Busting Brackets

Big East Basketball Bubble-Battle on Hump Day: Seton Hall Smacks Villanova, in Garden State

Villanova v Seton Hall: With 3 points on 1-for-7 shooting and 2 turnovers against Seton Hall, 'Nova's up-&-down point-guard, Mark Armstrong, had one of his down games last night. Mark, when you're open, shoot the ball! The worst that can happen is you miss.
Villanova v Seton Hall: With 3 points on 1-for-7 shooting and 2 turnovers against Seton Hall, 'Nova's up-&-down point-guard, Mark Armstrong, had one of his down games last night. Mark, when you're open, shoot the ball! The worst that can happen is you miss. / Rich Schultz/GettyImages

Winners in 5 of their last 6 games entering Wednesday night’s rematch with Seton Hall, Villanova made the short trip to New Jersey for their second to last Big East game of the 2023-‘24 regular season full of optimism regarding their NCAA Tournament chances. Less than a month ago, ‘Nova trounced Seton Hall by 26 points in Philly; turning over the Pirates’ best player, Kadary Richmond, 6 times and holding the Hall to just 54 points. As is often the case in college basketball, playing the same opponent on the road can be a far different story. Sprinkle in some (extra-) motivation for the home team by way of back-to-back blowout-losses ahead of the rematch, and you’re left with a nearly unrecognizable matchup once game 2 tips off.

Before the Pirates returned home to host the Wildcats, the New Jersey natives were ripped to shreds on the road by Creighton and (then) U’Conn; 85-64 & 91-61 respectively. While it’s true (that) Seton Hall thoroughly outplayed Villanova in the Garden State last night, the ‘Cats got off to a strong start; jumping out to a 10-4 lead in the game’s first 3 and a half minutes thanks to early baskets from Justin Moore, Eric Dixon, and TJ Bamba. Unfortunately, Kyle Neptune hit the grounding running in the wrong (kind of) way no more than 4 minutes after-tip. Yanking Justin Moore from the game merely 4 minutes into it, Neptune’s decision to give his best guard an early rest wasn’t ideal; given his ‘Cats were up-6 (10-4) and number-5’s fingerprints were all over the game in the early going. Catapulted by Moore’s early 3-ball, steal, and steadying presence on both ends, ‘Nova sprinted out to an early 6-point advantage, 10-4, only to watch that lead over the next 3 minutes shrink to 1, 13-12, as Moore looked on from his spot on the bench.

(About) Midway thru the first half, ‘Nova’s Galloping Ghost, Eric Dixon, drained a 3-ball to give his ‘Cats a 4-point lead, 19-15, with 10:12 remaining. In the game’s opening 10 minutes, ‘Nova’s 6-foot 8-inch power-forward was able to get himself going offensively with 8 points but he also turned the ball over 3 times. After Dixon’s 3-ball gave the ‘Cats a 19-15 lead, Villanova’s offense came to a screeching halt and scored just 5 (more-) points in the first half’s final ten minutes. To be specific, ‘Nova’s guards didn’t look confident; passing-up far too many open-shots on the perimeter and in the mid-range while struggling to dribble-penetrate against Seton Hall’s revived defense. Once halftime rolled around, Seton Hall had all the momentum; leading by 6 and what felt like 12 as both teams made their way to the locker room.

In a relatively low-scoring, but (still) typical Big East battle, 18 (combined) 3-balls were made including 9 from each team; while Seton Hall needed just 23 attempts compared to ‘Nova’s 27. According to Fox Sports 1’s in-game announcers, Seton Hall is one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the nation; roughly 300th in all of Division-1. Entering last night’s matchup, Seton Hall as a team had just 157 3-point field-goals in 29 games; averaging nearly 5.41 3’s per game and making those 157 3’s on 500 attempts (31.4 make-percentage). As for Villanova, they’re a high-volume 3-point shooting team; with 271 long-balls on 793 attempts (34.2 %) prior to last night’s contest. Poised to do whatever it took to get the win, the Pirates weren’t shy from beyond the arc against Villanova’s strong defense; stepping outside their comfort zone and jacking-up about 6 more 3-balls than they’re used to on a typical night. Other than the 2023-‘24 Pirates’ most consistent 3-point threats, Dre Davis & Al-Amir Dawes, Seton Hall has been short on 3-point shooters all year, but Dylan Addae-Wusu and Kadary Richmond hit 4 3-balls between the two against ‘Nova last night. While it is true Addae-Wusu and Richmond have been struggling mightily from 3-point territory (both well below 30 % this season) , both players have proven they can shoot the long-ball at a high level in past years.

Early in the second-half, the Pirates built their lead up to double-digits and stayed solid from there; only looking slightly vulnerable once when ‘Nova’s sophomore-sharpshooter, Brendan Hausen, hit a deep-3 and was fouled before completing the 4-point play (at the line) and cutting the Hall’s lead down to 6, 50-44, with 6:06 remaining. On the following possession, the Hall’s Kadary Richmond responded by breaking-down his on-ball defender using his strength and savvy as a NBA-quality scorer; creating space and rising-up for a contested jump-shot from 18-feet that he buried. Still, Villanova pulled within 4 of the Hall with 5:03 remaining, 48-52, when Addae-Wusu held Hausen on an inbounds pass; sending Hausen to the line where drained both.

After Hausen drilled his second free-throw at the 5:03 mark, Kyle Neptune pulled him from the game and replaced him with Hakim Hart; a clear “offense-for-defense” substitution that has its merits. From my perspective, however, making possession-by-possession (late-game) coaching-moves with 5 minutes still left in the game seemed a bit over-the-top. Once Hart entered the game for Hausen, the Hall’s Dre Davis went right at him in the mid-to-low post; drawing a foul on the eager Hart that (sent Davis to the line &) allowed the Hall to extend their lead to 6 with less than 5 minutes remaining. Although Hausen reentered the game (for Hart) as Davis sunk his free throws, it was tough watching Hart more-or-less hand 2 free-points to the (Hall & their) 83 percent free-throw shooter in Davis. Hart, who transferred in from the University of Maryland after last season where he earned All Big Ten honorable-mention honors and averaged over 11 PPG, hasn’t been producing at the level ‘Nova Nation was hoping he would. Last night, the 6-foot 8-inch versatile small-forward saw the court for just 18 minutes, scored 5 points on just 4 shots, and wasn’t his normal, wreaking-havoc self on the defensive end; finishing the 10-point loss with no steals, no blocks, and 2 fouls.

Sadly, last night’s disappointing loss to Seton Hall was a microcosm of Villanova’s entire-season thru 30 games. Like always, Villanova’s defense came to-play in the Garden State; making Seton Hall work for everything while keeping them(-selves) alive as the game wore on. Unsurprisingly, Villanova’s guards got very little going on the offensive end; putting too much pressure on Dixon to score-&-facilitate as guys like Mark Armstrong aimlessly dribbled around with no clear-plan and a cringe worthy shooting-touch at-&-near the rim. Dixon, who led the ‘Cats with 14 points, turned the ball over 5 times and was asked to handle the ball more than he should be. The only other ‘Cat to reach double-digits was TJ Bamba (11 PTS) , and 5 of his (11) points came during garbage-time.

At 17 wins, the 2023-‘24 Villanova Wildcats need at least 2 more wins if they want a realistic chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. If the ‘Cats don’t beat Creighton in their last regular-season game; which is a tall task in and of itself, they’ll have to win at least 2 games in the Big East Tournament & Madison Square Garden. While winning 2 Big East Tournament games is perfectly doable, I wouldn’t call it a likely outcome; just like I wouldn’t call ‘Nova beating Creighton this coming Saturday all too likely. That being said, a (second-) win over the nation’s 10th best team, the Creighton Bluejays, would be HUGE in terms of ‘Nova’s Tournament chances.

Five days before Christmas, Eric Dixon had a career game (32 PTS) in Omaha and his ‘Cats upset the Bluejays in OT; 68–66. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say Greg McDermott is NOT going to allow Dixon to take over the game this time around. In other words, the Bluejays’ head-coach is prepping his team’s defense, as we speak, for Dixon, and while Dixon’s certainly a great player, the chances of him dropping 30-plus points or even 25 in this game are very slim. However, Villanova needs to do what they did last time to pull-off the improbable win; pull Creighton’s rim-protector, Ryan Kalkbrenner, out of the paint and force him to guard Dixon or whoever in-space and away from the basket. Chances are, McDermott isn’t going to allow Ryan to guard Dixon 1-on-1 all over the floor like last time; meaning Dixon will have to take care of the ball, stay aggressive, and pick-&-choose his spots carefully in the half-court.

If the ‘Cats can score against Creighton (or virtually anyone else), they can compete ‘till the bitter end. If they can compete, they can pull-off a win with some inspired play from Justin Moore and Eric Dixon. I hate to put all the pressure on Dixon and Moore; but those guys have been there (&) done that (before).What I will say is this, if you’re open you have to shoot the damn ball! I’m looking squarely at you, Mark Armstrong. Your speed and quickness isn’t worth a red cent when you refuse to take open-shots after you’ve beaten your perimeter defender and penetrated the D; especially those from 10-15 feet. Dixon, my man. Take care of the ball and don’t be afraid to pull-up from 15-feet to-shoot. I know you like to work-off your defender, but we want you taking on-balance, 15-footer’s rather than having you back your man down so he can get help from one of his teammates or two.

Lastly, this is for you Kyle Neptune:

It’s now or never. Justin Moore and Eric Dixon (probably) need to be on the court for more than 31-or-32 minutes (like they played against Seton Hall). Give them their puffs, but they shouldn’t be missing anymore than 2-or-3 minutes per-half. Now’s the time to shorten your rotation and motivate your upperclassmen to lead. I need Hakim Hart to get to the rim, he can’t just be a defender. He’s too big, too athletic, and too skilled to be merely a 3-&-D guy who can’t really shoot the 3.Oh, and please don’t pull Hausen (again) immediately after he makes a 3-ball. I know you got him right back in after you pulled him with 5 minutes left against the Hall, but the damage-is-done by that point. What I mean by that is this: Hausen looks to you for confidence. I know his defense scares you half to death, but it’s improving and what you gain on the other end of the floor (by keeping him in) outweighs whatever you think you might be losing for one-possession defensively. Everybody knows your roster isn’t ripe with shooters or guys who can score at-will. Having that understanding, we gotta empower Hausen when the time is right. And the time is ALWAYS right once that kid sees one go-in.

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You’re the best pure-shooter in Villanova history, Brendan Hausen.

Time to show the Bluejays who the f**k you are.