Busting Brackets

Impact of Villanova's earlier loss to Drexel Dragons

Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

It’s hard to win when your team can’t shoot; especially if your misses are coming-off of so-called “good looks”. To the surprise of just about no one, the Drexel Dragons came prepared for this Big-5 matchup (against Nova) by playing zone-defense; an excruciatingly similar defensive-scheme to the Quakers’ and the Hawks’ (own) defensive-strategies during the pair’s (respective) victorious efforts against the Cats earlier this season.

While the Ivy Leaguers and their A-10 neighbors were able to beat the Wildcats by deploying more of a 2-3 zone, the Dragons settled on a 3-2 zone-defense; one that inherently emphasizes guarding the perimeter. With the defensive prowess of its 6-foot 10-inch senior-forward, Amari Williams, on full-display (as he was stationed) at-&-near the basket, Drexel’s rim-protection runs through Williams’ presence alone; and his play (is what) gives his whole team the flexibility it needs to send an extra defender to the perimeter.

As if the Cats hadn’t already struggled against a zone-defense over the course of the past few weeks, Drexel added insult to injury by completely disarming the Cats’ attack en route to the favorite’s third straight-loss in the Big-5. In what’s becoming a major theme, Nova sunk just 20 of its 61 field-goals including 5 of its 27 three-pointers. Given the vast extent of Nova’s trials and tribulations on the offensive-end against the mediocre Dragons, summing up its efforts as merely being “bad” wouldn’t be a fair characterization. Nova was horrible.

While there’s no doubt it was a miserable experience (in) watching Nova’s four-transfers (and) score just 17 total-points on a 6 for 24 shooting-effort in 77 minutes of combined playing-time, coming to terms with the post-Achilles (injury) version of Justin Moore hasn’t been easy; and one could argue the fifth-year senior’s 4 points on one made field-goal (out of 11) against a team of Drexel’s perceived caliber maybe the lowest point of his storied college-career. Out of the nine players that saw action in the Cats’ disheartening loss, Germantown Academy’s Jordan Longino and Abington High School’s Eric Dixon were the only ones who seemed remotely comfortable; as the former dipped-in for 13 points while the 6-foot 8-inch big man was able to contribute a game-high (scoring-) total of 21 points.

As a formidable interior-threat, however, Dixon’s accustomed to attacking defenders in the paint; and the Dragons’ zone was so stifling that it forced Dixon to take six three-pointers. Although he did end up with six points off of six three-point attempts, the fact that Dixon shot six-threes and accounted for 40 percent of the team’s made three-pointers (2 of 5) doesn’t bode well for a team that’s supposed to have a capable backcourt.

Other than Dixon’s (pair of) three-pointers, the Cats made just three long-balls for the entire game; as Hart (1-3), Longino (1-3), and Burton (1-6) each nailed one. In 20 minutes of game-time, sophomore-guard, Brendan Hausen, never scored and struggled to find clean-looks while missing all four of his deep-balls.

As for the 10 and a half-point underdogs, the Drexel Dragons overcame the bookie’s odds with its efficiency and its balanced-attack; which was headlined by an 8-for-16 shooting-effort from-3 in addition to the fact that nine of its ten players scored (and) at least two-points. As Williams’ 12-points complemented his defensive contributions whilst leading Drexel’s scoring-attack, 6-foot 4-inch senior-guard , Luke House, dropped 11 points of his own and represented the only other player to reach double-figures for the Dragons. For the entire game, Drexel made 24 of its 49 shots and was thankful that it did; given how the yellow-jerseys handled Nova’s ball-pressure (and physical-defense) from start to finish.

While Nova’s defense was solid enough that it forced the Dragon’s ball-handlers into turning the ball over on double-digit occasions, no defense; no matter how good it is, can be expected to stop the kind of 3-ball that the Drexel Dragon’s drained in this game’s second-half; an end of shot-clock, miracle-heave from beyond the arc that banked-in off-the-glass. For the Dragons, it was just that kind of day.

From the get-go, Nova’s superior size and athleticism played a noticeable role in the team’s ability to clean the offensive-glass and create (its own) second-chance opportunities. After out-rebounding the Dragons 38-to-30 and by-12 in solely offensive-rebounds, the Cats gave the impression they could physically wear down Drexel’s interior any day/night of the week; despite the fact that Drexel’s primary rim-protector (Williams) blocked 5 shots. That being said, winning the battle in-the-paint doesn’t necessarily translate to winning the war; especially if you’re struggling to make open-shots off-of kick-out passes (-after grabbing offensive rebounds).

As far as coaching goes, Nova’s head-coach (in) Kyle Neptune probably wishes he had another shot at handling the game’s final sequence. To refresh your memory, Nova was in-possession of the ball, trailing by-2, during the game’s final 30 seconds and, disappointingly, Neptune’s squad never even got a shot-up that (also) hit-rim. With one-timeout (left) in Nova’s back-pocket, Neptune allowed his offense to go to work for about 23 or 24 seconds before calling time-out just as the game-clock hit 6 or 7 seconds (still remaining in the game).

Curiously, Neptune called time-out right as (the clock hit 6 or 7 and as) Nova’s ball-handler (at the time; in) , Maryland-transfer Hakim Hart, was dribbling the ball just inside the free-throw line and, most importantly, about to take the Dragon’s last defender off-the-dribble to the rack. Right after the referee blew his whistle in order to stop-play and (to) grant Neptune (/Nova) the right to use his team’s final-timeout , Hart can be seen driving to the basket and (making the shot by) finishing with his right-hand off-the-glass. While Hart’s made-bucket obviously didn’t count because it came well after the whistle, Hart’s move to the rim was interrupted by his coach’s decision to call timeout. Had Nova’s young head-coach allowed the game to take its natural course, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Hart gets to the rim; and if he doesn’t score, at least he finds rim, and there’s a good chance he ends up getting fouled.

Once Neptune called timeout, he put his team into a (inbounding-) situation that’s never been a main-strength of Nova-teams; and this team’s no exception. Just last week, the Wildcats struggled enormously with the execution of its inbounds-plays; particularly the ones that came underneath the same rim they’re trying to score on.

After the timeout, Nova was able to get the ball into Justin Moore’s hands with 6 tics remaining. Despite the fact that Moore was (arguably) the coldest player on the floor for the Cats, Neptune still called time-out and, then, he drew-up an inbounds-play that’s designed to create multiple actions off-of the initial pass; with Moore being the primary point of emphasis. Once Moore received the ball, he turned his back to the basket and began (in) backing-down his on-ball defender, as he’s used to doing, only Moore’s teammates weren’t chomping at the bit to fill the unoccupied-space (out on the perimeter) that was situated behind their ball-handler.

Due to the fact that this Nova squad is so reluctant to take outside-shots, Moore’s teammates had no interest (in) moving towards the open-space on the strong-side of the floor that was also in Moore’s line of sight. With limited time and limited options (at his disposal), Moore brought the ball into the paint after a few backdown-dribbles and had no-choice but to rise-up; amongst a sea of yellow-jerseys. Unsurprisingly, one of the Dragon’s interior-defenders had no problem (w/) blocking Moore’s shot; and as the ball bounded towards half-court the game-clock reached zero.

While the action that appeared following the game’s final-timeout didn’t result in the outcome that Nova was hoping for, the design of the (final) play-itself was fine. What wasn’t fine, however, was the fact that Moore’s guards (/teammates) failed to make themselves available (out of the timeout) and, prior to that, Neptune’s original-decision to call timeout. After Drexel converted its go-ahead (game-sealing) lay-up with 30 ticks left to-play, Neptune had a few options. He could’ve called timeout immediately, not called timeout at all as Nova’s possession took its course, or he could’ve called timeout (at any point and) if he thought one of his players was in-trouble (to the point where a turnover was possible). Instead, Neptune appeared to be of the mindset that he was going to let the game play-out (w/out interfering) ; given how much time he allowed to come off the clock. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, (a) time-out was called just as Hart was dribbling the ball (and positioned) inside the foul-line and about to take-on the only man between him and the basket.

With the ball in your team’s hands, a (one-possession deficit or a) two-point deficit, and 30 seconds (or a lot of time) left to-play in the game, there are a lot of ways you can go about navigating this situation. You can try to extend the game as long as possible; which involves attempting to tie and/or take the lead in the first 10 seconds of your possession. Or, you can run your typical offense and take what the defense gives you; being sure to take a good shot.

In Nova’s case, the favorites had a clear advantage on the offensive-glass; all game. Instead of expressing their own knowledge of that fact (by shooting the ball at some point) , they moved the ball around the court until it reached Hart’s hands; only for the second-year head-coach to call timeout. During the game’s final-possession, the ball eventually found the hands of Nova’s Jordan Longino on the court’s right-side; who (then) was able to utilize a few backdown-dribbles before the Drexel-defense applied pressure by collapsing around him.

At that moment, the GA-product unloaded the ball to (his) teammate TJ Bamba with a bounce-pass (that arrived) thru-traffic in the painted area. After Bamba received the ball on the court’s left-side, he decided to leap thru the air in an attempt to get to his strong/right-hand (to score); only to be met by Williams. Once Drexel’s primary shot-blocker made his presence known and forced the Nova-transfer (in mid-air) to get rid of the ball, Bamba luckily managed to get the ball back to where it had just come from; Longino’s hands. From there, Longino found Hart (w/ the ball) on the left-side of the floor; and, then, the Maryland-transfer took a few power-dribbles (in-)to the middle of the floor. Just as Hart squared his shoulders (which meant he was going) to make his move to the front/side of the rim, Neptune called Nova’s last time-out.

Sadly, the Cats (after the last timeout) never managed to get the kind of look that it had with Hart in the middle of the floor. For whatever reason, it’s pretty obvious (that) Neptune has his doubts about Hart’s offensive ability. Had Neptune been confident in the Maryland-transfer’s ability to score off-the-bounce, he wouldn’t have felt the need to call time-out. From a broader perspective, you would think Neptune brought Hart aboard (this summer) because he’s been giddy with excitement over the kid’s potential. With the All Big 10 honorable mention player in a one-on-one offensive-situation (and) positioned no more than 13-14 feet from the rim, Hart was clearly in an ideal position to score. Everyone but Kyle Neptune saw that.

Until the Cats’ offense proves (to its competitors) that (mainly) its guards can consistently beat a zone-defense, Kyle Neptune and his troops are going to continue to face it. In the event that Nova’s upcoming-opponent(-s) doesn’t (or don’t) rollout a zone-look, they either have a stellar man-to-man scheme or they haven’t done their homework. Let’s just put it this way; the case cannot be made that Nova’s been improving against zone-defenses. After the Cats dropped 72 points versus the Quakers (and its zone) on November 13th, Nova regressed and scored 65 in its next Big-5 loss. To cap-off Nova’s 0 & 3 (win-less) run in the Big 5, Drexel limited the main-liners to its lowest point-total of its 9-game season thus far (55).

If Nova continues to shoot the ball like it has been (lately), the Cats are going to be forced to play with a faster pace. Simply speaking, Neptune’s decided to stay true to his predecessor’s (style; which includes featuring a) deliberate tempo; but such a strategy only works when you’re able to knock-down (perimeter-) shots and execute in a half-court setting. Unless you’re dominating the offensive-glass; which isn’t a hallmark of past Nova-teams, slowing down the pace means less possessions and fewer shots. On the flip side, this squad clearly isn’t like the majority of Wright’s teams. If a slow-pace hangs around moving forward, that could mean Nova’s (either) finding a way to get second-chance opportunities or draining its jump-shots.

Judging by Nova’s body of work so far, the idea that this team is going to (miraculously) find three-point shooters in a blink of an eye seems unlikely. If that projection holds true, Nova is going to have to play textbook-defense and clean-the-glass. While guys like Bamba, Burton, Ware, and Hart can’t exactly be expected to make it rain (3’s) from the outside, asking them to guard at a high level has to be the standard; as they all move-well, have-hops, and are strong, physical players. Although the mantra “defending-without-fouling” is a core-value of Nova’s program, players like Mark Armstrong need to abide by this principle more willingly; as the sophomore-guard’s five-fouls in (his 16-minutes of) the St. Joe’s loss suggests he hasn’t wrapped his head around this concept yet. Sprinkle in some effective press-defenses, and Nova can prolong the opposition’s possessions and create turnovers.

Still, Nova’s immediate future depends on its ability to punish zone-defenses. If anyone on the Villanova bench can knock-down open-shots, they need to play. Brendan Hausen, a kid who’s proven he can shoot, needs to shoot more than four shots. In the event that Nova’s (upcoming-) opponents play-zone, which it’s hard to imagine they won’t, the Cats’ attack can’t afford to take all-day to shoot the basketball; as long-possessions that also end-in no-points are a problem.

If I were Kyle Neptune, I’d attack a zone by running my offense through someone, anyone who’s comfortable (in) making a jump-shot from the free-throw line. I’d place Longino at the free-throw line extended-mark on the floor, Dixon nearest the basket and in the short-corner (and) on the weak-side (/opposite the ball), the wings (like Bamba, Burton, Hausen, Hart) would be my spacers, and Moore would be my point-guard.

If Big-Arch’s little-brother raises his hand at practice and says “I’m going to make shots, Coach”, I’m responding by putting that kid into the ball-game. If I’m Neptune, I need to put aside whatever my perceptions are about the rest of his (or any player’s) game and its (/his) weaknesses; as being able to score points happens to be my team’s most pressing issue. I’m also going with Armstrong; given his offensive upside, and I’m telling him to avoid fouling-guys at all costs. And, Mark, you’re coming out of the ball-game the (same) second you commit a less-than ideal foul.

Perhaps most of all, I’m preaching poise (if I’m) in Neptune’s shoes. We don’t have time for bad-fouls, turnovers, and a lack of attention to-detail. When a shot goes-up, I need all-5 guys putting your body into someone (to box-out; and) on both ends of the floor. If we know player-X is a (good-) shooter, we have to run-him off the perimeter by closing-out, under-control.

Unfortunately, Nova does a lot of this stuff already. What the Cats don’t do (enough) is make shots.

Following Drexel’s heroics over the Cats, Nova took to the road to challenge the Cats of Kansas State on KSU’s home-floor. In what ultimately amounted to a gut wrenching, one-point overtime-defeat to the purple-&-white, Nova hung around despite being forced to play the entire second-half without the services of its back-court leader, (in) Justin Moore; who was sidelined due to an apparent knee-injury.

Not unlike the confusion that transpired during Nova’s final-possession against Drexel (when Neptune called timeout), the last-possession of regulation in the KSU-loss was underwhelming. With the score tied and under 20 seconds left to-play in-regulation, Nova’s TJ Bamba gained possession of the ball and advanced it over the half-court line after his teammate, Hakim Hart, (initially) stripped the ball from KSU’s ball-handler. As precious seconds were coming off the game-clock, Bamba and Nova’s offense took forever to get organized and, through all of the commotion, Neptune looked-on without calling time-out. Eventually, Nova got into its pick-&-roll set by sending Lance Ware out to (past-) the perimeter to try and set a screen on Bamba’s defender; in hopes of freeing up space for TJ to take the ball into the paint or (for him to) rise-up and shoot. As Bamba proceeded to take several dribbles that didn’t go anywhere and (also) failed to put pressure on the KSU defense, Neptune never signaled for a time-out; despite the fact that his troops had no clear-plan (and) in the game’s most pivotal moment prior to OT.

Unsurprisingly, the Washington State transfer (then) came-off of Ware’s on-ball screen and chucked-up a well-defended, low-percentage outside-shot that clanked off the rim as time-expired (-sending the game to OT). Still, Nova earned itself a four-point lead with under-90 seconds remaining in-OT after Eric Dixon drilled a clutch 3-ball. From there, KSU luckily managed to cut the deficit to 2 (-points) by converting a nearly uncontested lay-up (that came to-be only) after the purple-&-white jerseys narrowly avoided turning the ball over when Nova’s Dixon knocked the ball loose and KSU recovered it (/the loose-ball) near half-court.

Trailing by a deuce at 71-69 (and) after Nova failed to add to its lead, Kansas State brought the ball across half-court and immediately called time-out with roughly 13 seconds left in OT. To cap-off its efforts (in) erasing a four-point deficit in a span of a minute-&-change, Kansas State drew up a play for its 5-foot 11-inch point-guard, Tylor Perry, to go to work; and the senior-transfer (who arrived) from North Texas delivered with a go-ahead, step-back 3-ball over the outstretched arms of Lance Ware that won Perry’s team the hard-fought game.

Lacking the services of Justin Moore (due-to-injury) in Nova’s most recent game since its measly, one-point loss to KSU, Nova overcame Moore’s absence and yet another uninspiring shooting-display to beat the Bruins of UCLA in Philly (/at-home) ; 65-56. In lighting the spark that ultimately propelled the Wildcats to victory during the game’s second-half, Nova’s sophomore-sharpshooter, Brendan Hausen, got Nova-Nation fired-up by drilling a pair of back-to-back 3-balls from the left-&-right wings; the first of which was an absolute bomb that had Steph Curry range written all over it.

Over the course of that two-game stretch, the Wildcats’ shooting was remarkably consistent; just not in a good way. In both games, Nova drained 11 3-balls and finished the back-to-back stretch (of games) with a three-point shooting mark of 33.33 percent; as it drained just 22 of its 66 3-balls.

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With its Big East conference-schedule on the horizon, the Wildcats know they’re a physical, defensive team that (also) cleans the glass. If Nova wants to be successful in the Big East, however, they’ll need to knock-down more shots.

C’mon Cats, Who’s going to step-up ?