Though a bit late (on my part), I have some more insightful Q&A about the Villanova basketball program. The Wildcats, with a 9-10 record, are doing just as badly as the Red Storm - and perhaps even worse, given that they were considered to be a mid-pack Big East team. At 2-5 with a loss to South Florida, the Wildcats will come to the Madison Square Garden tomorrow looking for a W.
Continuing our Q and A is Chris Lane from The Nova Blog (on Twitter) and Brian from VUHoops (on Twitter). (I answered questions on St. John's for the Nova Blog, and my responses to Brian's questions to come.)
Learn about how 'Nova fans view the St. John's game, how bad the Wildcat defense has been, how their youth is coming along and more - below the fold.
1/ Is Villanova's defense as porous as the numbers make it out to be? What's wrong on defense?
The Nova Blog's Chris: I don't think it is, to be honest. The biggest problem is on the offensive end, though we've been getting much better there. Villanova historically under Jay Wright has been a good shooting team. That's not the case this year, but early on the team continued to jack 'em up from the outside. That led to long rebounds, and a lot of transition opportunities for our opponents. That's where the biggest discrepancy lies and it will come back down to Earth as we learn to play more around the rim (which we've been doing, and succeeding).
The other concern is that we play an aggressive defense, which leads to some easy buckets or open jumpers. It's very risk-reward. That's just what Jay Wright believes in.
VU Hoops' Brian: It has been pretty bad. There are a lot of holes in the 2-3 zone set that Jay Wright likes to go to, and the 'Cats have looked a little confused on switches otherwise, which has left open a ton of shooters. It's also pretty hard to defend the fast-break and Nova's turnover problem leads to a lot of those.
2/ Villanova has a losing record despite quite a bit of talent. Is the problem youth? Is it something about the longtime members of the squad? What's going on, in 200 words or less?
BE: Lack of shooters. We can chalk it up to youth too, and the freshmen and James Bell have been a little lost sometimes, but there are three juniors who should have the "leadership" ability to bring things along. I think the biggest offensive problem has been that nobody has been a consistent shooter for Nova and that some very inconsistent shooters had been taking a high percentage of team shots.
Defensively… well, we discussed that above.
CL: Yeah, it's definitely youth. Over the past few games if you've been watching, the team is playing much better as 5 freshmen acclimate themselves more and more. JayVaughn Pinkston has the potential to be a superstar (his 23 points and 11 boards against Seton Hall were massive). He is literally unstoppable once he gets going to the rim. He's quite a talent.
Then of course there's the upper-classmen, who just weren't ready to lead this year. They're getting better with each game, but it's been a painful year. Dom Cheek has become a loathing point for almost every fan. Some games it is for good reason, but it has gotten to the point where it feels like the fans don't like him. That's not good.
3/ What needs to happen/ change for Villanova to win games? Why is this squad so different than all other squads?
CL: We need to focus on what we are good at, which is scoring around the rim and getting to the FT line. Some Seton Hall fans were complaining about the refs in our win against them, and there was a 41-16 FT discrepancy, but a lot of that was late in the game while SHU was chasing us. Then there's the fact that they attempted 30+ 3's. You won't get many fouls called for you doing that.
The biggest difference from year's past is that we don't have great shooters. James Bell and Darrun Hilliard are our best threats from the outside, and those two aren't going to scare anyone. So it's made it tough for us to get inside, because defenses sag and don't let us in there. But we're slowly figuring it out. I think we'll knock off an upper-echelon team or two as we move through the Big East schedule. Because the talent is still there.
BE: Villanova needs to fundamentally change the way they play the game. Without much consistent outside shooting, Villanova has to get the ball inside to score and play better defense, especially on the perimeter. It is hard to beat teams like Syracuse that will sit in a 2-3 zone without outside shooting, but Syracuse is pretty unique in its dedication to that scheme.
Playing defense is important because there is always the possibility that turnovers can be converted into easy baskets off the fast break too. Villanova can certainly take advantage of those, but they haven't generated many opportunities this season.
4/ How are the younger players doing? Can any of them step in to steer the Wildcats to wins?
BE: I don't think that any of the freshmen are really ready to be "THE guy" at Villanova, but . . .
Ty Johnson hasn't done much offensively, but has earned a few starts and a little more time on the floor. Ash Yacoubou has looked like a strong perimeter defender, but his offensive skill set isn't too impressive — he has a long way to go. Hilliard has probably played the most for Nova this season and early on he was very efficient shooting, but has declined to the norm a bit since then.
I personally like what Markus Kennedy offers as a defensive and rebounding presence inside. He can score too, but he isn't going to get many opportunities and needs to be more consistent with his free throw shooting to really be a factor there.
If any freshman is "steer the Wildcats" to a win it would be JayVaughn Pinkston. He started the season very slow and it looked like he was going to disappoint, but in the last few games in Big East play, he has had some very strong moments. He drives well to the basket and has been making his free throws as well lately.
CL: The other freshmen, other than Pinkston, just don't appear to be at the confidence level required for the minutes they are playing. Achraf Yacoubou is pretty much all-defense at this point while Ty Johnson's injury over the summer stunted his growth. Darrun Hilliard is very mature and level-headed out there, but he's not the kind of player who can take over a game like Pinkston. Markus Kennedy is oozing talent but sometimes can struggle for confidence if he doesn't start a game well.
JayVaughn Pinkston is clearly the star of that group. He's a future 1st-teamer in this conference. His style fits it so well. He will bang around with anyone in the paint and is great at attacking the rim and getting to the FT line.
5/ Are you - or the fans - losing faith in Jay Wright's ability to create a perennial winner?
BE: Am I? He made the NCAA tournament for 7 straight years, I'm willing to let him have this season before I really start to wonder.
Are fans generally? You better believe they are. The two consecutive late-season collapses prior to this season weren't very encouraging to fans either. That Final Four appearance doesn't grant a very long leash on the Main Line it seems.
CL: I think the Final 4 year had us hoping we were on the verge of becoming a perennial contender for that. Wasn't the case, clearly. Jay Wright is still a great recruiter, but I think his failure to recruit a sniper from the outside in the past few years has killed him. He always had Allan Ray, Mike Nardi and then Corey Stokes to stretch the defense, and his offense was high-octane. Without that this year, it's been an issue.
The scariest part is that right now, we still don't have that. Ryan Arcidiacono can shoot, no doubt. But he's not a sniper. That is an area that needs to be addressed if Jay Wright wants to stick with his current offensive philosophy of drive and dish.
I've not lost faith in him, and neither has the fanbase. Most of us know how bad it was before Jay Wright, so we would never run him out of town for one bad year.
6/ Do the Red Storm have a chance at a win?
CL: Absolutely. As always our games at MSG aren't really a true home game for St. John's because there are just a ton of 'Nova alums in the area who will attend the game. But with our propensity to turn in a stinker shooting the ball every other night, anyone can beat us. I think our overall talent level and experience compared to an even younger Johnnies team should see us through to victory, but this is one year I will not assume any win.
BE: Sure. Find the holes in Villanova's defense and try to clog up the lane and force Villanova to shoot a lot from 3-point and the Johnnies have as good a chance as anyone to win. In reality, I think a lot of Villanova fans are looking at that St. Johns game as one that could/should be a very competitive game that the 'Cats have a legitimate chance to win.
(I know it won't happen. Big East games aren't usually that open, and dunks get contested.)
BE: Does he have a chance? Sure, but I doubt it's a very good chance. Johnson had a few starts, but he is still averaging just 13 minutes per game — he has to be on the court to be dunked on.
7b/ Chris: Has the conversation on the Nova Blog been getting cranky? Or are some people just staying away? (The Rumble's gotten quieter as people realize this team ain't winning much of anything).
CL: It's funny, nothing brings about more community commenters than a losing team. All off-season I drummed up new ideas to get the community involved - nothing has worked like Villanova losing. Most of the discussion has centered around our inexplicable willingness to bomb away from deep when we clearly are a much better team when playing around the rim.
There was a stretch there where we lost to both Temple and St. Joe's where there were some lunatics calling for Jay Wright to be fired, but overall the regulars have remained pretty level-headed. They realize this is a tough year with so many new faces and a group of upperclassmen who seem overwhelmed by the responsibility on their shoulders.
Quiet is definitely not a word I'd use to describe TNB though (only after wins, when I think everyone is too scared to get excited that we might be turning it around). And the regulars are still there everyday chatting it up.