Welcome back to the Tuesday Shootaround! Every Tuesday during college basketball season, we're holding a roundtable with our writers and editors where we ask the most pressing questions concerning the most recent action and the week ahead. This week's topics include what's wrong with Villanova, which Thanksgiving tournament is most likely to go off script and a debate on the most dangerous unranked team.
What's the most troubling part of Villanova's two-loss week?
Dan Greene: That the Wildcats just seem so... off. As NBA front offices have shown us, Villanova had more pro talent over the last three years than those teams typically got credit for. But what was always so striking about watching those teams at their best was how crisply and cohesively they played. This year's team was obviously going to take some work in that regard given the unusual roster turnover, but I don't think anybody expected them to be struggling like this. Shooting better and taking better care of the ball will help, but it will take more than that for this to feel like a Villanova team.
Eric Single: That Eric Paschall can't buy a bucket. After 26 points in the season opener against Morgan State (11 of which came from free throws), the senior forward scored 11, 10 and eight in three games over eight days, which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if he were not also accounting for nearly a quarter of the Wildcats' field goal attempts. His identical 3-for-14 shooting efforts from the floor in Villanova's two losses last week (including a 2-for-11 performance from three-point range against Furman) may just be a mini-slump, but it's nevertheless tough to stomach as the offense crashes back to Earth around him.
Max Meyer: Villanova has ranked among the three best teams in the country in two-point shooting in each of the past three seasons. The Wildcats shot it at a 57.4% clip inside the arc in 2016–17, followed by 59.2% and 59.0% in the next two seasons. Through four games this year, that number has dropped to 51.6%, which currently ranks 143rd. In Villanova’s two losses against Michigan and Furman, it shot 37.5% on its two-point attempts.
The Wildcats really miss Jalen Brunson because of his penetration to set up his teammates for easy shots. That type of player hasn’t emerged yet on this roster, and it’s made the offense look like a shell of itself compared to previous seasons.
Emily Caron: I don’t know what was worse for the Wildcats: falling to Furman or only posting 46 points against Michigan in a rematch of the national title game. Both were a bad start to the season and a sign that Villanova’s freshmen may not be ready to make major contributions yet, which could mean trouble for a team that lost most of it's key contributors from last season. 'Nova’s vets are talented, don’t get me wrong, but they can only take the team so far. That’s the biggest concern for me: that Jay Wright was hesitant to throw his young guys in even when his experienced players struggled to get points in the second half against Furman, meaning he had a reason to be hesitant. He needs those freshman faces to step up if the Wildcats want back in the top 25, and while they clearly aren’t quite ready for the challenge, 'Nova needs them to be.
Jake Fischer: They were both at home. During the Wildcats’ recent golden era—Jay Wright’s teams haven’t lost more than five games in a season since 2012–13 and of course have capture two of the last three tiles—Nova has dropped just one—one!—game at The Pavilion. The Cats have played the majority of their home games at the Wells Fargo Center, home to the Sixers and Flyers, during this span, for sure. But The Pavilion has always been one of the more unique home venues in college basketball, with students overflowing from the bleachers behind both baskets. And now it boasts the last name of William Finneran, a 1963 graduate, following his $22.6 million gift to the $65 million renovation. The Pavilion should be one of the most daunting away games in the nation, the home of one of the more successful programs in college basketball history. This Villanova iteration just lost four NBA players from last year’s title team. But the remaining pieces of last year’s championship squad and the school’s intriguing additions should still be markedly better at protecting home court.
Michael Shapiro: The Wildcats’ offense has looked nothing like the lethal attack that won the national title last season, ranking No. 209 in points per game after Saturday’s loss to Furman. And the biggest culprit is Villanova’s performance from beyond the arc.
Jay Wright’s squad canned 464 threes in 2017–18, the most in the nation while converting 40.1% of attempts. Villanova became just the second team in NCAA history to make over 400 threes while shooting 40% or better, a mark only matched by North Florida two seasons prior. It’s been more of a struggle this season. Villanova has made just 32% of threes this year, including a 17-for-59 combined effort in losses to Michigan and Furman.
The Wildcats won’t match their 40% clip from last season, but it should progress to the mean sooner than later. Phil Booth should improve from his 29% mark on 7.8 attempts per game, ditto for Eric Paschall’s 17.6% clip. Villanova will shoot itself out of the recent funk sooner than later, and have plenty of time to make its start to the season a distant memory.
Molly Geary: The Wildcats need to find more ways to score that don't rely on the three-point shot. The trey has been a staple of the Villanova offense in recent years, and can still be a valuable weapon for it this season, but 'Nova is settling for too many questionable threes right now and not seeing it bear fruit. Its perimeter woes were a major factor in the loss to Furman, when seniors Eric Paschall and Phil Booth combined to shoot 5 of 24—and kept shooting threes even when it was clear they weren't falling. Booth has taken 31 threes through four games and made just nine; Paschall is 3 for 17.
The law of averages says that both will rebound, and Joe Cremo and Collin Gillespie have both been solid from the arc so far. But all four of the players Villanova lost from its title-winning team shot at least 40% for the season from three. And when shots weren't falling, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges could break down defenses and score inside the arc, which they did more than anyone on 'Nova. Booth and Paschall need to show more of this ability themselves, yet right now the Wildcats are attempting threes at a higher rate than last year's team. That's not going to cut it against good defenses unless the shooting turns around in a hurry.
Out of this week's Battle 4 Atlantis, Las Vegas Invitational and NIT Tip-Off, which is most likely to go off script?
Greene: Arizona and Purdue can attest to how strange things can get in Atlantis. (So can Plato, I guess.) This year's field looks conducive to some weirdness. The top team in the field, Virginia, is not exactly immune to upsets; the event's only other ranked team, Wisconsin, is good but has only been lightly tested. Meanwhile Butler will have one of the best players in the field in Kamar Baldwin, Florida was not long ago thought to be a fringe top-25 team, and Oklahoma plays fast and shoots well. Any one of those three could make a run in the Bahamas.
Single: The NIT Tip-Off's chalkiest final matchup would be Kansas-Tennessee, but I think there's a decent chance the fans in Brooklyn won't get it, whether because those two top-10 teams are still getting a feel for what they're going to be this season or because the other two teams in the field, Marquette and Louisville, can fill it up. Kansas has gotten 65 points in two games from senior shooting guard Lagerald Vick, whom the Jayhawks barely left room on the roster for this summer. That's not bad; it's just ... different, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Vick cooled off by a neutral court or outdueled by Golden Eagles sharpshooter Markus Howard. Tennessee held Georgia Tech at arm's length for 40 minutes but never turned on the afterburners against one of the ACC's three worst teams. Louisville and new coach Chris Mack will embrace a dogfight to counteract the shooting gallery in the Kansas-Marquette nightcap.
Meyer: I’ll go with the NIT Tip-Off since the favorite to win (Kansas) has the toughest competition. The Jayhawks first play Marquette, and the Golden Eagles can absolutely light it up on offense. A team that catches fire shooting the ball can beat anyone on any given night, and Marquette certainly has the firepower with Markus Howard and Sam Hauser to send shivers down any defender’s spine. If Tennessee takes care of business against Louisville, the Volunteers are a veteran group that aren’t short on talent either. They grind their opponents out on defense, and can force Kansas to play into a defensive slugfest. Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield play bigger than their size, and Tennessee’s physicality is a tall task to go up against.
Caron: The Las Vegas Invitational. You’ve got a ton of talent on the floor here that’ll make for tough contests all around, with four top-25 worthy teams (it’s only a matter of time before Texas breaks in) taking the court to compete. Moses Brown has done big things for UCLA already and the Longhorns look solid out of the gate as well. Carolina is loaded, with experience and talent, but a young Texas team could start the spiral off-script. Same goes for the Bruins against the Spartans, who haven’t really faced a tough test since falling to Kansas in their season opener. Their last three games haven’t challenged what this team can do, but UCLA will certainly succeed there. Texas or the Tar Heels will do the same in round two if Michigan State survives. It’ll be a big test for all teams.
Fischer: I’m very high on Stanford this year. The Cardinal just got served a nice, fat slice of humble pie at No. 7 UNC in a 90–72 loss last Monday. But this team is deep and shoots it and has young players with upside to continue realizing throughout the course of a season. That’s a recipe for bounce-back games and scorching-hot stretches. They play an unbeaten No. 25 Wisconsin team on Wednesday. If The Cardinal can pull off that mini-upset, don’t be surprised to see this younger team bloom into an early-season tournament champ.
Shapiro: I’ll take the NIT Tip-Off, in large part due to my unwavering belief in Markus Howard. Don’t let his modest 6-for-14 effort against Indiana fool you; the junior is one of the most prolific scorers in the nation, scoring 25-plus in 11 games last season. Kansas will have its hand full in the tourney’s first night dealing with Howard and the Hauser brothers, two elite shooters who have yet to find their groove this season. A battle between Admiral Schofield and Kansas’s stacked frontcourt would be a dream matchup. But the Golden Eagles have enough firepower to derail the Jayhawks on Wednesday night.
Geary: The Las Vegas Invitational has a strong four-team field with UNC, Michigan State, Texas and UCLA, but on paper, North Carolina has to be considered the favorite. The Tar Heels have yet to be truly tested, though they've looked good against weaker competition. Texas and UCLA both have enough firepower to cause trouble in the Thanksgiving night semifinals, and even mess up the presumed UNC-Michigan State showdown on Black Friday. If the two do get through to Friday's final, the Spartans will be eager to get the marquee win they failed to notch against Kansas. The Vegas invitational might not have as many star-studded individuals as Maui, but with Luke Maye, Nassir Little, Kerwin Roach, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston, Moses Brown and more involved, it's easy to see this tournament going a number of ways.
Which currently unranked team is the most dangerous?
Greene: You mean besides Furman? They might have already ruined the seasons of two of last year's Final Four teams. But I'm gonna go with Indiana. Yes, they just lost, but that was by one on the road against a solid SEC team. For a team as young as the Hoosiers, that's certainly understandable. Given what they've shown so far—most notably while routing Marquette—and Archie Miller's success with progressing his teams during past seasons, I like Indiana's chances to get better and make some noise, even in an increasingly crowded Big Ten.
Single: To say that NC State ain't played nobody is an insult to nobodies—the Wolfpack's first four opponents all sit lower than 320th in kenpom.com's adjusted efficiency margin as of Sunday night—but the way they are liquefying the cupcakes on their early schedule (margins of victory: 50, 46, 51, 19) is an indication of the grand offensive vision Kevin Keatts brought to Raleigh last year coming to life. Keatts's last UNC-Wilmington team finished 10th in the nation in scoring with 85.2 points per game, and his second NC State team is playing fast and flirting with 100 on a regular basis. Led by redshirt senior Torin Dorn and transfers C.J. Bryce and Devon Daniels, the Wolfpack will have a chance to make statements against Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Penn State or Auburn in the upcoming month.
Meyer: Buy the hype on Nebrasketball! James Palmer is one of the Big Ten’s best players, and Palmer, Glynn Watson and Isaac Copeland are a formidable trio on the offensive end. The Cornhuskers have a stingy defense too, holding their opponents to 35.3% shooting on two-point shots (second in the country) and 18.1% from three (third). The Big Ten is seemingly loaded this season, but Nebraska certainly is capable of making a surprise run atop the conference.
Caron: Texas is definitely who I’d have to go with here. The Longhorns scraped out a win against Arkansas, who went on to beat Indiana after, making Texas's win look even stronger. It wasn’t the prettiest win, but the Longhorns played with poise under pressure and pulled it together just in time to get the job done. Plus they’ve got freshman forward Jaxson Hayes who’s off to a red-hot start, hauling in Big 12 Co-Newcomer of the Week honors Monday. Once this team starts to find its rhythm a little more, it’ll be doubly dangerous.
Fischer: Let’s go with 'Nova! In the preseason, I (maybe stupidly) picked the Cats as a sleeper for the Final Four. While the start has been ugly, and they’re a rare preseason top-10 team to immediately tumble out of the top 25 all together, the Wildcats are far from the finished product they will be by March. Wright’s transfers have yet to prove an impact. Vaunted Jelly Fam freshmen point guard Jahvon Quinerly has yet to find his footing. It just feels like a team with this much talented, spearheaded by bonafide champions in Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, has a much, much, much higher ceiling than sleep-walking through a home, overtime loss to… Furman.
Shapiro Indiana. The Hoosiers smoked Marquette on Nov. 14, and although they earned their first loss of the season at Arkansas on Sunday, the pieces for a dangerous tournament team are in place. Juwan Morgan continues to grow as an interior presence, and now, he’s flanked by a pair of impact guards. Romeo Langford has been as good as advertised thus far—winning Big 10 Freshman of the Week—while fellow freshman Rob Phinisee runs the point like a seasoned veteran, committing just one turnover while tallying nine assists vs. Marquette and Arkansas. Add in the NCAA tournament chops of Archie Miller and the Hoosiers could be scary come March.
Geary: I'm in on Nebraska. The Cornhuskers don't have too difficult a non-conference schedule, but they easily handled Seton Hall at home and have their best chance at a non-Big Ten marquee win next week at Clemson. James Palmer Jr. is still struggling with his three-point shot, but scored 29 against the Pirates and has so far shown much of the same foul-drawing ability that brought him success as a junior. Glynn Watson Jr. is an encouraging 13 for 23 from three so far and Isaac Copeland Jr. has looked good as well. The task now for Nebraska is keeping up its defensive form (it currently leads the nation in defensive effective field goal percentage) against stronger opponents, but there's no reason right now to doubt that it can be a real contender in the Big Ten.