Villanova’s excellence has been metronomic. In the five seasons before last, their NCAA tournament seeds were 2, 1, 2, 1, and 1, the went 165-21 in all competitions, and they threw in a couple national championships besides. That’s just context here for my calling a 26-win season that included a 6 seed and an NCAA tournament win a step back. It was, but it would have been a step forward for a lot of programs.
It should also be noted that this isn’t the first hiccup for Jay Wright at Nova. From 2009 to 2011, he went from a 3 seed to a 2 seed to a 9 seed, sliding from the Final Four to a first-round exit. The season after that, they went 13-19, dropping almost 50 spots from their preseason KenPom ranking to finish the year 85th.
The program obviously bounced back, but Nova fans don’t want to endure another season like the 2012 disaster if it can be avoided.
The problem that 2012 team had that I don’t think the 2020 squad does was simply a lack of talent. Three of the top four usage players for Nova graduated after 2011, leaving a vacuum at the top that returning talent couldn’t fill. A junior class of Maalik Wayns, Dominic Cheek, and Mouphtaou Yarou made a game effort to carry the team, but there wasn’t a reliable second tier of talent behind them. A recruiting class featuring Darrun Hilliard and three dudes who apparently evaporated before they ever made an impression on me (for the record, Tyrone Johnson, Markus Kennedy, and Ash Yacoubou) more or less sputtered out, and Nova suffered the indignity of finishing the year on an 0-6 skid against teams not named Rutgers.
This year, the returning talent might not trump that of 2011. Phil Booth and Eric Paschall graduated, taking their 35/10/6 averages with them. Attempting to step up in their place will be Collin Gillespie, Saddiq Bey, Jermaine Samuels, and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Gillespie is a solid PG who seems to have been brought into to bridge the “annoying media favorite guy” gap between Arcidiaconos, but the other three are where the strength of this core are for Nova.
Bey was a solid but not spectacular recruit who was immediately impressive for the Wildcats as a freshman. He’s a 6’8” forward who can score at all three levels and never turns the ball over. Samuels and Cosby-Roundtree are a pair of former top-100 recruits now starting their junior years who came into their own last season. Samuels did so as a do-everything forward who flourished as a jack-of-all-trades at both ends. Cosby-Roundtree is a true center who took more than 80% of his shots last year at the rim. He was 6th in the nation with an ORtg of 134 and crushed the boards at both ends.
The real key to this season - and what has Nova at or near the top of the league in every reputable preview and projection - is the freshman class. Five-star guard Bryan Antoine is rehabbing a shoulder injury, but he’s a big-time scorer who Nova expects will be on the floor before conference play. Justin Moore is his prospective backcourt mate, a 6’4” top-50 guard who plays with a high level of intensity and projects as an immediate impact defender.
The purported jewel of the class is Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. He’s a 6’8” flex four who is comfortable near the rim or around the perimeter. He has good range on his jumper, stretching out to the arc, and a solid array of post moves. He went off at the FIBA U19 Championship, leading the US team in PER and scoring per 40 minutes. He’s probably going to make an immediate impact on both ends and may start from day one.
In short, I wouldn’t bet against Jay Wright with this squad. There are still questions to answer, like whether or not they can improve on their 81st-ranked defense from last year and how they’ll work around a lack of dynamic guards if Antoine can’t hit the ground running, but the pieces are in place for Nova to make a run at a protected seed this March.
How Nova can beat Xavier
The same reasons Nova can beat anyone: an elite coach and a team drilled in relentlessly efficient offensive play. Nova has the kind of roster and game plan that has cracked Xavier’s packline-style defenses for years; allowing opponents to settle for long jumpers doesn’t look like a work of genius when the shots keep falling. There a lot of ways Nova can score, and that versatility can keep them one step ahead of X.
How Xavier can beat Nova
Teach the officials the difference between a block and a charge, for starters. Beyond that, X can meet Nova strength for strength. The Muskies can run out a lineup of four versatile perimeter players around a big and challenge Villanova to take what they’re so used to dishing out. X may not have the shooters some teams do, but Q, Scruggernuts, Naji, and Kyky Tandy can all put a defense into rotation. When that happens, the high percentage shots are sure to follow.