Villanova was 20-1 on February 5th, 2010. Since that point, the Wildcats went 5-7 and lost in the second round to WCC champion Saint Mary’s. So what went wrong with the 2nd seeded Villanova team?
Put simply, the team went away from its best features and assets. Villanova is at its best when it employs an aggressive, run-and-gun style offense which feeds upon its equally aggressive defense. Villanova has speedy guards in Fisher, Reynolds, and Wayns, among others, that can simply outrun defenses and finish at the basket. However, towards the end of the season Villanova went away from this style of offense. The team was not getting as many steals and stops on defense, which limited the offense’s ability to get out on the break on steals and missed baskets. In addition, the Villanova offense did not attempt to get out on the break and beat the opposing defense down the floor after made baskets by the opposition. Instead, the familiar scene of Corey Fisher walking the ball down the floor became just that, too familiar. The team, admittedly, does not play as well in the halfcourt set as it does when it is running and pressuring the defense. Therefore, the team’s scoring and explosiveness was severely limited when the ball was walked up the floor, which occurred far too often down the stretch, and especially against Saint Mary’s.
In the Saint Mary’s game, Villanova looked fairly flat for a majority of the game. Corey Fisher walked the ball down the court and got the offense into its halfcourt set on almost every possession. The team just was not explosive enough in this offensive style. The only extended period where Villanova did not look flat was towards the end of the game, when Villanova was causing steals and was running on about 5 consecutive possessions. Freshman guard Maalik Wayns was the guard who initiated the fastbreak most often and with the most effectiveness down the stretch. He drove down the floor and finished at the hoop himself several times, and also assisted Antonio Pena on the break on a play that, after a free throw by Pena, would tie the game at 51 and looked to turn the momentum in Villanova’s favor. This was when the Cats were playing their best, and a sustained effort for 40 minutes with this style of play would have almost guaranteed the team a trip to the Sweet 16 to play Baylor.
The second problem for Villanova was the fact that Antonio Pena saw less and less playing time as the season progressed. Maybe it was the emergence of Mouphtaou Yarou that limited Pena’s playing time, but whatever the reason, it resulted in a less explosive offense for Nova. Mouph is a great player, and will continue to progress throughout his career at Villanova, but Pena arguably would have been the most improved player in the Big East if the award were given halfway through the season. He was beginning to emerge as a dominant inside presence and was becoming an integral part of the offense. So what happened? Pena started playing less and less. Why? Pena did struggle against Syracuse, and Mouph did play well against Syracuse and down the stretch, so this may have led to the decrease in playing time for Antonio. Another potential reason for Pena’s limited playing time was his size. As the team advanced into the latter parts of the season and the tournament, Coach Jay Wright knew that the Cats would be facing taller, more athletic, and more talented players. Pena is only 6’8″, while Mouphtaou Yarou is 6’10” and Maurice Sutton is 6’11”. Could this have led to the increase in playing time for both Yarou and Sutton, and led to the decrease in time for Pena? If it did, it wasn’t a smart strategy. Last year, when the team went to the Final Four, the team was led by “big” men Dante Cunningham (6’8″), Dwayne Anderson (6’6″), and Shane Clark (6’8″). This team beat Pittsburgh, with dominant big men Dejuan Blair and Sam Young. Coach Wright went with experience and productivity over size, and the results were very impressive. Why then, did Jay feel the need to play 2 relatively unproven freshmen over a slightly smaller, but exponentially more experienced and productive Antonio Pena, especially when the team played so well with him in the lineup consistently? I don’t know the answer to that, but it led to the early elimination of the Cats.
Specifically, against Saint Mary’s, the Gaels’ Omar Samhan was dominant inside. Samhan is a 6’11”, 260 pound senior who averages a double double per game (21.5 ppg, 10.9 rpg). Samhan dominanted Villanova. He was 81% from the field and scored 32 points. He could not be defended by Mouphtaou, who primarily guarded Samhan. In addition, Mouph was giving the Wildcats no offensive production. Mouph scored 4 points in 17 minutes, and went 1-4 from the field. Antonio Pena scored 9 points in only 12 minutes, and was 4-6 from the field. While I am not saying that Pena did a better job while he was guarding Samhan, I am saying that he certainly did not do worse than Mouph. This statement is not a degradation of Mouphtaou, because Samhan was unbelievable and could not have been stopped by anyone that day. However, Antonio Pena brought an offensive presence to the game while he was in the game, which would have been extremely important for 2 reasons. First, and quite simply, Nova needed more points. Pena was a much more viable option for scoring, and his presence would have both allowed him to score more and would have allowed his teammates to have more scoring opportunities because of the increased attention on Pena. Second, and arguably more importantly, Pena’s offensive capacity would very likely have put Samhan into further foul trouble. Omar Samhan had 2 personal fouls in the first 10 minutes of the game. He finished with only 3. Villanova could not find a way to force Samhan into foul trouble and out of the game. With Antonio Pena in the game for longer stretches, Samhan would have had a decision to make. He would have either had to play much more passively in order to avoid fouls, which would have allowed Pena to score at will, or Samhan would have had to play aggressively to prevent Pena from scoring, which would have drawn fouls on Samhan and forced him out of the game. This would have greatly diminished Samhan’s effectiveness and would have greatly increased the chances of victory for Villanova, because Samhan was by far the Gaels’ best option in the game. Samhan’s exit would have reduced the Gaels to a predictable, 3 point shooting offense. In the two ways described above, Antonio Pena’s presence would have greatly increased Nova’s chances to advance to the Sweet 16.
Finally, towards the end of the regular season, three more big problems for the Wildcats were unnecessary turnovers, bad fouls, and problems rebounding. However, during the game against Saint Mary’s, which ended their season, the team did not lose any of these battles. Villanova tied Saint Mary’s in rebounding (31), won in offensive rebounding (14-8), won the turnover battle (7 to SMU’s 11), and did not commit an excessive amount of fouls (18). Jay figured these problems out for the tournament, and for that I commend him, and therefore I will not criticize the team for these issues.
However, Villanova’s lack of reliance on Antonio Pena and its avoidance of a run-and-gun style offense were two factors that led to the early exit by the Cats. A resolution of either of these problems would have allowed the Cats to advance to the Sweet 16.