Maalik Wayns on defense. Courtesy of PhilaHoops.
With Villanova and St. John's squaring off on Saturday, Aaron Bracy (@Aaron_Bracy) of Philahoops.com sits down and helps give a preview of the match-up. (And Tim Dimas of the Rumble answered questions for Philahoops as well.)
Read up on Villanova, after the fold. More preview posts to come later today.
Timmy Dimas: What has been the biggest reason for the Wildcats’ bad season so far?
Aaron Bracy: The Wildcats are trying to incorporate five freshmen into a lineup devoid of seniors. So, that’s been the biggest problem. Youth or not, though, Villanova hasn’t played very well for much of the season.
The Cats lost some confidence with a bizarre early-season loss to Santa Clara in Anaheim, Calif., where some confusion with the officials led coach Jay Wright to foul a player late when the Cats had no fouls to give.
They went through a tough stretch entering Big East play then dropped their first three Big East games for the first time since joining the league. But they have won two of three and appear to be playing a little better entering Saturday’s game.
Another big factor in Villanova’s struggles is the fact that the Wildcats are not a very good shooting team, especially from long range (123-for-398, 30.9 percent).
TD: If I'm Jay Wright, exactly what am I trying to do the rest of the season to make it not a complete wash?
AB: Wright has stayed positive all season, embracing the fact that he is developing his young players for the future. So, he’s trying to see them get better every day and, obviously, see those results on the court on game days.
The results, from an outsider’s view so far, have been very mixed. You are starting to see the development of Brooklyn native JayVaughn Pinkston, a freshman who missed last season due to a school suspension but has looked more like the hyped McDonald’s All-American in the last two weeks. He had career highs of 23 points and 11 rebounds in Villanova’s 84-76 win over Seton Hall on Wednesday.
On the flip side, freshman Darrun Hilliard has practically disappeared after a promising start and fellow classmates Ty Johnson and Achraf Yacoubou never really have gotten going. Another freshman, Markus Kennedy, is getting quality minutes (17.2 mpg) while averaging 3.6 points and 5.4 rebounds.
For Villanova to get back to its usual perch as a Big East contender, Wright needs to develop these players and have a strong finish to the season to gain momentum for next season. That strong finish might not necessarily come in the form of wins, but it would be comforting for Wright and, certainly, Nova Nation to see them playing better than they have for much of the season.
TD: What player(s) should St. John's focus on in this matchup that will hurt them the most?
AB: The easy answer is point guard Maalik Wayns. The dynamic junior is one of the best players in the Big East and probably the hottest. In his last two games, Wayns has averaged 32 points, 9 rebounds and 6.5 assists. Not bad, huh?
Wayns can hurt you in a variety of ways, mostly with his quickness to the basket. He is still working on improving his 3-point shot (26-for-91, 28.6 percent), although he can get streaky from long range.
The Johnnies will have to account for Pinkston, as well. He is big and physical and is starting to regain the form that made him so highly regarded out of high school. He missed an entire year of basketball, so it’s taken some time for his game to return. He said he is thinking less now and just playing. That’s good for Cats fans but not so much for St. John’s rooters.
TD: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Villanova? How could St. John's defend against the strengths and how could they exploit the weakness?
AB: We’ll start with the weaknesses. The Wildcats don’t shoot the ball well from the perimeter, so St. John’s should be able to sag off shooters and pack the lane. This will give some help defending big man Mouphtaou Yarou, a talent who has slowed after a promising start. Yarou hasn’t been the same player since rolling his ankle in practice on Dec. 16. This strategy also will help take away penetration lanes for the dangerous Wayns.
And that brings us to Nova’s strength, which is Wayns. He almost single-handedly carried the Cats to a road win at Cincinnati last weekend, setting career highs with 39 points and 13 rebounds. He should draw at least double-teams whenever possible.
TD: What's the outcome of this game? Who wins?
AB: Villanova is playing as well now as it has all season. St. John’s is coming off a 15-point loss at South Florida. Don’t have numbers, but can’t imagine the Bulls have won many (if any?) Big East games by that large a margin since joining the conference. So, have to go with Cats, although I doubt it will be easy: Villanova 70, St. John’s 63.