no·va | noun
a star showing a sudden large increase in brightness and then slowly returning to its original state over a few months
Man, is Nova the perfect name for any team coached by Jay Wright, or what? If that definition of a big, bright, shining star (that’s not being portrayed by Mark Wahlberg) that flames out doesn’t sum up the general history of the Wildcats under Wright, I’m not sure what does. And once again, Villanova has gotten out to an outstanding start, racing to a 10-0 start and looming as the biggest non-conference challenge of the year for Syracuse.
I know that I’ve typically pointed out embarrassing alumni for our opponents, but to be honest, looking through Villanova’s most famous alums, there weren’t many that would fall under the umbrella of being embarrassing. It’s not like I’m going to mock Jim Croce. I couldn’t go after Easy Ed Pinckney, either, not only because I really enjoyed the guy as a player but also because when my dad used to work as a camp counselor at the Dartmouth summer basketball camp, he got to know Pinckney there, so he’s always held a special place in my heart.
Instead, let’s focus on the fact that, by and large, Jay Wright’s teams have flamed out after a few months time and again, just like the school’s (nickname) namesake. And as far as that photo goes? Well, that’s a pretty crappy looking Chevy Nova, which as a car also followed the path of both an actual Nova and the Wildcats. The car started out kind of awesome looking, only to turn into kind of a joke over time. And finally, let’s take one more potshot at Villanova, courtesy one Barney Gumble, who once said “All I can remember about the last two months is giving a guest lecture at Villanova. Or maybe it was a street corner.”
Well, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s move on to business. Basketball business.
Unfortunately for Syracuse, this has the look of one of the best Villanova teams in recent memory. There have been some awfully good ones, so that’s a pretty big statement. As with most of Jay Wright’s teams, the 10-0 Wildcats are perimeter oriented, and don’t feature a lot of size. Nova only has one player taller than 6-foot-8, and that’s the 6-foot-11 Daniel Ochefu, a junior center who averages 9.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks-per-game while shooting 66% from the field.
After Ochefu, the Wildcats are a bit on the small side, which actually could work to Syracuse’s advantage since the Orange have been forced to play a little bit small with Michael Gbinije logging more minutes at the small forward position in recent games. Of course, with the emergence of Tyler Roberson, who came back from a nagging injury with the best game of his career against Louisiana Tech, that may change.
Villanova is on the small side but does a decent job rebounding, averaging 35.4 per game, and the Wildcats are nearly four rebounds per game better than their opponents this season. The Wildcats also do a great job pestering their opponents into turnovers, forcing 16.3 per game while only giving it away 11.3 times themselves. A pretty telling stat so far this season is the assist to turnover ratio for the Wildcats as opposed to their opponents. Nova dishes out 15.3 assists, while their opponents have only averaged 10.0 helpers.
The perimeter guys leading the way for Villanova are Dylan Ennis, the older brother of Tyler, Darrun Hilliard, and Josh Hart. All three average double digits, with Ennis leading the balanced scoring attack with 12.3 points per game. As a perimeter oriented team, the Wildcats have the ability to stretch the floor with a team three point percentage of 35%, with Ennis draining 45% and Hart sticking 40% from beyond the arc as the team’s top bench player.
JayVaughn Pinkston is a 6-foot-7 forward who will start down low alongside Ochefu, and comes in averaging 9.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, and Ryan Arcidiacono will start alongside Ennis at the point guard position. Arcidiacono has struggled from long range this year, hitting just 21% from deep and 29% from the field, but Syracuse fans should remember (and loathe) him from his freshman season in 2012-13, when he knocked down a three pointer with 2.2 seconds left to force overtime in a game that Nova would ultimately win over the Orange, who at the time were ranked No. 3 in the nation.
To say this will be a tough game for the Orange is stating the obvious, and at this point we all know that the real keys to the game are keeping Rakeem Christmas out of foul trouble, getting a strong performance from Chris McCullough, seeing the continued growth of Tyler Roberson, and getting Kaleb Joseph to play under control against an experienced and talented backcourt. It would be nice to see Trevor Cooney continue to settle down and become more consistent, and one of the keys to building on his outstanding performance against Louisiana Tech will be to continue attacking the basket more frequently, and working from the inside out to find his points.
With the game being in Philadelphia, this would be a great game for Philly’s own BJ Johnson to come alive, but his playing time will almost certainly depend on the health of Roberson and how well Johnson is able to rotate and cover his area of the 2-3 zone. A Jay Wright team with this much experience is going to be very dangerous against the zone, and even the tiniest lapse on the defensive end will result in BJ finding a spot on the bench.
While it would be great to get a win over a highly rated opponent in a true road game, it’s going to take one heck of a performance from the Orange. Of course if they want to have any shot at making a run at an NCAA tournament berth, now is the time to start taking some scalps and building the resume. A road win over a strong Villanova team would go a hell of a long way toward bolstering the team’s case in March.