So Villanova, a now perennial top 10 team, hasn’t made the second weekend of the tournament since before the Phillies acquired Cliff Lee for the first time. What’s the problem?
I love Jay Wright and the style his teams play– it’s been wildly successful, it’s always entertaining, and it’s led to a 141-61 record since making the Final Four. And yet, no Sweet 16 appearances since. The issue, I think, is the same thing that typically makes Nova so damn good: their freewheeling style of play.
Jay’s teams run a motion offense, which relies more on spacing, talent, guidelines, and, well, motion than it does set plays. Instead of a scripted series of passes and cuts, the motion offense it designed to give players – particularly guards – options to shoot, pass or drive at virtually any moment. Big men and swing players set screens while guards scatter around the perimeter looking to shooting or drive. This is the reason Jay’s teams are always guard-heavy and why the four-guard offense worked so well in 2005-2006– their stellar guards were given the freedom to create.
But that sort of thing is also very predictable and one-dimensional and susceptible to turning sour against athletic teams that clog the lane, if the threes aren’t falling. It’s why Villanova looked awful against Florida in the
2005 [UPDATE: 2006] Elite Eight. It’s why they’ve shot under their season average from three in each of their tournament losses since 2010. It’s why they keep getting upset in March.
This isn’t just as simple as living and dying by the three. Though always below their average, Villanova hovered around 33% on three-pointers in their recent tournament losses. Not great, but often not catastrophic (except for against North Carolina in 2013– 19%). Their shooting woes are typically compounded by the absence of any reliable scoring alternative, even just to break a prolonged drought.
While the Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Kyle Lowry and Mike Nardi team got so much attention in 2005-2006, the little secret among Nova folks is that the 2004-2005 and 2008-2009 teams were better constructed, more balanced, and the more legitimate title contenders.
The 2004-2005 team may very well have not needed a bullshit traveling call in the Sweet 16 to go the other way, as a foul on North Carolina, had Curtis Sumpter not torn his ACL in the second round. He was their best player and added a dimension of NBA-caliber size and athleticism that Jay’s teams often lack. At the time, Villanova was flying under the radar and yet had more talent than the team that earned a one seed a year later.
In 2008-2009, Villanova relied as much on big-ish swingmen Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson and Shane Clark as they did on guards Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and the underachieving Corey Stokes. They crushed UCLA and Duke in the tournament with ferocious defense and a well-balanced attack (and beat Pitt on Reynolds’ run into your hearts). Down the stretch it was the play of Cunningham and Anderson (specifically Cunningham’s proficiency to hit jumpers from the top of the key), and great team defense, not the guard-centric offense, that carried Villanova.
The things everyone talks about when it comes to Villanova – four guards, Scottie Reynolds, goofy-looking white point men – are not necessarily what’s helped to produce Jay’s best teams on the Main Line.
For much of the last two seasons Villanova’s motion offense has operated flawlessly. The team was incredibly deep with a glut of outstanding ballhandlers and better than usual big men. They looked more like the 2009 team than the 2006 team, and that was a good thing. Their passing was crisp, virtually everyone could shoot, and the big men were more than adequate against the B-level competition in this thing vaguely resembling the Big East.* And make no mistake, Villanova was a Final Four caliber team this season. But the prospect of having an off-shooting night against a big, athletic team was always what could derail them. And it’s what happened against NC State.
*That’s not a shot at the conference. This is the best possible Big East that can exist today, but schools like Xavier, Butler and Creighton don’t draw the NBA-level talent as Syracuse and UCONN.
The constant motion and ball movement that looked so effortless all season disappeared on Saturday. It was replaced with standing around, forced shots, and guards dribbling the ball down to a deflated piece of rubber. It reminded me of a particularly ugly loss to St. Joe’s at the Palestra a few years ago during which Scottie Reynolds stood near half court and waved his arms frantically for everyone to get out of his way. Nothing was going right that night and the offense had stalled. Villanova got crushed. To me, that game is the canonical example of what can go wrong with the motion offense when it loses its motion. Things never got that bad against NC State – far from it – but many of the same symptoms were present: Arcidiacono dribbling in circles, everyone jacking up contested threes, big men not quite good enough to finish consistently, lots of standing around. This is what happens when you don’t have set plays to turn to. The motion offense is great when it’s working, but when it’s not, all the practice in the world can’t prepare players for the frustration that comes from an off-shooting night and three huge defenders clogging the lane. Villanova’s lack of a go-to play anywhere near the paint to calm a panicky offense is what, again, doomed them.
The jackass Georgetown grad from the Washington Post was right when he warned against teams in the NCAA Tournament that rely on threes. But again, with Villanova, shooting problems are often compounded by the lack of an adequate post game. Teams will always regress to the mean, so it’s difficult to sustain a tournament run on shooting alone. I have no problem with teams whose strength is the three ball, but the best ones often have complementary facets to their offense, a multi-pronged attack to balance off-shooting nights. You need reliable big men, or, perhaps more specifically, since JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ocehfu were at times dominant this season: balance. Whereas most top seeds require an outlier to lose, Villanova, even as a one seed, seemingly requires a series of outliers just to play to the level of their seed.** They simply don’t have an alternative to driving or jacking up threes, and it’s no surprise that the one year they did – 2009 – they made the Final Four.
**Defined as getting the game where you’re no longer the favorite. Villanova hasn’t even come close to doing this in three appearances as a one or two seed since 2010.
I truly think this may have been Jay’s best team ever, and I honestly believe they were deep and well-rounded enough to make the Sweet 16 with ease. Still, knowing nothing about NC State, I feared playing an inconsistent ACC team, talented enough to earn an at-large bid, this early in the tournament. Think I’m lying? Here are my text exchanges with my friend Matt, also a Nova grad, who appeared on our podcast with Jay Wright last year. From last Sunday night: Continue reading