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Summer Buzz: Villanova Wildcats

8/25/2010

For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? VillanovaInsider. Up next? Tennessee.

Throughout former All-American Scottie Reynolds' tenure at Villanova, the Wildcats had a familiar defensive tendency. They fouled. Correction: They fouled a lot.

The thing is, for the first three years of Reynolds' tenure, it didn't seem to matter. In 2006-07, 2007-08, and 2008-09, Villanova always ranked below the Division I average -- including two seasons far below it -- in opponent free throw rate. But those same three years saw the Wildcats post adjusted defensive efficiency rankings of Nos. 18, 34, and 15, respectively. How? By taking care of the other three defensive factors (opponents' offensive rebounding percentage, effective field goal percentage, and turnover percentage) well enough that a few free throws here and there didn't make much difference.

Then, in 2009-10, the wheels came off. Villanova's defense wasn't abysmal, but in allowing 94.0 points per 100 possessions it ranked No. 62 in the country. For much of the season, we assumed Villanova would compete for a Final Four spot. Even during a late-season swoon, most assumed 'Nova was better than they were playing. In the end, though, maybe they weren't. Maybe their defensive deficiencies were just too much to overcome. The offense, after all, was pretty darn good.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying this much: Scottie Reynolds might be gone, and the Wildcats will usher in a new wave of talented players, but the foul woes that plagued Villanova are likely to remain.

After all, the Wildcats were fouling long before Reynolds arrived. (And Reynolds, to his credit, had the lowest fouls committed per 40 minutes mark of anyone on 2009-10's team.) Only once since 2004-05 has a Jay Wright-coached team ranked in the top 200 in opponents' free throw rate. That year was 2005-06; Villanova ranked No. 198. There may be something systematic at work here.

More pertinent, though, is the increased visibility of a suite of Villanova players who committed their share of fouls last season. There's Corey Fisher (3.7 fouls committed per 40 minutes) Antonio Pena (4.9), Maalik Wayns (4.9), Mouphtaou Yarou (6.3) and Maurice Sutton (7.8 [!]). Isiah Armwood gets a pass for his limited usage last season, but even he committed 6.6 fouls per 40. Read together, those tallies look less like foul averages and more like the collective GPAs of valedictorian candidates at one of those high schools that gives extra GPA credit for A+ grades and advanced placement classes. ("What was your high school GPA?" "7.4!" Uh, what?)

The point is, there are still plenty of foul-prone players on this team. Some of them have major roles already. Some of them will be expected to step in. Either way, they're likely to keep committing fouls.

Naturally, that doesn't doom Villanova's season. Quite the contrary: If Villanova has shown one ability in Wright's tenure, it's that his teams are often able to overcome their willingness to send opponents to the line so frequently.

There is plenty of good news about this Villanova team, too. With a glut of big men ready to step in and take on larger roles -- especially senior forward Pena -- the Wildcats could be as balanced as any team Wright has ever coached. They might not need to rely on stellar guard play. They might not need the individual brilliance of a player like Reynolds.

And perhaps most importantly, a bigger and more balanced Villanova lineup -- one that can score without playing three or four guards -- could help the Wildcats cut down on those fouls. The Big East is a big conference; being bigger can only help. That goes for shoring up the defensive glass, too.

Whatever the improvements, though, it's hard to imagine a young team that commits as many fouls as the 2009-10 Wildcats did getting anywhere near the Final Four. Villanova remains talented. They might be more balanced than ever. But unless they morph into the nation's best offense (unlikely given Reynolds' offensive efficiency) or figure out a way to create more turnovers (possible, I guess), or learn to keep opponents of the glass (doable, especially with more size and depth), they're on track to suffer through the same issues as 2009-10's impressive but ultimately disappointing team.