I’ve always been torn on Jenkins. He has a title-winning stroke, for sure, but falls in love with it a lot and can bog Villanova’s offense (as we saw last season) when he decides to just fling treys on a whim. 
C: Darryl Reynolds — 6'9'’ sr #45
Reynolds has 19 offensive rebounds in Villanova’s last four games. Whoever is the big in any given lineup must get a body on him. 
G: Donte Divincenzo — 6'5'’ so #10
Barely played as a freshman, but has been very useful this year, especially since Josh Pope is out for the season. Scored 19 vs. St. Johns but has gone 0–9 on threes in three games since. 
F: Eric Paschall — 6'7'’ so #4
Blocks shots well (3%) for a 6'7'’ guy, can rebound some (16.3% DREB). Scored 11 points and fouled out in nine minutes vs. Purdue and I’m not sure which feat is more impressive. 
F: Jay Wright’s suits —seemingly infinite, finely tailored
The man has sartorial game. Villanova doesn’t really have an eighth man.

Cockiness about this game would be silly, but calm confidence isn’t. Tony Bennett has made it so that we as a fanbase can be confident that we can beat just about anyone, anywhere if everything clicks and we leverage our advantages. In short: I’m going into Sunday expecting a loss, but will not be shocked if we win.