If you watch Villanova play December basketball, you’re typically seeing a puzzle in progress. It’s one of the more interesting things about watching that team over the years. See who Jay Wright is going to start, who gets to finish, who gets to the scorer’s table quickly.
This season’s version has a few different wrinkles.
Sunday, facing an opponent like Texas, was a big window into all this, since the Longhorns are defensive-oriented, with lengthy and varied puzzle pieces of their own. Texas already had smashed Indiana and beaten North Carolina to win the Maui (But Really in Asheville) Invitational. The winner of Sunday deserved a spot in the top 10.
Coming off a loss to Virginia Tech, Villanova earned its way back into the upper rankings with a 68-64 road win. Pretty? Nah. Impressive? Very much so, an exercise in taking what was given by the Longhorns, wedging through a narrow gap.
Like when Villanova forward Cole Swider broke a late tie with a three-pointer. His jumper off a dribble came from a basic offense-defense late-game substitution and a savvy feed from Jeremiah Robinson-Earl in the high post.
Was Robinson-Earl’s point forward work a point of emphasis against Texas big men?
“Not necessarily,” Robinson-Earl said. “We just kind of read how they play ball screens and how they’re playing each of us, so we just take what we can get. That was kind of the opportunity we had, so we were able to use it and play very well with it.”
So far, Villanova has started three guards, and all three guards — Collin Gillespie, Justin Moore, and Caleb Daniels — have long ago proved to be upper-level college guards. It’s not exactly breaking news to say these are smart guards. It’s fair to wonder, however, if playing all three together, as savvy as they all play the game, is the way to get through 40 minutes. This isn’t a collective group that is always going to break you down off the dribble for easy baskets, and it has given up drives at the other end. So Villanova might not be gaining the full advantage of playing smaller, since they’re not trying to play quicker.
(Let’s note: Bryan Antoine’s unavailability has cut down Wright’s options, taking out an extremely athletic one.)
According to KenPom.com, Villanova is 350th in Division I in adjusted tempo. If you think you’re going to speed them up, think again. They’ve turned what could be a negative into a real positive.
Villanova guards play to their strengths, often working almost methodically into the lane, capable of getting to the hoop but quick with a pass if a defense collapses. Early on, Moore in particular was providing all sorts of plus plays. Post-up. Plus 1. Spin move. Plus 2. Daniels added a drive. Plus 3. The game had just begun.
Question for Wright: What’s the proper minutes for his three guards?
“I could give you some real good coach-speak, but to be honest, we’re still figuring that out,” Wright said. “It’s still early in the season. We really don’t have an honest answer. One of the things we did learn up in Connecticut, we’ve got to keep those three fresh. If we start them and play them the whole time, it’s tough. As I look at the minutes tonight, it was still pretty good.”
Wright praised the Swider-Brandon Slater combo often playing the three spot. As often as possible, the two were switched out for each other, to get Swider out there on the offensive end and Slater on defense.
Gillespie sitting out with two fouls in the first half was a dangerous time for Villanova. Texas had gone on a 10-2 run just before Gillespie picked up the second foul. The Longhorns continued their run without him.
“It’s early in the year — we should be able to get through those eight minutes without him,” Wright said. “We’re not there yet. It looked like it was starting to go the other way. It was getting a little bit of crisis time.”
Gillespie got back out there under “you can’t get your third” orders. Gillespie got Villanova out of a funk by hitting a 25-footer “have to take it” special at the end of the shot clock, drawing the Wildcats within 27-23. Robinson-Earl dunked. Jermaine Samuels drove and scored. Moore and Samuels made free throws to turn that 27-20 deficit to a 32-30 lead at the break.
Not pretty, but Villanova dominated both the opening and closing minutes of both halves. Not bad on the road. According to the scoreboard, the puzzle pieces fit just fine.