Villanova's defense—not its three-point shooting—is the key to its national-title dream this season.
Every year, it seems, we have the same conversation about Villanova basketball. Either the Wildcats are one of the best teams in the nation or they’re a mirage that will fade in March. Most often, this conversation comes down to Villanova’s reliance on the three-point shot, but this season that point may miss the mark.
The conversation came up again after Villanova shot 4-for-32 from downtown in a 23-point loss to No. 7 Oklahoma in the Pearl Harbor Invitational on Dec. 7. And the concerns are warranted: the Wildcats entered Sunday night’s game against La Salle shooting 50.4% of their total field-goal attempts from three and converting just 28.6% of them. And since the Wildcats are ranked 169th in effective height, their post offense is seldom able to compensate. Against the Explorers, the Wildcats’ three-point shooting began to heat up (46.4% on 28 attempts) and it should continue to improve as it regresses to the mean.
But that improvement might not matter as much because this season Villanova is relying on its defense to drive its national-title hopes.
La Salle junior guard Jordan Price came into Sunday’s game against the Wildcats third in the nation in scoring, averaging 25.9 ppg on 53% shooting, including 50% from three. Villanova proceeded to hold him to 16 points on 17 shots. That’s been the story almost all season long for the ’Cats, who rank fourth in adjusted defensive rating, according to kenpom.com. Villanova is holding its opponents to 35.7% shooting, a 41.4 effective field goal percentage, and is ninth among major conference teams in forcing turnovers.
Villanova’s key defensively again is its signature 1-2-2 press. The Wildcats typically fall back into man defense in the halfcourt, and communication is key to making the transition work effectively, as junior guard Josh Hart explained after the La Salle game. “I think a lot of that was our guys off the ball,” he said, referring to how the Wildcats were able to contain one of the nation’s top scorers. “They had our back and were talking to us. When you have that you have the confidence to play as hard as you can. You're not worried about making a mistake because the next guy has your back.”
Hart may not have said it explicitly, but when he refers to guys having his back on defense, it’s hard not to immediately think of 6’11” center Daniel Ochefu. In his fourth year, the Baltimore, M.D., native has matured into an anchor on the back line, snuffing out potential drives, swatting shots (his 11.1 block percentage ranks 27th in the nation) and showing enough dexterity to hold his own on the perimeter for brief stretches when switches call for it. His 76.0 defensive rating is second in all of college basketball, per sports-reference.com. He’s been aided by the emergence of redshirt freshman forward Mikal Bridges, whose lengthy athleticism allows him to serve as Wright’s Swiss Army knife off of the bench. While Bridges’s inexperience will show up from time to time, his presence helps Ochefu not fall into the “one big surrounded by four feisty perimeter guards” look that Villanova has deployed so frequently this season.
Overall, these Wildcats boast a defensive efficiency of 90.2, the lowest ever for one of Jay Wright’s teams in the kenpom.com era (since 2002). The last time Villanova’s defense had a defensive efficiency below 91, it was 2009, and the Wildcats made it to the Final Four.
The Wildcats’ offense is slowly coming around, and not a moment too soon: ’Nova travels to Charlottesville on Saturday to take on the No. 10 Virginia Cavaliers and their vaunted defense, which ranks fifth in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency. It will be Villanova’s second top-10 matchup in 12 days, and the ’Cats will be out to prove that their blowout loss to Oklahoma wasn’t a predictor of their tournament future. If Villanova wants to go into John Paul Jones Arena and beat Tony Bennett’s crew on their home floor, it’s going to need more than a couple hot hands to do it. The Wildcats will have to lean on their true identity, defense, and let the scoring flow from there.