Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
Coming off the worst year in program history, Villanova enters the new season with a chip on its shoulder. The inexperienced Wildcats have only two seniors, but the additions of a pair of highly-touted freshmen and a veteran transfer have raised expectations on the Main Line. Jay Wright’s bunch wants to return to playing ‘Villanova basketball.’ With their best frontcourt in recent memory and a deep rotation of guards, the Wildcats have the talent to be competitive in the Big East. Will they get the production? We’ll find out soon enough.
(Wright Stuff: For Andy Edwards’ feature piece on Jay Wright, click here)
Villanova Wildcats Season Primer
Coach: Jay Wright, 12th season (237-130, .646)
Last Year: 13-19 (5-13 Big East); No postseason
Key Losses: Maalik Wayns (17.6 ppg, 4.6 apg), Dominic Cheek (12.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
Wayns was forced to shoulder the lion’s share of the Wildcats’ offense a year ago, often at the expense of shot selection. Villanova was fifth in the Big East in scoring average (70.8 ppg), but ranked dead last in field-goal percentage (41.2 percent) and 14th in three-point shooting (31.5%). Still, Wayns was fourth in the conference in scoring and added 3.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game in almost 34 minutes of action. One of 55 Villanova players to reach the 1,000-point plateau, Wayns was the Wildcats’ first, second, and third options at the offensive end in 2011. Wright’s bunch will miss his leadership, ability to create shots for himself and others, and willingness to take the big shot in late-game situations.
Cheek’s decision to enter the NBA draft was a surprise. The former McDonald’s All-American was something of a disappointment in his three years on the Main Line; the highly-touted product of St. Anthony’s (NJ) High School finished his career as a 39.9 percent shooter and never quite met the lofty expectations accorded to a recruit of his stature. Still, Cheek was a competent second scorer, streaky outside shooter (32.0 percent from 3-point range) and dependable free-throw shooter (80.4 percent) for the Wildcats a year ago.
New Faces: Ryan Arcidiacono (Langhorne, Pa./Neshaminy), Daniel Ochefu (Westtown, Pa./Westtown), Tony Chennault (Wake Forest)
Arcidiacono was the big prize in the Wildcats’ 2012 recruiting class. The 6-3 sharp-shooter can play either guard position and should earn a starting nod from the jump. Ochefu, a 6-10 center from Westtown High, adds depth to a much-improved ‘Nova frontcourt and can spell senior forward Mouphtao Yarou for stretches. Chennault comes to the Main Line with two years of ACC experience under his belt, and has already established himself as a team leader.
Starting Backcourt: Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard (4.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg)
Arcidiacono brings a sweet stroke and plenty of freshman hype. Hilliard, meanwhile, could be the Wildcats’ most improved player. Look for a big leap from the sophomore, who earned the starting nod in Thursday’s exhibition against Carleton. Hilliard scored 15 points in a 65-59 victory, so look for him to be on the floor when the Wildcats tip off against District of Columbia. The frosh phenom known as ‘Arch’ is a knock-down shooter with a smooth handle. He missed his entire senior season at Neshaminy with a back injury, but says he is pain-free and ready for a long-awaited return to competitive hoops. Expectations are high, and freshman rarely earn starting nods under Wright. Can Arcidiacono match the hype? For Villanova to be competitive, he’ll have to.
Starting Frontcourt: James Bell (7.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg), JayVaughn Pinkston (9.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Mouphtaou Yarou (11.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg)
For the first time in recent memory, the Wildcats believe the frontcourt to be their biggest strength. Bell played well in spurts last season, most notably an 18-point outburst in a win over Seton Hall in which he canned four three-pointers. Wright expects the junior wing to make a big leap this season; as one of the Wildcats’ most experienced players, Bell will be looked to to provide leadership and sound decision-making.
Pinkston could be Villanova’s leading scorer this year. The 6-7 sophomore has dropped 35 pounds, and the attendant increases in quickness and athleticism should make the versatile Pinkston even more of a threat on the offensive end. Yarou is one of two seniors on an inexperienced squad. The quiet Benin native says he has dropped 10 pounds and is ready to undertake an increased leadership role. Wright is counting on the veteran to build on his numbers and challenge for a double-double average.
Bench: Maurice Sutton (3.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg), Achraf Yacoubou (2.2 ppg), Tony Chennault (9.0 ppg at Wake Forest)
Wright says Chennault is a typical “Philly guard,” a bull in the lane and a leader at both ends of the floor. One of the few Wildcats with big-game experience, he started 30 games and averaged 9.0 points at Wake Forest last season. Wright, however, said Thursday that he likes Chennault coming off the bench because he can play multiple positions. If Hilliard struggles, look for Chennault to take his place in the first five.
Sutton, along with Yarou, is one of two seniors on this year’s squad. The 6-10 center showed flashes of productivity down the stretch last season, averaging 6.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game over the last 11. Sutton should get a nice chunk of minutes off the pine. Yacoubou is a solid shooter who could see spot time off the bench. The backcourt was also expected to include sophomore Ty Johnson, who announced his intention to transfer from Villanova on Wednesday.
Three Games to Watch: @ La Salle (11/25), vs. St. Joseph’s (12/11), vs. Syracuse (1/26)
The young Wildcats get their first road test at Tom Gola Arena against Big Five rival La Salle, a potential NCAA Tournament squad and Atlantic 10 contender. Another hostile environment awaits a week later at Memorial Gymnasium, where Vanderbilt rarely loses. Villanova caps its Big Five schedule with a home date against preseason A-10 favorite St. Joseph’s. The Wildcats will need every bit of their Pavilion advantage to spring an upset and nab an impressive non-conference scalp. The 9th-ranked Orange will challenge for the Big East crown all season, and come to the Wells Fargo Center for a Saturday matinee. The 11 a.m. showdown is the second with Philadelphia native Rakeem Christmas and Syracuse.
Three Keys to Success
1. Three-point shooting: The Wildcats were downright woeful from beyond the arc last season, connecting at a 31.5 percent clip, good (or bad) for 14th in the Big East. A balanced frontcourt looks to be Villanova’s greatest strength, so the Wildcats will need their guards to knock down open shots. With the addition of Arcidiacono and improvement from Hilliard, Bell, and Pinkston, the Wildcats’ outside shooting should also make a leap. They’ll need it to if they want to be competitive in the take-no-prisoners Big East.
2. Who makes the leap? Pinkston had a solid freshman campaign, and could be a breakout star this season. Yarou could average a double-double. Sutton played well down the stretch a year ago, and Wright expects significant improvement from Bell and Hilliard. A lot of ‘ifs,’ certainly, but if some of them come to pass, the Wildcats could be a tough out.
3. Who takes the last shot? The Wildcats weren’t in a lot of close games a year ago, but when they were, everyone knew who was getting the ball in crunch time. Wright has talked at length about how much Villanova will miss Maalik Wayns in late-game situations, and there’s no shortage of candidates for the role this time around. Does Wright entrust the game to a freshman in Arcidiacono? Does he put the ball in Chennault’s hands and let the transfer drive and kick? Does he give it to Pinkston on the wing and let the versatile forward go to work? This could be a trial-and-error experiment for the 12th-yeat coach.
CoBL Division I 2012-13 Season Primers: | Drexel Dragons | Delaware Blue Hens | La Salle Explorers | Lafayette Leopards | Lehigh Mountain Hawks | Penn State Nittany Lions | Penn Quakers | St. Joseph’s Hawks | Temple Owls | Villanova Wildcats |