Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Villanova

OPPONENT #5 Villanova (18-7 in 2020-21, Sweet 16 appearance)
LOCATION Mohegan Sun Barstool WynnBET MGM Caesars Made an App Yall Arena
Uncasville, CT
CHANNEL ESPN News (yes, seriously)
Fran Fraschilla (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: pick ’em
Torvik: Villanova -0.1

After a year mostly bereft of preseason tournaments due to COVID-19, they have returned in full force for the most part. Tennessee is participating in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament, which is confusingly not being held where the Basketball Hall of Fame is (Springfield, MA) or the College Basketball Hall of Fame is (Kansas City, MO) or even where the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame is (Knoxville) but in a casino in Connecticut for…reasons.

To the credit of the tournament organizers, this is the strongest field the BHoFTOT has ever produced. All four participants are ranked among the nation’s top 18 teams in the AP Poll, and pretty much any possible game you could think of is a good one. Tennessee/Villanova is the marquee game of the semifinals: two of the most consistently good programs of the last five years, but with teams that are getting it done in different ways. This is Tennessee’s highest-profile non-conference game since 2018 Kansas; fans are quite reasonably excited about this matchup.

The results produced by both so far are fairly good. Tennessee has two blowout wins over overmatched opponents; Villanova blew out one overmatched opponent, struggled with the other for 30 minutes before winning by 20, and lost to the #2 team in America in overtime, which is one of the most acceptable losses you could have. It’s going to be an excellent basketball game.

Villanova’s offense

All numbers are via KenPom and Hoop-Math. These are 2021-22 numbers through three games, so SMALL SAMPLE SIZE.

As is standard with Villanova over the last decade, the Wildcat offense looks awesome. Against two overwhelmed Quadrant 4 opponents, Villanova posted 1.474 PPP and 1.498 PPP efforts, and even against UCLA, a 1.054 PPP up-converts with opponent adjustments to roughly 1.2 PPP. They have yet to shoot worse than 45.8% from downtown in a game thus far. All of this is quite terrifying; all of this is before one touches on Villanova’s high-end ability to pressure the rim with a variety of guards and smaller post options that you have to account for, also. Jay Wright knows what he’s doing yet again.

This looks like another rendition of the now sort-of standard 4-out, 1-in motion offense Jay Wright has pushed at Villanova for the majority of his tenure. Every Wildcat team (minus an extreme outlier in 2018-19) takes between 43 and 47 percent of its shots from downtown, with the vast majority of those being catch-and-shoot looks that develop from quick passes and drives to the basket. If you squint – like, really, really squint – you can say “hello, Rick Byrd’s Belmont” and get away with it in some fashion.

Villanova plays deliberate, half-court basketball that involves a healthy amount of ball screens and a surprisingly high amount of post-ups; the main ball-handler this season is junior Justin Moore, who’s a three-year starter but hasn’t taken on a role this large offensively until 2021-22. The 6’4″ Moore is a real bother to guard for a number of reasons: sure, it would be one thing if a 6’4″ guard was a great shooter (37% 3PT% for his career, 10-for-17 this year). But what if a 6’4″ guard is the guy that posts up more than anyone else?

The sensation of seeing this 20+ times in the UCLA game was perhaps best encapsulated in this tweet:

It’s simply pretty strange to see guards posting up their defenders in high-major basketball, especially if the main team you watch is Tennessee (who very much does not do that). Moore has not been terribly effective out of the post (the actual 1-in, Eric Dixon, is much better at it), but the fact he can do that is a huge boon. Defending Villanova is really difficult for any number of reasons, but I think you can best boil it down to three:

  1. The starting lineup always has four players that shoot exceptionally well from deep and are difficult to switch on to or off of;
  2. The starting lineup also always has three guards/quasi-forwards that can drive from 25+ feet out to the rim;
  3. You cannot crash down on those guards with a double team, because seemingly everyone on the freaking roster can pass the ball well to either an open shooter or to the 1-in (Eric Dixon this year) that cuts to the rim for an easy two.

The amount of decisions a defense has to make with Villanova’s offense is troubling; it’s why they overwhelm most opponents they play. The 2020-21 Wildcats were one of the least-effective Villanova teams of the last decade and they still cracked 1.14 points per possession (~73 points on their 64 possession-per-game average) in 10 of 25 games, with six of those against Top 100 competition. Asking sincerely here: what are you supposed to do when the 6’7″ power forward (Jermaine Samuels) can pass like this?

Through three games, the Wildcats’ offensive numbers are honestly hilarious. They’re posting a 61.9% eFG%, a 10.4% TO% (would be the lowest in basketball history), a 48.8% hit rate from downtown, and just because they want to really rub it in your face, an 89.1% hit rate at the line. Obviously, I don’t think any of those numbers can hold for a full season, but it seems pretty obvious to me that this is at least one of the five best offenses in college basketball and is likely the most stout offensive competition Tennessee will face all season. By the way, that 1-in (Eric Dixon, 6’8″ish center) has hit both of his three-point attempts this season, so you can’t even sag off of him.

So: how do you beat it? The good news is that one team has gone before Tennessee and afforded them a blueprint: the UCLA Bruins. UCLA’s roster is a little better than Tennessee’s – I mean, they’re the #2 team in America, so yeah – but they did a fabulous job of closing gaps, forcing Villanova to take guarded catch-and-shoot threes, and – most critically – forced an abnormally high amount of mid-range twos.

Jules Bernard (#1, UCLA) sees Gillespie waiting for Slater to flash open from three. Bernard correctly anticipates this, gets in Slater’s face before he’s able to pull up, and forces him inside the perimeter. Had Slater taken the 18-foot two as available before he lost his dribble, that’s probably an open-ish mid-range two, but the shot efficiency there is lower than a catch-and-shoot three. On the one below, watch Jaime Jaquez (#24, UCLA), a king, perfectly anticipate Gillespie’s pass out of the ball screen to Caleb Daniels. Daniels takes this anyway, but Jaquez times it perfectly and is maybe 18 inches from the shooter when he starts his shot.

Those are two really good plays. The problem: there are about 60 more of these in a basketball game. Tennessee has to be on their game, both from a communication and reaction standpoint, from start to finish. Any lapse in concentration is like handing Villanova free points.

Villanova’s defense

All numbers are via KenPom and Hoop-Math. These are 2021-22 numbers through three games, so SMALL SAMPLE SIZE.

Nothing terribly unusual strategy-wise to date, though they’ve trotted out a 2-3 zone a few possessions each game and it’s gone poorly. We’ll focus on the meat here, which is the main man-to-man defense. Villanova’s positionless-ish lineups afford them the ability to switch as much as they want to on defense and not lose a lot of steam along the way. In seasons past, this has allowed the Wildcats to be a very good ball-screen defense that rarely fouls and doesn’t allow many catch-and-shoot attempts from deep.

However, it seems like opponents have started to figure out this side of Jay Wright’s program. The last three seasons of Villanova’s defensive works have been…uh, underwhelming.

  • 2020-21: 66th in Adj. Def. Efficiency, 216th eFG%/198th TO%/215th 2PT%
  • 2019-20: 36th in Adj. Def. Efficiency, 114th eFG%/292nd TO%/118th 2PT%
  • 2018-19: 81st in Adj. Def. Efficiency, 158th eFG%/202nd TO%/152nd 2PT%

Essentially, the 2017-18 championship run happened for two reasons: Villanova had one of the 3-5 best offenses in college basketball history, yes, but their defense posted the highest Block% (10.5%, 93rd-highest) they’ve put up over the last seven seasons. It used to be much, much harder to score on Villanova at the rim. Now, pretty much everyone can do it. When you’re UCLA, you can do this by isolating a slower defender (Eric Dixon, the center, guards Jaquez here) and just taking him all the way to the rim:

When your talent is less overly gaudy, like Howard, you have to be a bit more creative. Howard’s guards didn’t seem to fear driving to the paint against Villanova, and it was an interesting flip of the script: the Wildcats were the ones having to make snap decisions. When they sent a second (and sometimes third) defender to the driving guard, that allowed a passing lane to open for a cutter. Look at how lost Brandon Slater (#3, Nova) gets on this drive:

That’s a serious area of opportunity for talented offenses to exploit, and Villanova has been exploited like crazy in the paint thus far. It’s obviously very early and this can be fixed, but allowing a 61.7% FG% at the rim on roughly 16 attempts per game when two of the teams you’ve played are Mount St. Mary’s and Howard is not a good sign. In fact, it wasn’t even UCLA that’s really harmed Villanova the most down low: Howard went 9-for-12 on attempts within 4 feet of the rim, per Synergy. Mount St. Mary’s went 12-for-17. UCLA went 6-for-12, but murdered Villanova by way of mid-range bucket after mid-range bucket, which is very much their game.

I mean, it’s three games in, but of the three opponents, only Mount St. Mary’s seemed to face serious difficulty in getting the shot they wanted. Howard – HOWARD – got off 20 catch-and-shoot threes against Villanova, and Synergy marked 12 as being unguarded. I’m not anywhere close to saying this defense is Actually Bad, because, again, three games, but…this doesn’t look like a terribly tough defense to me. The UCLA numbers were even worse: 18 catch-and-shoot threes out of 24 total three-point attempts, with 14 being deemed unguarded.

Again, that’s UCLA, not exactly a team known for exploiting the opposition through a barrage of catch-and-shoot threes.

I do think Villanova appears to have done a terrific job of forcing mid-range twos so far – 34.8% of all opponent shots are in non-rim two territory – and they remain very good at not committing bad fouls. I also feel that some of the poor defense is just hard-luck stuff; opponents are not going to shoot 40% from three against them the rest of the way. But it’s honestly pretty alarming that, again, two of your opponents are #300 and #248 in KenPom and yet Villanova has blocked two shots in three games of work.

How Tennessee matches up

An extremely obvious thing here: you’ll have to turn Kennedy Chandler loose and live with all of the good he provides and some of the bad. Villanova has shown some serious difficulty thus far in having the ability to handle switches where less-mobile forwards end up on speedy guards. Other than Chandler (I would prefer to not see much of Zeigler for reasons to be discussed), your only real option among guards in terms of who can take any defender to the rim from 20+ feet out is Justin Powell.

This is a huge Chandler game because 1) He is very obviously Tennessee’s best and most talented player; 2) I couldn’t identify a Villanova defender that would serve as a 40-minute ball-stopper. Tennessee has yet to play a team nearly as talented as Villanova is, but they got a tiny bit of practice against ETSU, a team with a similar general build at the 3 & 4 that ended up in less-than-optimal 1-on-1 matchups with Chandler. Shockingly, it didn’t go so well for them.

Tennessee’s best shot in this game is a mix of the low- and high-variance; I would do my best to avoid defaulting into last year’s “let’s take 15 mid-range jumpers regardless of the opponent” strategy. Chandler driving to the basket is going to force Villanova to either defend him one-on-one (which has yet to work for anybody) or to send a second defender, which would free up a cutter or shooter. Either one is optimal, but considering Villanova has struggled immensely thus far with guarding catch-and-shoot threes, you should continue to test this. If Tennessee hits a few threes in the first 10 minutes, this will naturally pull Villanova’s defenders out to the perimeter, opening up more driving lanes for easier points. This is a Nkamhoua-to-Bailey play, but one can imagine John Fulkerson having a very good game here.

Tennessee should also look to push off of Villanova misses where they can. Again, it’s very early, but Villanova has shown some serious defensive issues in transition; of 15 catch-and-shoot threes allowed in transition thus far, two have been guarded, per Synergy. Two guys who have been lights-out in transition through two games: Chandler and Powell. Push the pace and make Villanova uncomfortable.

Defensively: consider prayer? I’m partially joking but also am not. Villanova’s offense has looked unimpeachable through three games; even against UCLA, who I thought played a pretty good defensive game, the Wildcats still hit 11 of 24 threes and got 26 attempts at the rim while turning it over only seven times. Tennessee has to find a way to be able to defend the rim well while not committing too much to the rim while also forcing hard guarded threes and not allowing spot-up situations to turn into drives that start the process all over again. Do you see how hard this is?

Tennessee’s gotta strike a balance without giving up one or the other, but I think that you have to live with Villanova getting off some good looks and simply limit it as much as possible. It’s almost like having to play Alabama, except they play nearly as slowly as Virginia and are much more consistently lethal across the board. So: first, you’ve gotta keep the guards from getting to the rim. This could be a huge game for guys like Josiah-Jordan James, particularly if someone tries to post him up, which seems unwise. Really, everyone on Tennessee has to first do two things: stop the drive, and then force the post-up to go nowhere.

Congrats on doing this correctly. Now, avoid committing too much to the drive, because if you do, pretty much everyone Villanova recruits can make a quality cross-court pass for a wide-open three. If you can’t stop the drive in the first place and allow the guard to get too deep, the odds of you committing a second man, whether you want to or not, become that much higher. Depending on which defender this is, Tennessee can either live with the 1-on-1 or have to send #2. If you have to do the latter, you better be prepared to scramble. This ends up being an ugly shot by Vonnie Patterson of ETSU in part because Victor Bailey does scramble and never once gives up on the play:

Tennessee will have to hope they produce a lot of plays like this. It will take a full 40 minutes of excellent defensive work to steal a win. I believe Tennessee has it in them, but we’re asking for a lot from a team still figuring out its rotation and their ball-stoppers.

Expected starters

Metric explanations: MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.



Three things to watch for

  • How often does Tennessee force Villanova’s guards to post-up? It’s still not the best outcome in the world, but think about it this way: by forcing them to post-up, you’ve stopped the initial drive to the basket. 22 of Villanova’s 73 possessions against UCLA ended in a post-up of some kind; a similar 30% ratio here would be amazing.
  • How does Villanova defend Kennedy Chandler? Chandler already looks like an NBA player with regards to his driving abilities. Villanova faces a similar conundrum as Tennessee: commit too little and you’re almost handing Chandler two points; commit too much and you’re leaving one of Tennessee’s many shooters open for three.
  • Which team does the dirty work? AKA: who forces more turnovers? Who wins the rebounding battle? Against UCLA, Villanova had seven fewer turnovers but gave up three extra offensive boards; a critical late-regulation possession involved a UCLA miss followed by an OREB and two free throws.

Key matchups

Kennedy Chandler vs. Justin Moore. As far as I’m concerned, this is the premier battle of the game. You’ve heard enough about Chandler, but Chandler has yet to face anyone even remotely like Moore, a 6’4″ 210 battering ram who happens to be a very good outside shooter. By the way, 6’4″ 210 battering ram is precisely why I would prefer to only see Zeigler when Moore is out of the game.

Santiago Vescovi vs. Collin Gillespie. Gillespie is a serious Big East Player of the Year threat because he’s an amazing scorer at all three levels; Vescovi has also not had a matchup like this yet. Bailey and even Powell will get some run here, but the majority of matchups will be SV vs. CG.

Rick Barnes vs. Jay Wright. So far, Tennessee has had seven players average at least one three-point attempt per game. Tennessee is playing a team that’s had a lot of issues covering threes so far. Through two games, Rick Barnes has given 83% of on-court time to lineups involving at least four of those five players. How many ways can Barnes use these perimeter-oriented lineups to exploit Villanova’s defensive issues, both inside and out? How can he best use John Fulkerson in this regard? Can he get Olivier Nkamhoua matched up on the right defender as often as possible?

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee and Villanova combine for 50+ three-point attempts;
  2. This is a game within single digits both ways from wire-to-wire;
  3. Villanova 72, Tennessee 71.

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