The haters are going to come out in full force on this one. The anti-Nova crowd is going to criticize me for being a hypocrite. The Nova apologists are going to hate anything negative anyone says about Nova.
It's a lose-lose scenario. Plowing ahead…
Last night's debacle can be used as microcosm for the entire season. Villanova played a strong first half against sub par competition. This allowed them to built up a large, 16 point halftime lead. They had done little to prove they rebounded from their late season funk, but looked good enough to make us all believe anyway.
Then, instead of going in for the kill, they played a passive brand of basketball that allowed South Florida to get back into the game. That, coupled with their shots not falling (0-for-5 from three in second half), completely erased the lead. Yet, Villanova was still left with a chance to win the game. They didn't. They blew it in epic fashion, missing two critical free throws and turning the ball over on the second of two poorly designed inbounds plays. They didn't deserve to win.
And that's really how this season went: a strong start against mostly weak competition was erased by poor play in the end.
I was wrong
In January, after watching Villanova soundly beat Louisville, I was convinced that they had turned a corner and put last year's disappointing finish to rest. In fact, I declared them a Final Four contender.
As someone who went to Villanova, starting in the same year as Jay Wright (2001), I would venture to guess I've seen about 90% of the games he’s coached there. That other 10% is mostly games that weren't televised. I would also hedge a bet that I've attended about 80% of Villanova’s home games in Wright’s time, covering some of them for the student newspaper. I felt (still do) that qualified me to proclaim them legitimate Final Four contenders.
During the Louisville game, it looked as though Villanova had finally put it all together. They were moving the ball efficiently, taking good shots, and forcing turnovers by outworking the opponent. In effect, they were – as cliché as it sounds – playing Villanova basketball. A brand of the sport they hadn't played in nearly two years.
A few days after that Louisville game, they beat a sub-par Maryland team. They again looked good, both literally and figuratively. That day, they debuted new Nike Hyper Elite Jerseys, the same ones worn by the likes of Duke and Kentucky. Perhaps they were bad luck.
Down the stretch
In the 15 games Villanova has played since beating the Terps, they are 5-10. 5-10.
Those 10 games include double-digit losses to Providence, St. Johns, Notre Dame, and Pitt… home losses to Georgetown, Pitt, Syracuse, and St. Johns… and devastating losses to Rutgers and South Florida. Rutgers and South Florida.
Their wins? Not too shabby: Syracuse, Marquette, West Virginia, Seton Hall and DePaul. However, they barely squeaked by Seton Hall (by 3) and needed overtime to beat dreadful DePaul. Syracuse was the lone ranked team (at the time of the games) they beat during that stretch.
Prior to that point, Villanova beat aforementioned Louisville and Cincinnati- both top 25 teams. They will get into the tournament based on those wins. But when you look at it more closely, you begin to understand that those wins aren't all that impressive. They are against teams ranked 16, 18, and 21 in the RPI, respectively. That doesn't exactly make them elite.
Villanova is also 3-8 (3-7 RPI top 25) against ranked teams. When you play 11 top 25 teams, you're bound to win a few of the games. Villanova won the easier ones. Still, that team, the one that beat those schools (along with Temple, Marquette, and UCLA) will get into the tournament.
Here's the problem: Villanova, as we see them today, is not the same team.
Maybe it wasn't even the Maryland game… or the jerseys. Not only is Villanova 0-5 to end the season – by the way, a team has never lost five straight games to end the season and made the NCAA Tournament – but they are also 2-6 since playing Pitt on College Gameday. Perhaps it's ESPN's show cursing Villanova. Last year, they were 2-4 after playing Syracuse during the same event.
No, that's not it.
I'm a big believer in the eye test. Numbers can only tell you so much. They can only tell part of the story. In this case, 0-5, three wins against top 25, and 21-11 only tell you part of the story. The team that lost to South Florida last night is not the same team that went 16-1 to start the season.
This isn’t new
Young players have struggled down the stretch for Jay. In 2003 and 2004, when Allan Ray and Randy Foye were underclassmen, the team struggled mightily in February and March- barely making the NIT in 2003. In 2008, when Scottie Reynolds was a sophomore and the Coreys, Fisher and Stokes, were Freshmen, the same thing happened, as Villanova slid its way into a 12 seed. Last year, with Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek as freshman? Same result.
In case you haven't noticed, Wright runs very few offensive sets. Instead, he uses a motion offense to rotate his highly skilled ball handlers into mismatches. It's a thing of beauty when it's working- like it was in 2005 (sweet 16), 2006 (elite 8), and 2009 (final four). When it's not working, the team winds up with four field goals in a half- like they did last night.
The system relies heavily on players making good decisions. Wayns, who is one of the primary ball handlers on this year's team, is not there yet. That doesn't mean he won't be – it took Foye and Ray two years to get the hang of it. But he’s not there yet. Cheek and Isaiah Armwood suffer from the same problem. And Fisher and Stokes, who are both seniors, aren't doing a very good job of handling the load.
What you're left with is a bunch of bad shots, snuffed-out pick-and-rolls, and a lot of dribbling to nowhere. Sometimes you just need a few set plays. Villanova doesn't have them.
I'm reminded of a moment in the 2008 game against St. Joes – which Villanova was blown out in – when a frantic Scottie Reynolds waved off all of his teammates as if to say "get out, I got this." It gets real ugly, folks.
That's the team we're seeing now. A team that can't right itself when the going gets tough. A team that looks lost on the floor.
On top of that, you have Armwood punching guys on the court, Wayns wearing blinders, and Stokes displaying almost zero improvement since his sophomore year. What that leaves us with is a 5-10 team that is entirely different from the 16-1 team that started the year. A team that is likely going to make the NCAA Tournament. Heck, they’re even talented enough to win a couple of games in the dance by accident. But, from what we’ve seen on the court – epic, mind-numbing losses and careless play – Villanova doesn’t deserve that chance.
When you take their body of work as a whole, the way the selection committee will, you see a record deserving of a bid. However, if you’ve seen the slop that’s been put on the court in the second half of the season, you understand that Villanova is in no way an NCAA Tournament team.
By the time the big dance starts, it will have been almost a month since Villanova’s last win- an overtime victory against DePaul.