NEW YORK -- Here’s a quick rundown on Villanova’s losses last season. The first happened at one of the nation’s most hostile arenas, the Carrier Dome, against then-undefeated, No. 2-ranked Syracuse. The next two came against a high-octane Creighton team that was so hot, Bill Raftery called it “absolutely comical.” In the NCAA tournament, eventual national champion UConn ousted the Wildcats. Their only major slip-up was a one-point loss to Seton Hall in the first round of the Big East tourney.
All told, the Wildcats finished with a 16-2 conference record and regular season championship, a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed and 29 wins. That’s a tidy resume, but as the focus shifts to 2014-15, it looks less like a peak than a milepost that the Wildcats can realistically strive to eclipse. Clearing that bar won’t be easy, you might be thinking. Point guard Ryan Arcidiacono said he believes the team is better than last year’s while acknowledging “I don’t know if our record will show it.” Still, consider the factors, both external and internal, suggesting Villanova could make a leap.
Start with the competition. The Big East, in the second year since re-launching as a union of seven catholic schools and three hoops-oriented immigrants, no longer registers in those hypothetical “best conference” arguments. The league doesn’t offer many viable challengers. Georgetown returns preseason player of the year D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera but must replace leading assist man Markel Starks. Creighton, Providence and Xavier will need to plug big holes after losing their best players. And Marquette is transitioning under a new head coach.
Other teams like St. John’s or Butler may have enough to get within shouting distance of an at-large bid if things break right, but none of them boast the talent or depth to match a Wildcats squad that brings back most of its key contributors from last year.
The loss of leading scorer James Bell, when weighed against other significant departures across the league, is hardly a death blow. The Wildcats are balanced enough to make up for Bell’s lost production. Though he averaged 14.4 points per game and ended more than 23 percent of possessions during his floortime last season, according to Kenpom.com, two teammates (Darrun Hilliard and Jayvaughn Pinkston) posted higher usage rates and similar scoring averages.
That’s not to say Bell won’t be missed, only that the impact of his absence is alleviated by a more-than-sufficient returning supply of shot creation and scoring firepower. Pinkston, Hilliard, Arcidiacono and others, including sophomore wing Josh Hart, can fill the void, such as it exists, whereas Creighton and Providence will have a tougher time figuring out how to replace Doug McDermott and Bryce Cotton.
“I think in terms of consistency over a long season, that’s your best chance of having success – is if you’ve got great balance,” Wright said at Big East media day. “It’s not easy to do, but also, when [an] opponent is preparing for you, that’s the most difficult opponent to prepare for – is a team that’s got balance. So, I hope that’s an advantage for us this year. It should be, but a lot of that comes down to the players’ willingness to remain unselfish and keep the balance.”
A bigger issue for the Wildcats will be replacing Bell’s glass work (he ranked second on the team in defensive rebounding percentage last season), three-point shooting (37.1 percent) defensive versatility and leadership. Wright said that last year, Villanova’s psyche on the court was “based on” Bell – and that guard Tony Chennault, the only other outgoing player who logged at least three minutes per game, was the team’s leader off the court.
“[We’ve] got to meld these personalities,” Wright said. “We don’t know … It might start off well and we might crack. It might start off rough and we might build to a better team.”
Arcidiacono offers a window into Villanova’s offensive depth. After launching 9.1 field goal attempts, posting a 20.9 usage rate and turning the ball over on nearly a quarter of his possessions as a freshman, he deferred to his teammates in the course of facilitating a more potent attack last season. “Arch” forced fewer shots and slashed the reckless giveaways.
With Bell, Pinkston and Hilliard all scoring efficiently, the Wildcats finished second in Big East play in points scored per possession. With another strong case of scorers around him this season, Arch’s job should primarily consist of setting the table for others, rather than creating for himself.
“I felt like my role on the team changed a little bit from freshman year where I could just let it loose, freshman year, just let it fly, no matter what the percentage was,” Arcidiacono said. “But last year it changed. We had so many scorers, I didn’t need to score.”
Villanova’s defense didn’t get as much credit as it deserved last season, in large part because those two Creighton matchups skewed the picture. The Wildcats posted the second-best defensive efficiency rating in Big East play despite allowing opponents to shoot 36.6 percent from three-point land, more than two percentage points higher than the D-I average, per Kenpom. That number may drop on its own, which should keep the Wildcats’ in the league’s upper defensive echelon as long as they continue to lock down inside the arc. (Big East opponents shot a league-low 44.9 percent on their twos against Wright’s team in 2014.)
Merely avoiding two meetings with the devastating offense piloted by McDermott, Grant Gibbs and Ethan Wragge – which bombarded the Wildcats with combined 60 percent three-point shooting and 1.46 points per possession – may be an even more effective antidote.
“We have not had two games with one team that [have] been so out of character for us that you just want to put it out of your mind,” Wright said.
This year’s Big East is shaping up as a “Villanova and the rest” proposition. Accordingly, the Wildcats were picked unanimously atop the league’s preseason Coaches Poll and are more strongly represented on the first and second all-league teams (three total players) than anyone else in the conference. Whether the Wildcats will finish on top of the Big East is open to conjecture, but it’s not hard to see why their outlook is so promising.