Busting Brackets

Villanova Basketball: St. John's slaughters Wildcats by 20 in nightmare performance

Villanova's Justin Moore is trying to reassert himself as one of D-1's very best ball-dominant guards.
Villanova's Justin Moore is trying to reassert himself as one of D-1's very best ball-dominant guards. / Patrick McDermott/GettyImages

Before Villanova got manhandled by St. John’s in a 20-point, Big East massacre at Madison Square Garden, the biggest losses of the Wildcats’ 2023-‘24 season were a pair of 13-point defeats against St. Joe’s and Marquette on November 29th & January 15th; respectively. In rewriting that script, Rick Pitino and his patented press defense exposed Villanova’s ability to be strong with the basketball from the get-go. When the Wildcats’ ball handlers broke the Red Storm’s stifling press, the away team couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn from the outside and finished the embarrassing loss with 4 made threes on 25 attempts.

Amazingly enough, the trailing Wildcats shrunk the home team’s 10-point lead at intermission to just 5 points, 40-35, with 12:21 remaining in the game before the Red Storm pulled away for good. After the Iona transfer, Daniss Jenkins, drilled a three-ball to put his Red Storm up 8, 45-37, St. John’s never looked back from there; cashing in on Villanova’s early foul-trouble with solid execution at the charity stripe and pummeling the blue-jerseys in the rebounding department. Using its strength, size, and resilience to overpower and outwork Villanova on the glass, St. John’s grabbed 42 rebounds to the road team’s 23 including 15 to 5 in solely offensive boards. Other than TJ Bamba and Eric Dixon; who led ‘Nova in the scoring department via 12 & 16 points respectively, the Wildcats’ offense was pitiful from start to finish as the squad’s most trusted creators in Justin Moore (4), Mark Armstrong (2), and Jordan Longino (4) combined for a total of 10 points and never found any kind of rhythm.

As for Villanova’s three transfers in this forgettable catastrophe (not including Bamba), Hart, Ware, and Burton played a total of 50 minutes, made 3 of their 11 shots, and dropped 9 splendid points. In a game that’s always been about being able to shoot at least to some degree, it’s somewhat ironic how guys like Hart and Burton can get big minutes for a big-time program like Villanova’s. Once again, Burton and Hart couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat on their wide-open jump shots; making not a single one of their 7 three-pointers. While it’s true Hart and Burton weren’t alone in the sense that Moore, Longino, and Armstrong took 3 three-pointers apiece and missed all 9 of them, the latter group isn’t typically greeted with the kinds of wide-open, high-percentage looks that ‘Nova’s off-ball (positioned-) players seem to be getting time and time again. However, Longino and Armstrong (each) had at least one or two of those high-quality looks that didn’t go in against St. John’s.

If you’re a youngster on the prowl for some shooting guidance, Villanova’s Brendan Hausen is your guy to emulate. On the flip side, keep your distance from Hakim Hart’s push-shot; whose cringeworthy low-release produces a high-arcing moonball with an unpredictable, unreliable rotation to it that ensures a proportionately unpredictable result (AKA many more misses than makes). The same applies to Tyler Burton’s predictably off-jumper. Unfortunately, the Richmond transfer won’t be running any shooting clinics in the foreseeable future. Given the 23-year-old’s tendency to let it fly by excessively and deliberately bending his knees before his slow-motion results in a rainbow ball that ends in Brick City, it seems to me the wise decision is to avoid tape of Burton’s outside shot.

To be fair, both Hart and Burton can really guard and crash the glass at a high level; while Hart is especially talented as a driver and Burton has a nose for the ball in the paint and elsewhere. There’s no doubt they can hang physically.

For no good reason, or so it seemed, Justin Moore wasn’t bringing the ball up for ‘Nova virtually all game. Instead, Mark Armstrong was the guy Neptune pointed to; too often in my opinion. Yes, Armstrong’s innate speed and ball-handling ability are assets against a strong, full-court press like Pitino’s. At the same time, however, Armstrong’s inexperience is a liability that works against him and his teammates when it comes to facing Rick Pitino. Like we’ve seen before from Armstrong, he was pushing the ball at inopportune moments against the St. John’s defense; charging forward with a full head of steam into multiple white-&-red jerseys either waiting for him in the paint or (all the way) on the other half of the court leading to traps and ‘Nova - turnovers. Given both Longino and Moore’s skill sets, one would think both of them could’ve stepped up more than they did in a ball-handling, floor-balancing capacity.

If you’re Justin Moore, you have to know taking four shots isn’t going to cut it against most teams; let alone a team of St. John’s caliber & on the road. Every day of the week and twice on Sundays Moore has to shoot the ball double-digit times. While that’s obviously easier said than done, Moore needs to take ownership of his game; asserting himself as the kind of (impactful-) player he’s been virtually his entire career. Still, you can’t deny that having Moore and Armstrong on the court together puts the whole team in a bind from a ball-handling, floor-general standpoint. If Moore’s off the ball, his touches understandably go down; but if you put him on the ball, that leaves Armstrong off-it, and Mark can’t shoot. Also, Moore’s offensive game isn’t predicated on spot-up shooting.

Although he can knock down catch-and-shoot shots at a respectable percentage when called upon, he’s (more-) comfortable with the ball in his hands. Methodically maneuvering his way through the defense via direct dribble-drives, keeping his dribble alive in a less linear, more roundabout fashion, back-to-the-basket back-downs, or through the mid-range and step-back games, Moore is a three-level scorer who needs to have the ball in his hands more often than he did in The Garden tonight. While I can’t say (for sure) who’s at fault for Moore’s lack of involvement in the ‘Cats fourth Big East loss of the season, my initial reaction is to blame Pitino’s highly detailed scheme and Neptune’s lack of preparation for it. Known for architecting extremely effective full-court and half-court defenses since his head-coaching tenure at Providence in the 80’s, Rick Pitino is one of the best coaches in the history of the sport; not just at the college level. Pitino’s been outfoxing opposing head coaches for more years than I’ve been alive.

For starters, Neptune didn’t do his team any favors by sending 3 ball-handlers; or 4-total Nova players in close proximity with each other including the in-bounder, to retrieve the ball after a made-basket by St. John’s. As a direct consequence of this decision, the Red Storm’s zealous defense was able to tee-off on Nova’s struggling ball-handlers. In other words, the occupied space on the floor was crowded to the point where multiple St. John’s defenders were in position to trap the ball; on multiple occasions and in different areas. Rather than balancing the floor and/or sending help to the Nova in-bounder via multiple bodies, ‘Nova should’ve taken those 3 guys and moved them to the opposite side of the floor. That way, St. John’s press defense wouldn’t be able to sit at home; within mere feet of the in-bounder and with multiple bodies ready to wreak havoc by shrinking the court.

Pitino is a master at forcing ball-handlers toward the lines and away from the middle of the court (/space). To counter that, ‘Nova needs to be able to hit the middle of the court with an inbounds pass that travels some 25 feet; rather than sending 3 panicked ball-handlers to crowd your own in-bounder’s baseline as he’s trying to inbound the ball. After a made-basket, Nova should’ve replaced the 3 ball-handlers by leaving 1 of them and sending the other 2 to half-court. If the 1 guy is having issues getting open, that’s when my guys at half-court need to sprint to the in-bounder and show his hands.

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Strangely, the Cats seemed very rushed by the St. John’s press; and Kyle Neptune knew what was coming. Moving forward, the Cats need to dedicate their practices to breaking presses.

While the fact that Nova’s lost 4 of its last 5 games is hard to reconcile, the Cats are still 11-8 & 4-4 with plenty of chances to prove themselves.

Let’s Go Nova.