Out of the nine Big East squads widely projected to make the tournament, the Villanova Wildcats might be the most under the radar. There is no surefire NBA player on the roster. There are no new recruits or transfers eligible to play this year.
But that brings continuity. The entire team is back from last year except Malcolm Grant, and that means the team should know how to play with each other by this point.
However, just because the same players are back, doesn’t mean that the team has an identity yet offensively.
Defensively, Wright has stressed constant intensity, switching, and getting into passing lanes, trying to force turnovers. His message has definitely hit home this year, as Villanova is ranked 21st in the nation defensively, according to Ken Pomeroy.
Other than lack of size, the other concern for the Wildcats is a lack of offensive identity. For the last three years, Wright’s team has been prone to long stretches offensively without scoring, and until one of the highly touted sophomores steps up, that problem may continue.
Still, there is a lot of talent on the Main Line, and with arguably the most talent in the nation coming into the program next year, the future is in good hands. But at 13-3 (1-2), there is a lot of season left to be played, and Villanova expects to be among the Big East’s tournament teams this year.
Winning the entire conference will prove extraordinarily difficult given the Big East’s unmatched talent and depth. But here are four reasons why Villanova will contend and have a chance to finish near the top of the best conference in the history of college basketball.
Improved play in the middle
In today’s college basketball world, it’s not necessary to have an elite big man. But the Big East, it’s almost imperative. In an era of players like Luke Harangody, Hasheem Thabeet, DeJuan Blair, and Samardo Samuels, it’s no surprise people ignore the ‘Cats, whose tallest eligible player is 6’8”.
But very quietly, Villanova has developed a star big man in their own right, and his improved play gives Wright’s squad an element it hasn’t had in years.
Dante Cunningham is continuing a long Villanova tradition of players having big senior seasons. His stats are up across the board this season, and he has established himself as a man among men in the toughest conference in basketball.
He’s developed a crisp mid-range jumpshot which has made him deadly off screens. His athleticism has always been there, but now that he’s combined his quickness with a consistent jumper, he’s been much harder to stop.
Extremely active down low, it’s no surprise seeing him fight for loose balls, out-quick slower players for rebounds, or frustrate opposing players with fundamentally sound defense.
However, he is of no help to the team if he is in foul trouble. Cunningham is still the team’s only reliable inside player. The depth is comprised of undersized forwards who get exposed without Cunningham’s presence to take pressure off of them.
Sophomore Antonio Pena has shown flashes of being a dynamic forward, but in his third year in the program, he’s still frustrated some Nova faithful with his inconsistency. His game against Louisville is a microcosm of his career in a way. On one hand, he was aggressive, taking the ball to the rim with authority, scoring, and getting to the free throw line.
On the other hand, his struggles at the free throw line cost his team the game, as he made just three of 11 free throws in a one-point loss.
Seniors Shane Clark and Dwayne Anderson also see a lot of minutes at the power forward spot. Clark has been prone to injury, but when he’s on the court, he provides good length and rebounding despite his 6’7” frame.
Anderson has been a starter at the small forward spot, and on an ideal team, that would be his natural position. However, he’s athletic and tough enough to bang with the big boys down low for short periods of time. He was a revelation as a junior down the stretch, and now that he’s finally healthy after an early season injury, he can continue to help against some of the bigger teams in the Big East.
Many breakout candidates
One of the knocks on Villanova in recent years has been the lack of scoring depth. Two years ago, it was Scottie Reynolds, Curtis Sumpter, or bust. Last year, it was Reynolds followed by a number of players, but night in, night out, there was no way of knowing who else would step up and pick up the scoring load.
This year it is clear that Reynolds and Cunningham are the top two options. But between Fisher, Stokes, Pena, and Anderson, there is a lot of potential firepower.
It’s the same cast and crew as last season, minus Grant and Casiem Drummond, but Fisher, Pena, and Stokes should be more ready to contribute as sophomores. Pena and Fisher have both shown lots of flashes of living up to their high school press clippings, while Stokes is always a major threat from behind the arc.
None of the three have been consistent at any point in their careers, but all three have the potential to break out and elevate the team to another level. If Villanova has any hopes of winning the Big East, they’ll need their sophomores to improve and bring their “A” games every single night.
Anderson nearly transferred after moving to the end of the bench his sophomore year. But it was his revelatory play down the stretch last year that was the catalyst for the team’s late season run into the tournament. An ankle injury slowed him down early in the season, but 15 rebounds at Seton Hall shows that he is getting closer to the disruptive player he was last season. Villanova sorely needs his rebounding and intensity, as he may be the on-court leader of the team.
All four players have the ability to be consistent factors. Last year, Anderson stepped up, and the team was able to make the tournament. If one of the sophomores steps up along with him, this team could move up into the top five Big East teams. Still, Stokes, Fisher, and Pena have offensive abilities that no one else on the team have, and each needs to play smart basketball to continue to earn serious playing time.
One of the most dynamic players in Big East history
A lot has been said about Scottie Reynolds since he arrived on campus. Once he got comfortable in the 2006-2007 season, he took the Big East by storm, leading an otherwise offensively-starved team to the NCAA tournament, capped by a 40 point effort at UConn.
However, since then, many have speculated that the now-junior guard had peaked. He’s not elite athletically, he’s not a big guard, and he can be prone to turnovers when pressured. At the very least, Reynolds is a streaky player.
But on January 8 against Seton Hall, the former McDonalds high school All-American showed that he can still carry a team on his shoulders like few others. That day he became the second player in Big East history to put up two career 40-point performances on the road in conference play (Eric Murdock).
That breakout ability puts Reynolds on a level that few players across the nation can reach. If he’s confident and feeling it, he can be unstoppable, and that ability gives Villanova a chance to win every single game.
And the best part is that while Reynolds has the ability to single-handedly win games, there are other ways Villanova can win games. Down the stretch against Louisville, just one game after Seton Hall, Wright trusted Fisher to man the point guard position, and Reynolds wasn’t even in the game at many key moments.
Terrific team defense
The best part about this Wright’s squad is that you can simply never count them out of games. To play on Villanova, you have to play with defensive intensity. No team in the Big East hustles consistently like the Wildcats do, and as a result, they can force turnovers and score points in a hurry.
Part of the reason Pena, Fisher, and Stokes haven’t quite reached their full potential is because Wright trusts the upperclassmen more to provide the consistent defensive effort he demands. Against Seton Hall in a tight game, swingman Reggie Redding, Clark, and Anderson played with Reynolds and Cunningham, proving his preference for defense.
In that game Redding cemented his status as a defensive stopper, shutting down Pirate sharpshooter Jeremy Hazell for almost the entire second half. He’s been a lightning rod for criticism as he wasn’t nearly as highly touted or even as talented as some of the players he takes minutes from, but he normally plays fundamentally sound basketball.
Fisher, Reynolds, and Cunningham each averages over a steal per game, partly because of the aggressive nature of the defense. In the past that has sometimes left shooters open on the perimeter, but another year together seems to have helped that problem out, as they’ve played better around the perimeter.
However, the defense sorely misses a shot blocker on the inside. Cunningham gives his best effort on the inside matching up with various opponents, but there’s little he can do to alter the shots of players who sometimes tower over the 6’8” senior. And if he gets in foul trouble, the Cats are in deep trouble.
Villanova currently sits at 13-3, but none of those 13 wins are particularly impressive. The three losses are the only ranked teams the team has played all year. The rigors of the Big East schedule will give them plenty of time to make up for that, but until then, a top 25 ranking is based more on reputation than on results.
Still, Wright’s teams have had a propensity to finish seasons strongly. Each of the last two seasons required a late season run to get into the tournament, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt that his team will be one of the best in college basketball down the stretch.
A realistic prognostication probably puts the Main Liners between sixth and ninth in the Big East. It will all depend on how the Cats do in home games against Pittsburgh, Marquette, Georgetown, and Syracuse. They blew a great opportunity to beat rival Louisville at home already, and if the Wildcats have any hope of winning the Big East, they need to win their tough home games.