It’s not a hitch, more a subtle pause. Villanova big man Eric Dixon has a smooth free-throw shooting delivery, and an effective one, making 83.1% this season going into the Big East Tournament.
Where Dixon might lead the NCAA is in an uncharted statistic — getting opponents to jump early into the lane, giving Dixon a second chance if he misses. For a stretch earlier this season, it seemed as if it was happening once a game. His pause in the middle doesn’t look like anything jerky. It just lasts a beat longer than expected … Oops, there goes another one, anticipating the shot being already up in the air.
Does he get his teammates in practice?
“Nah, we know that too well, we don’t fall for that,” said Villanova guard Justin Moore this week. “After a while, it becomes funny. The teams actually call it out before it happens, and they still fall for it.”
“It’s just how he sets the ball,” said Villanova assistant coach George Halcovage, agreeing that it surely makes opposing scouting reports by now. “Teams pick up on those things.”
Just another part of the Dixon below-the-surface arsenal that shouldn’t be disregarded as Villanova heads into the postseason. Collin Gillespie may be both the top performer (and top free-throw shooter) and most valuable player, and Moore may be next in value for this group going into Madison Square Garden as the No. 2 seed, about to play Thursday night in the quarterfinals.
But if you’re imagining a team without a certain player, it’s hard to quite imagine Villanova in 2021-22 without Eric Dixon. The alternative would be Villanova going all the time with a centerless lineup … and sometimes Jay Wright does that, liking the matchups.
But Dixon’s value, it can be counted in so many little ways beyond his 9.6 points, which is fifth on his team, and 6.5 rebounds, which leads Villanova.
How many big men dive on the floor more for loose balls? How many post players produce more solid high-ball screens, play after play? How many big guys switch out on guards so often, almost relishing the matchup, not looking for a quick switch away from such an assignment?
“He is physical, tough — he embraces contact,” Halcovage said.
He’s still a little undersized for Big East post play, if you’re just talking height, at 6-foot-8. But that solid frame of his brings its own value.
“He’s got really long arms, great hands,” Halcovage said. “Great anticipation.”
If you’ve watched, you’ve seen the progression. I was at a preseason practice and Dixon had a wide-open three-pointer, was told not to take it — that was a shot for the future, Wright expressly told his team that day.
Well, the future came along. Dixon has taken 25 three-pointers this season, made 12 of them. That 48% would lead Division I if Dixon had enough attempts to qualify. Even if the number inevitably fell with more attempts, you get the picture. Dixon has that shot. (Wright wasn’t surprised by it, predicted it happening last year, knew Dixon showed up with a jumper, going so far as to call Dixon a combination of Kris Jenkins and Omari Spellman in the future.)
A couple of weeks ago, Dixon was asked how different he is from a couple of years back.
“I would say mentally I’m just different,” Dixon said. “Different player than I was two weeks ago, a month ago. I try to get better every day.”
The most strides are both the obvious one, changing his body, allowing him to make those changes on those screens. That wasn’t part of his game showing up, even from being Pennsylvania state player of the year at Abington High.
Dixon also talked about being more disciplined, on and off the court. His largest strides, he said, are being disciplined on the court.
“And taking preparation seriously, my body seriously, what I’m eating seriously,” Dixon said. “I would say that’s always going to be the biggest thing for me. My body is always going to be the biggest obstacle. So I just try to be really aware of it.”
His progression includes being comfortable putting the ball on the floor for a fast-break hoop against Georgetown — “definitely a product of progress, knowing I had the time and space to make that kind of play. At this level, physical ability, all the players are so close. The mental aspects of it … Would I have made that play in November? Probably not, just because I wouldn’t have been able to see the floor the way I had [against Georgetown], if that makes sense.”
Not suggesting Dixon deserved to be all-Big East. Just mark it down, there’s a good chance of that in his future. His KenPom.com offensive efficiency rating is third on his team. HIs rate of collecting offensive rebounds is 18th nationally, with no Big East player higher.
Numbers, you can massage however you like. Take Villanova’s home win over Providence. Dixon had 15 points in 28 minutes, plus three steals, tying a season high. So effective, yet Dixon was minus-15 for the game, meaning Villanova was 15 points worse with him, in a 76-74 victory.
Gillespie was a minus-5 … it can be a weird stat. In Dixon’s case, it was especially weird, because he was very much part of the reason Villanova was able to go smaller, since Providence big man Nate Watson and his backup Ed Croswell were both in foul trouble all game.
Also, the first minutes of the game, Dixon had all of Villanova’s points, on a layup and a three-pointer, adding a steal and a couple of rebounds even as Providence took a 9-5 lead, dropping some early threes.
The point of all this is kind of like Dixon’s foul-shooting motion. Sometimes his effectiveness is obvious, like last month when he had 24 points against Connecticut. Other games, the matchups mean that going smaller is better for Villanova.
Most nights, you might not pay attention to exactly how this guy keeps contributing to Villanova’s winning basketball games. It just keeps happening in subtle ways.
“He’s been such a force for us,” Halcovage said.