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Villanova sits at 8-3 in early December, yet it feels like the sky is falling on the Main Line. Jay Wright has real reasons to be concerned about the defending national champions.
There is so much season left for the Wildcats to turn things around, especially since three losses won’t kill your entire season. After all, look at Purdue. The Boilermakers are 6-4, but are still a top 15 KenPom team. The Boilermakers have lost four times, though all four defeats have come at the hands of a top 40 team. Villanova wishes it could say the same, having now lost to Penn and Furman. The Wildcats were also run off the brand new floor of their newly renovated gym. Even though both Penn and Furman have looked stronger than expected (the Paladins are ranked, after all), Villanova shouldn’t be dropping games to low-majors like them early in the year.
Villanova has three losses before New Year’s Day for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
Making matters worse, the Wildcats’ next game comes Saturday on the road against #1 Kansas. As a reminder, Bill Self has more Big XII championships than losses at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. After Kansas, the Cats head to Madison Square Garden for a date with former Big East foe UConn. It would be wrong to jump to conclusions and chalk Villanova up for a fourth or even fifth loss before those games even tip off, yet the odds are stacked against the Wildcats. After playing Connecticut, the Wildcats begin their 18 game conference slate, and every single Big East team currently resides in the KenPom top 100.
Again, it is very early. We aren’t quite at (fighting back tears) Philadelphia Eagles levels of post-championship problems. But for a program with two national championships in the last three years, this a very real swoon. Finding and fixing the issues at hand is key for Villanova if they want a single digit seed in March for the sixth straight year. God forbid we mention something even worse…
There is a handful of factors at play, all worth exploring under a microscope if the Wildcats are planning to turn things around.
Veteran players haven’t made strides, or a magical leap like some expected.
A drop-off was fully expected at Villanova. Jay Wright lost four players to the NBA Draft. He likely saw the departures of juniors Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson coming, but was surprised when great tournament play elevated Donte DiVencezno and Omari Spellman in the minds of NBA scouts. Both headed for the pros and left Wright’s cupboard more bare than he was planning. If either, or both, had stuck around, Villanova’s season certainly looks different.
One does not have to invoke the immortal words of Rick Pitino to explain the obvious reality at Villanova. With those key departures, returning veterans were relied upon to step up and fill new roles for the Wildcats. Both Phil Booth and Eric Paschall started more than 30 games for Villanova last season. Wildcat fans were more than used to seeing both of those experience players produce on both ends of the floor. Booth was, and remains, one of the best on-ball perimeter defenders in college basketball. Paschall played the role of a poor man’s Draymond Green at times last season, guarding multiple positions and effectively switching all over the defensive end. Both also pitched in double-figure scoring, and each scored 19+ points on multiple occasions last season. Paschall dropped 24 against Kansas in last March’s Final Four and Booth had 20 points in the 2016 National Championship. These are clearly veterans with real value.
In order for Villanova to remain among the country’s elite, Booth and Paschall had to convert from occasional scorers to creators, go-to-guys, and reliable bucket-getters. With Paschall turning 22 years old in November and Booth turning 23 in December, it certainly seemed plausible that their games could continue to grow.
To date this season, that hasn’t been the case. Both have stagnated offensively.
They are scoring more points on a per game and per possession, yet much of that is due to more shooting opportunities. Paschall is shooting 24 percent of Villanova’s field goal attempts when he’s on the floor, up from just 16 percent last season. Booth is shooting 27 percent of the team’s shots while on the floor, a major jump from only 18 percent last year. Both have seen jumps in their overall usage rates and with that increase workload are turning the ball over more frequently and creating assists less frequently.
Perhaps because they are being more heavily relied on within the offense, both Booth and Paschall are shooting worse than last season. The 2-point, 3-point, effective field goal, and true shooting percentages of both players have dipped this season. Paschall led the Big East in effective field goal and true shooting last year, providing an efficient scoring option for Jay Wright. This year that hasn’t been the case.
Booth and Paschall haven’t looked capable of shouldering more of the offensive load. That would be something the Wildcats could survive, if another past role player or newcomer looked capable of the task. That has also not come to fruition.
Villanova’s role players have been just that.
Around Booth and Paschall, Wright has assembled a stable of glue guys who’d make for great complementary pieces on a successful team. Without the stars for those role players to coalesce around, they’ve all looked less than impressive.
Collin Gillespie is the only Wildcat besides Booth and Paschall to average double-figure scoring this season, shooting better than 43 percent outside the arc. Aside from hot shooting, Gillespie hasn’t offered much, managing just 31 assists in 11 games, with 16 turnovers as well. Albany transfer Joe Cremo has been much of the same, making open threes but unable to initiate real offensive success. Even when shooters stretch the defense and create space, they need someone able to create and set-up their shots.
Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree also offers only one real benefit as well, his nose for rebounds. He leads the team in that category, yet has attempted just 30 field goals this season that weren’t putback attempts.
Freshman Saddiq Bey is hoisting 3.2 three-point attempts per game and sinking under 35 percent of those looks. Sophomore Jermaine Samuels has been similar. He saved the Wildcats by making all three of his long range attempts against Temple, but has shot just 6 of 27 from distance in the other ten games this season. Samuels’ jump shot is slow to release and looks like a real issue for the young swingman. He shot just 18 percent from outside the arc as a freshman and is a 58 percent shooter from the free throw line in his career. Without eye-popping athleticism or any other elite skills, Samuels has offered Villanova very little when on the court.
Worst of all, none of Villanova’s role players have been stand-outs defensively. In fact, the entire team has struggled to gel on that end of the floor. Penn and Michigan both ravaged the Wildcats’ defense with backdoor cuts and constant movement. Though we can’t declare the jury is out and there’s a blueprint for scoring against this Villanova team, there is a ton of evidence on tape showing how to attack this defense that is clearly struggling to communicate.
Jahvon Quinerly has been non-existent.
No player has been more disappointing for Villanova fans than five-star recruit Jahvon Quinerly. Originally slated to attend Arizona, Quinerly changed course and chose Villanova after the FBI started sniffing around in Tucson. Many on the Main Line saw the highly-touted point guard as the heir apparent to the Villanova tradition of great point guards. Many were even surprised when Quinerly was given the same jersey number as Jalen Brunson and Kyle Lowry, seeing that as a symbolic coronation of the next big thing on campus.
Villanova has played 11 games this season, though Quinerly has seen the floor in just 8 of them. The freshman is averaging less than 9 minutes per game and was a healthy scratch on 3 occasions. When he has played, Quinerly has been an outright disaster. The New Jersey native has shot just 3 for 17 from three-point range. He’s averaging 6.4 turnovers per 40 minutes of play. His net rating is a whopping -41.1 so far this season, thanks mostly to an offensive rating of just 66.5.
Only 66 players in all of college basketball have played as many minutes as Quinerly and posted an offensive rating under 67. Of those 66, just five come from power conferences and none have the pedigree that Quinerly brought to Villanova.
Somehow, things became worse off the court than they were on the court for Quinerly. After the Wildcats lost at Penn, within moments of hitting the visitor’s locker room, Quinerly took to Instagram. He posted a message about his choice to come to Villanova:
Needless to say, this did not go over well with Jay Wright and his staff. Quinerly’s Instagram account has been deactivated and he tweeted out an apology that reads like it came right from a crisis managing PR staffer.
Playing in front of a raucous crowd of Kansans at Phog Allen Fieldhouse isn’t the cure to chemistry issues. If Quinerly’s game can grow this season, the Wildcats are in desperate need of playmaking from the guard position. If he’s going to continue to be a headache, he’ll likely be playing elsewhere next season.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.