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Virginia at Villanova: THE BIG PREVIEW

Virginia heads to #1 Villanova Sunday to face the reigning national champions.

Villanova v Miami
Jay Wright - the second best dressed in college basketball - leads the Wildcats.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Hoos passed the first half of their hell week with flying colors, taking down the Fighting Irish in South Bend 71-54. For most of the contest the game was closer than that final score would indicate, but the Hoos definitely outplayed the Irish. Repeating this performance on the road in Philadelphia against Villanova - the #1 team in the country and reigning national champions - will be a much more difficult task.

If you went just by the polls, the Hoos would be big underdogs. Villanova is ranked #1 and the Hoos are ranked #12. However, if you go by advanced metrics, the Hoos look pretty good. On KenPom, the Hoos rank fourth and the Wildcats rank fifth overall. Jeff Sagarin ranked Villanova fifth and the Hoos seventh. ESPN’s BPI ranks Villanova first and the Hoos third. Pretty much any way you look at it, this is one of the best college basketball match-ups of the entire season.

The Wildcats are 19-2, with losses to Butler and Marquette. The Marquette loss was their last game, so they are looking to avoid their first losing streak since March of 2013 when they lost to Louisville in the Big East tournament, followed by a first round NCAAT loss to UNC. The Hoos are riding high, winning 5 in a row including the road win over Notre Dame. The Hoos have been the best road team in the nation over the past 3 years. However, the Wildcats have lost just once at home in the past three years (an OT loss to Providence last year).

You may recall that the Hoos knocked off the Wildcats last year in Charlottesville, 86-75. The Hoos were led by Malcolm Brogdon (20 points, six rebounds, six assists) and Anthony Gill (22 points and seven rebounds). The Hoos grabbed almost 60% of their own misses in that game, winning the rebounding battle 31-19. They also shot lights out, going 26-for-46 (56.5%) from the field, 26-for-30 (86.7%) from the line and 8-for-12 (66.7%) from three. The Hoos averaged 1.43 points per possession, their best offensive performance of the season, while Villanova was at a very respectable 1.25 points per possession. In other words, despite the reputation for defense, the Hoos won that game with offense.

That might be the route to go again this time around, because Villanova is very, very good offensively. They are led in that category by Josh Hart, a popular pick for National Player of the Year. Hart averages 19 points per game, along with about six rebounds per game. He’s shooting 38% from three and well over 60% inside the arc. At 6’5”, 215, he’ll be seeing an awful lot of Devon Hall, who may be the best defender he’s faced this season. Hart is quick enough to get to the rim, and strong enough to finish inside. Hart mostly plays on the wing, but he’ll also handle the ball quite as bit and initiate the offense. He’s a good passer, though more in transition than on his dribble-drives. When he gets into the lane, he’s looking to finish.

Though the Wildcats rank 321st in tempo, they do like to run, and Hart is often in the middle of those fast breaks. Like most of the Wildcats, Hart has quick hands and is always looking to force turnovers. The team ranks 35th in steal rate, though they rank just 152nd in forced turnover rate. They look for steals, but they don't gamble. Additionally, they contest shots very well.

Next to Hart on the wing is Kris Jenkins, the hero of last year’s championship game. Jenkins shoots over 41% from three, but does little else. He’s taken over two thirds of his shots from three. He’s also 6’6”, 235, but averages just four rebounds per game. To start the game, he’ll be lined up as the ‘four’, meaning Isaiah Wilkins would be on him, but Wilkins may not be capable of handling Jenkins outside. That would also remove the Hoos’ best shot blocker from the paint.

Wilkins is more capable of handling Jenkins than he would be of handling Mikal Bridges, the ‘three’ in Villanova’s starting lineup. Bridges redshirted as a freshman despite being a top-100 recruit. There simply weren’t minutes for him. That decision has paid off, as he is one of the top offensive players in the nation. He’s a 40% thre point shooter, but he’s also very good off the bounce and in the lane. This season, he’s shooting 55% from the field and 91% from the stripe. Marial Shayok will line up against him and hopefully his length will help slow down Bridges. Bridges averages just 10 points per game, but that is mostly because he doesn’t always seek out his shot. He’s just a sophomore and his time will come over the next couple of years once Hart and Jenkins are gone.

The Wildcats lone big man is senior Darryl Reynolds, a 6’9”, 240 beast inside. He’s very strong on the offensive glass and he’s a good shot blocker. He isn’t going to score in the post or face up his man and take him off the dribble. He averages about six points and six rebounds per game in just 25 minutes. When he’s on the floor, expect Jack Salt to be as well. Nobody else on the Hoos has the strength to bang inside with him. Salt, much like he did to Notre Dame’s Martinas Geben and Georgia Tech’s Ben Lammers, can completely neutralize Reynolds, but that won’t impact Villanova as much since they don’t rely on Reynolds to score points.

Opposite London Perrantes is sophomore Jalen Brunson. Brunson is actually the second leading scorer for Nova, despite a reputation as a pass-first PG. Brunson leads the team at just over 41% from three and also helps lead those fast breaks. He averages 14 points and four assists per game. Brunson’s play will be a big key for this game because he’s he’s going to be tasked with following Perrantes around. He's not a very good one-on-one defender, though he is one of the four Wildcats who average better than a steal per game (along with Hart, Jenkins, and Bridges). Brunson can be out-muscled by bigger players and can get lost on defense from time to time. His quick hands bail him out, but that’s not going to help him much against a guy like Perrantes. Will he be able to provide his usual offensive burst while he’s also expending so much energy on defense?

If Brunson can’t slow down Perrantes, then Hart will probably switch onto the Virginia PG. That would bring one of Eric Paschall or Donte DiVincenzo onto the floor. One (or both) of them will also play when the Wildcats go small with Reynolds on the bench. Because the Hoos are such a perimeter oriented team and do not have an inside scorer, we may see a lot of the smaller lineup. Paschall is a stretch four, but he’s actually not that great a three point shooter (27%), and he’s a decent interior scorer. At 6’7”, 250, he can be a load to handle inside, but he’s more comfortable outside. DiVincenzo is more of a traditional wing. He takes more than half his shots from three (31%), but he’s also good in transition. DiVincenzo will even be asked to run the offense on occasion, usually when Brunson is on the bench and Hart needs a breather. He’s another guy who will be a bigger part of the offense once Hart and Jenkins are gone.

As a team, the Wildcats shoot almost half of their shots from three. So even though they are just 65th in three point percentage, they can absolutely beat the Hoos by shooting over the top of the Pack Line. In their loss to Marquette, they shot just 6-for-34 (17%) from three. In their loss to Butler, they were 6-for-26 (23%). That’s how they lose. In their road win over Purdue (their best win of the year), they were 7-for-17 (41%).

Defensively, the Wildcats play tight man-to-man defense on the perimeter. If the Hoos had a reliable post-scorer, that would be the way to win this game. But they don’t, which means they’ll have to shoot the ball well. Villanova is 16th in the nation in three point defense, but Marquette shot 9-for-19 (47%) from beyond the arc. Marquette was at 1.14 points per possession, with Villanova at 1.11. Again, that is the recipe for knocking off the #1 team in the country. The Hoos defense is very good, but unless the Wildcats struggle from outside, the Hoos are going to have to win this game with offense.

Finally, the Hoos have to take care of the basketball. They simply can’t win this game if the Wildcats are able to get easy points in transition. Outside of that, the Pack Line will take care of things inside. That will force Villanova to take a lot of threes. Hopefully, most of those are contested shots. Then you just hope they don’t hit too many.

Game tips at 1pm on Fox. Stay with Streaking the Lawn for all your coverage needs!