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Tennessee-Villanova: Previewing the matchup with VU Hoops

Let’s get set for Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: Howard at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee gets its first true test of the season this weekend, as the No. 17 ranked Vols face No. 5 ranked Villanova in Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at 1 p.m. (ET) on Saturday. Based on Saturday results, either Purdue or North Carolina awaits on Sunday.

Vol fans might remember the last time Tennessee played Villanova — it was also at a neutral site game in the 2017 Battle for Atlantis. The Vols blew a double-digit halftime and lost. So here’s to that not happening again.

Moving on — I enjoy these back-and-forths we’ve been doing this football season, so we thought it’d be dope to get in touch with the ‘Nova folks and give y’all the pre-game low down. Dan Reagan, a Villanova graduate and staff writer at SB nation’s VU Hoops, was kind enough to answer my ridiculously long-winded questions without so much as a whisper of a complaint. What a guy!

1) For any Tennessee fans who didn’t see it, Villanova’s coming off a 100-81 shoot-out style win against Howard in which the Bison hit 11-straight shots at one point during the first half and then finished the game 12-24 from deep.

After the game, Jay Wright said he wasn’t upset at the first-half defense, and that his team was “doing a decent job. Not great.”

The game before Howard, Nova gave up 86 points in an OT loss to No. 2 ranked UCLA in Pauley Pavilion.

Both Howard and UCLA are good shooting teams, particularly from deep, but are there any big-picture concerns about Villanova’s defense, especially with Tennessee up next and hitting nearly 14 3s per game?

There certainly are! Villanova has been in a multi-year rut on the defensive end, not ranking in the top 35 in defensive efficiency since the title season in 2018. There have been some terrific defenders on those teams (Phil Booth, Saddiq Bey, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl) but in each of those four years, they’ve struggled mightily in two areas – defending quick guards and protecting the rim.

Collin Gillespie and Justin Moore are two of the most effective offensive guards in the country, but they’re giving up speed in almost every matchup. Whereas UCLA hunted matchups through Nova’s switching defense, Howard’s lightning quick freshman Elijah Hawkins didn’t even need to find a switch in order to blow by and put Nova’s defense on their heels. Once Villanova is beat at the point of attack, there’s not much rim protection to cover mistakes, and so quick and early help has led to good looks from 3. I don’t expect Nova’s opponents to shoot 40% from 3 all year, but I also don’t think that current percentage is exclusively due to bad luck.

Jay Wright has shown at least some awareness that defense will be a major issue all year. He’s shown more variance in his defensive looks early in the game and so I’d expect to see him mix in a lot of zone just to keep Tennessee off balanced. But ultimately, it’s easy to envision Kennedy Chandler presenting the same issues that Elijah Howard did on Tuesday.

2) Offensively, Nova’s no stranger to the long ball as the Wildcats are currently fifth nationally via Bart Torvik in 3-point percentage at a scorching 48.8 percent on 28 tries per game. Obviously, the sample size at this point in the season is limited, but are 3s usually this much of a staple in Jay Wright’s teams?

They sure are! As you likely know, Jay Wright first burst onto the national stage by going with a 4 guard lineup during the 2006 season, building his team around 3 point shooting guards. Despite the rest of the sport catching up to the realization that 3 is more than 2, Jay Wright’s teams are still outpacing the country. Villanova has ranked in the top 31 in the country in percentage of shots taken from 3 every year since 2014. The mantra is “Shoot em up, sleep in the streets”. Whether hot or cold, Villanova is going to take pretty much every open 3 that is available. And they’ve been hot so far, with all 5 starters shooting over 45% from distance.

Villanova will open a lot of possessions with simple entry sets to try to get the ball into the post against a small defender, and although guys like Justin Moore, Jermaine Samuels and Eric Dixon are all capable of scoring inside, these post-ups are mostly designed to suck in the defense and kick out to open shooters.

One of the main numbers I look at ahead of big games is the % of shots an opponent allows from the 3 point line. The higher that percentage is, the better I feel about Villanova’s ability to bait help defense and exploit it for open looks. Tennessee is currently just 331st in preventing 3 point attempts, and so I’m sure it will be a challenge for them to stay at home on shooters.

3) The Wildcats are shooting nearly 90 percent (!!!) from the free-throw line through three games and coming off a 26-26 performance against Howard. But they’re sporting just a 31-ish percent free-throw rate (171st in the country). Was the Howard game an aberration, or should Vol fans expect to see the Wildcats rack up a buncha freebies at the FT line?

With the “shoot em up, sleep in the streets” mantra, Villanova has never excelled at getting to the free throw line at a high rate. They actually missed a couple of big ones in the loss at UCLA, but ultimately this is a good shooting team that will convert the free throws they get, but drawing fouls is not exactly a priority for this team.

4) There’s four players averaging at least 16 points per-game on Nova’s roster right now. Guard Justin Moore leads the way at an even 19, and he’s followed by guard Collin Gillespie at 17.3, forward Brandon Slater at 16.7 and forward Jermaine Samuels at 16.

Moore, Gillespie and Samuels all averaged double-figure scoring last year, but Slater never averaged more than four points per-game in his previous three seasons at the school. His scoring pop is bolstered by what looks to be a newfound proficiency from 3-point range — he’s hit nine in three games this year after hitting a total of 13 3s during his first three seasons.

Is his ramped up scoring just simply a result of increased playing time? And are Villanova fans counting on Slater to keep up his pace?

Shhhh, we’re trying not to jinx it right now. Slater has always shown flashes and Nova Nation is excited to see him coming into his own as a senior. He looks like he’s completely rebuilt his body, changing from a wiry defensive disruptor to the chiseled head of the snake of the defense. He actually shot it fairly well from deep last year on very few attempts so Villanova was hopeful he could become a proficient enough shooter to make 35% or so of his wide open ones to keep the defense honest. Instead, after bricking his first two, he’s made 9 of his last 10 3s, some of them being fairly contested. He’s not going to keep up this pace, but he’s probably already done enough to drag defenders out to him and create more space for Gillespie and Samuels, and there’s hope now that he can be a real weapon on both ends of the floor.

5) The Vols are one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the country early this year as they’re sporting the nation’s third-best offensive rebounding percentage (48.3) in the country, per Bart Torvik. Again, small sample size, but is that an area where you could see Tennessee having an advantage?

Absolutely! Despite the aforementioned multi-year defensive slump, Villanova has found a way to survive on the defensive glass through sheer effort and energy. They also keep themselves in good defensive rebounding position because they don’t try to block a lot of shots. But this Villanova team is even smaller than the previous two seasons, and so Saturday will be a huge test to see if they can keep the Vols from killing them on the offensive glass.

Freshman Nnana Njoku has been limited in the early-going due to some lingering concussion and conditioning issues, but at 260 pounds, he might be asked to provide some minutes to help on the defensive glass.

6) Here’s one from the Rocky Top Talk Twitter followers.

@TennesseeVolun4 asks:

“Does Villanova have an edge due to their big, physical backcourt, even though the frontcourt has a more “small ball,” feel? And could this be a game where Nova’s alleged lack of depth might end up being a concern?”

That’s an insightful question and really sums up the offensive mindset for Villanova. They really try to invert you. They post their guards and they spread their bigs. Never was this more apparent than in 2018 when point guard Jalen Brunson was probably the most effective post player in the country, and center Omari Spellman shot 43% from 3.

Jay Wright has never truly been able to recreate that, but the spirit is still there. Moore and Gillespie use their size and strength to get deep into the paint and when opponents’ post players dig in to help, they’re happy to kick out to “bigs” like Samuels and Slater who can make 3s or attack hard closeouts.

As for the depth, it’s definitely a concern. The starting five has played extremely well. Caleb Daniels has struggled early but he’s a trustworthy sixth man. At the pace Villanova plays, they can survive games with 6-7 guys, but it results in such a small margin of error. In the UCLA game, Justin Moore got in foul trouble, Caleb Daniels struggled, and then Jay Wright was out of answers. With Moore out of the game, Villanova was -18 that night.

Jay Wright badly needs to develop two of the freshman into reliable 7th and 8th men, in similar fashion to what Collin Gillespie provided for the 2018 national championship team when he was a freshman. But it’s hard to develop depth when you’re playing a top 20 team. So I think he’ll likely just cross his fingers that no one gets in foul trouble like last week.

7) Prediction for the game? I mean, yanno, if you’re feeling it.

This looks like a mismatch on both ends, with Villanova likely being able to take advantage of Rick Barnes’ overhelping defense, and Tennessee very well equipped to give Villanova fits on the other end. In the end, I think it will be slow-paced shootout, with Villanova’s experience being the difference late. We’ll call it 72-68 Cats. And then both teams will cross their fingers to get to play UNC Sunday instead of Purdue, who I think may end up being the best team in the country when all is said and done.

If anybody’s interested, you can find the other side of this story here. I particularly enjoyed his question about Tennessee fans’ feelings about Rick Barnes contrasted to the larger-scale national perception on him and his career.

Thanks again to Dan for the help here.