In lead up to today’s Top 20 vs. Top 20 matchup between the Texas Longhorns and the Villanova Wildcats, Burnt Orange Nation had an opportunity to converse with editor Catherine Blake over at VUHoops.com.
She opened up on what makes Villanova such an elite program through Jay Wright’s coaching philosophy and their ability to develop 3-4 year college players into NBA talents. Plus, a prediction on the outcome of today’s game.
The Wildcats return three of their top four scorers from last season, including a potential future NBA lottery pick in power forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Nova enters this game with a 3-1 record, they lost to Virginia Tech in overtime last Saturday.
It’s worth nothing that Nova’s starting big Jermaine Samuels is a game-time decision today due to a sprained finger injury.
Burnt Orange Nation: Villanova has arguably been the nation’s best program over the last five years or so. They’ve finished ranked among the final AP Top 6 teams in five of the last seven seasons. This speaks volumes to the championship-winning culture Jay Wright has built. For a program that has never had a one-and-done talent, what makes Wright’s teams so special year in and year out?
Catherine Blake: Some coaches start with the players and then devise a system that fits their personnel – Jay Wright does the opposite. Jay’s philosophy, specifically on offense – position-less basketball premised on creating space and generating three-point shots – demands a certain type of player. More often than not, Jay has found success in recruiting four-star players and molding them into exactly what he wants. I think Jay has found success in identifying the types of players that fit into Villanova’s system and has built a program focused on developing them into ruthless Villanova’s cyborgs once they are on the campus. I think you see something similar with Tony Bennett and Virginia – they have a program built on a very efficient, and very difficult, defensive scheme. That scheme is deployed more effectively with players who have been doing it for two, three, four years. Jay has Villanova humming right now largely due to the fact that he has stayed committed to recruiting the “right” (“Wright?”) players for the system.
BON: On one hand, Villanova returns one of the nation’s most talented rosters. On the other, they enter this game a week off sub-par performances against Boston College and Virginia Tech. What must Villanova improve on to prove they’re still one of the nation’s best teams?
Catherine: Villanova’s calling card on offense is precise ball movement and generating open three-point shots. So far this season, the team has struggled to shift defenses off the dribble and has yet to consistently get into a rhythm on offense. Even when ‘Nova players have shot well this season, the shots have often been contested and with a degree of difficulty that is hard to maintain. Overall, the team needs to figure out a way to shift the defense earlier in the shot clock and open up the floor a little bit. If Villanova is hitting open outside shots (something they are specifically built to do from 1-5), they will be tough to beat.
The defensive schemes Jay likes to run take time to settle – they always do – so struggles on defense, while frustrating, are not new to ‘Nova fans. We look at defense as a fine wine that slowly ages and improves as the season goes along. We lack any real elite individual defender this year (with the departure of Saddiq Bey) so the focus will be tightening up as a unit.
BON: Besides potential future NBA lottery pick Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and scoring guards Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore, who’s the biggest x-factor on this Wildcats team that can make them a more complete team than they already are?
Catherine: I think the X-factor is Caleb Daniels. Daniels is a transfer from Tulane who sat out last season. When Saddiq Bey elected to remain in the draft this summer, expectations for Daniels increased exponentially. Despite not being initially recruited by Jay, Daniels is a prototypical Jay Wright guard. He’s 6’4, solidly built, a great shooter, and moves really well without the ball. He picks his shots really well - averaging 14.0 points a game on 56% shooting from the field and 47% from three. Villanova fans are looking for him to take a bigger role in the offense, potentially with spells at point guard as well to allow Gillespie to play off-ball.
BON: In terms of building a foundation for a program, no one has it done it better than Jay Wright at Villanova and Mark Few at Gonzaga. They seem to develop players better than any other program. How enjoyable is it to watch role players develop into NBA-caliber players by the time their career is over at Villanova?
Catherine: I think being able to watch players develop over 3-4 years has given Villanova fans a true appreciation for the fundamentals of the sport and the philosophies that make a team successful. Jay Wright has incredibly high standards for his players and it’s amazing to watch the “buy in” and how these players continue to improve while at Villanova. While the obvious benefit to the fans are the national titles, we love watching our players develop into the complete product that many NBA teams are looking for and Villanova has a reputation in the NBA for providing well-rounded and professional players – there is nothing better than that and our guys deserve it.
BON: Is there any coach in college basketball that has a dapper suit game than Jay Wright? Would you be opposed to not requiring college basketball coaches to wear suits?
Catherine: Bias aside, I think Jay Wright is obviously the best dressed in college basketball. However, with the return of Rick Pitino, I anticipate having to suffer through a number of cringeworthy SportsCenter segments as the season progresses. As for a coach dress code, I have not given it much thought. Sometimes I think about how baseball managers wear team uniforms and find myself fantasizing about Jay in a pair of Jordans and a shooting sleeve.
BON: There’s a reason Villanova is the Big East favorite every year. Who’s the biggest contender to the Wildcats right now in the conference? If the Big East expands, what two teams would be on Nova fans wish list to join?
Catherine: This year the ‘Cats will likely have to hold off the Creighton Blue Jays. The Blue Jays return most of their squad, specifically Marcus Zegarowski and Mitchell Ballock, and are a team that often gives Villanova fits. We still have PTSD from Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge firebombing us (Creighton went 21-35 – 60% - from deep) – including 9 straight – and throttling ‘Nova by 30 in 2014. If Creighton can figure out how to replace Ty-Shon Alexander (not an easy task), then I expect it to come down to ‘Cats/Jays at the end of the season.
As for expansion, with the addition of UConn the conference now stands at 11 teams. I think the most logical addition is the Dayton Flyers. As a small Catholic basketball only school, UD is very similar to most of the conference and - with the addition of Creighton, Xavier, and Butler – the conference has already expanded geographically in that direction.
In a perfect world with teleportation, Gonzaga would be the absolute prize. Prior to the addition of UConn, there were discussions on our site about whether adding Gonzaga and St. Mary’s would be possible. Obviously, for about a thousand different reasons this would be difficult BUT, in theory, it would have been awesome.
BON: Prediction for today’s game — who you got and why?
Catherine: Villanova is heading into the game shorthanded – senior starter Jermaine Samuels is questionable while senior Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and sophomore Bryan Antoine remain sidelined by injury. This means Villanova will basically be running with 7 guys. Relying on a short rotation is not new for Jay Wright but the margin for error is very thin especially if anyone gets in foul trouble.
Beyond that, Texas’ strong perimeter defense will be a challenge for a ‘Nova team that always looks to pull away from deep. My gut says the Longhorns do enough to keep the ‘Nova offense in check.
Overall, I think knocking off the Longhorns at home is a tough ask even for a team at full strength. Texas squeaks by in a close one.