The biggest game of Gonzaga’s year is right around the corner, and we chatted with Eugene Rapay, the purveyor of fine content over at VUHoops.com to get some insider information on the Villanova Wildcats.
TSSF: Last year was supposed to be Villanova's year until March reared its ugly head. Villanova seems to be doing alright this year despite losing Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins. What can you tell us about this year's team that is different from last year's squad?
VUHoops: You take out Hart and Jenkins, simply plug in Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson into the equation and so far--the Wildcats have maintained their winning ways. Brunson was already one of the key players for the 'Cats, but he's continued to elevate his game to new heights. As for Bridges, he was already known as a great defensive talent, but now he's a complete player in that he's also a top contributor offensively. These guys have delivered when the 'Cats need them to. Aside from that, this team is a bit deeper and possibly has one of the bigger frontcourts in recent program history. The Wildcats have three 6-foot-9 guys in the mix--former 5-star recruit Omari Spellman, who had to sit out last year per NCAA decision, redshirt junior Eric Paschall, and freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Villanova had a really short rotation last season, but it can now go eight--and sometimes--nine deep.
TSSF: You guys play a slow as all get out tempo. What happens when other teams try to force the pace. Does Villanova respond, and if they don't, how do you keep the game pace going the way you want it to?
VUHoops: There was one game this season where Villanova ran uptempo for 40 minutes and that was against Nicholls State. It was definitely an outlier in that one--it's Nicholls State--and two, the Colonels ran a seven seconds-or-less type of offense that just made the game conducive to that type of environment. The Wildcats were able to hang triple digits, but all in all, Villanova likes to incorporate its tempo and style, which leans towards the slower side. In the Battle 4 Atlantis, it really slowed things down in the half court, and that's what the Wildcats generally like--time to get set and move the ball around. Brunson is a great point guard that conducts the offense and gets the plays set, he dictates the flow of the team on that end of the court.
TSSF: We are going to hear about Villanova in March again. Who are some of the lesser known players who are making big impacts on the squad so far this year?
VUHoops: Donte DiVincenzo is a great sixth man in the rotation. (Although, he cracked the starting five in the Wildcats' previous game against St. Joseph's.) He's one of the more athletic players on this team, with great speed, jumping ability, and quickness. DiVincenzo is a feisty defender, but offensively he's a highflyer that can also knock it down from deep. A redshirt sophomore, DiVincenzo has been a part of the system for three years now. He's familiar and only seems to be growing more comfortable and confident as time goes on. He has become a more consistent contributor to rely on and a secondary scoring asset right behind Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. Aside from him, also keep an eye out for Phil Booth. To everyone else, he might have slipped under the radar a bit, but to Villanovans--we've been watching him closely for the last couple of years. Booth scored a team-high 20 points in the National Title game against North Carolina a couple years ago, but overall that season as a whole wasn't his best showing. It turned out he had been playing through all sorts of knee issues and mono, and finally the knee problems caught up to him, forcing him to sit out almost the rest of the 2016-17 campaign after playing the first three games. Now healthy, he's been a solid contributor and one of the team's leaders. He can quietly have a good game, while the attention seems to be honed in on Brunson and Bridges. Booth is coming off of a strong all-around game against St. Joseph's where he did a bit everything--score, rebound, assist, and play tough defense.
TSSF: Gonzaga will be your biggest test of the season so far. What are you hoping to learn about Villanova in this game?
VUHoops: I hope to see who can step up in the big time moments and games, specifically players not named Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. When Villanova played in the Battle 4 Atlantis and got more of a test compared to the cupcakes to start the year, it became apparent that this team relies heavily on the Brunson-Bridges tandem--at least in that three-day span. They were the only ones to get in a groove offensively, and they made some game-changing plays defensively that got the Wildcats' going. While it was great to see the team come back and manage to win when playing from behind, the team looked helpless in stretches when the two had to sit out due to foul trouble. They're not going to be able to play the hero role or serve as a catalyst every time things look down. Who's going to step up? Who can make some big plays and be a consistent asset outside of these captains? Biggest test of the season thus far, did these 'Cats learn anything from their trip to the Bahamas?
TSSF: What are the things Gonzaga needs to do to win this game? What are some things Villanova can do to make life miserable for the Zags?
VUHoops: Gonzaga needs to contain or slow down Brunson and Bridges. Force the other Wildcats to have to beat them. It's always easier said than done, but the Wildcats seem to heavily depend on them in the big games. The Bulldogs should also run the 'Cats off the three-point line and force Paschall and Spellman to have to shoulder the work load inside. They struggled in Atlantis on both ends of the court, never seeming to get into a groove offensively and defensively they didn't protect the rim all too well. Johnathan Williams can be a big problem for Villanova. We've seen dominant big men perform well against the Wildcats in the past. He would be that first true frontcourt test this season. Regardless, Villanova loves the three-point line and will always be a guard-heavy team, but if it is silenced from deep--it'll spell trouble for the 'Cats.
For Villanova, it has to find the hot hand early from deep, spring ahead. The Zags aren't exactly the best at defending the 3-point line right now, allowing teams to shoot 38.7 percent from long range (288th in the country). Florida rattled off 17 threes and barely managed to beat Gonzaga in double overtime. Also, the Wildcats like to employ a 1-2-2 zone press. It's not exactly Shaka Smart's patented Havoc D, but it gives opponents problems. The Bulldogs did struggle against the Longhorns' defense, but found a way to win. If Villanova's press can generate turnovers and frustrate Gonzaga, that would be big for the 'Cats.
TSSF: Both teams are pretty balanced, offensively and defensively. Which do you think wins out? Are we going to witness a defensive slugfest, or are we going to witness a fine shooting display?
VUHoops: I think we're going to see some flashes of great offense, but for the most part, this will probably going to come down to a closely contested defensive battle. There are a lot of parallels and similarities between the two teams. If the shots aren't falling, you can always at least expect a tough, hardnosed defensive effort on the other end. Both teams have excelled defensively and a shootout would surprise me.