Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
Dissecting a college basketball team can be a complex exercise. Ask Villanova head coach Jay Wright why the Wildcats have dropped three straight games, however, and you’ll get a simple answer.
“Youth, decision-making, and turnovers,” Wright said before practice Thursday. “If I said anything more, it would pale in comparison to turnovers and decision-making. Those two things really hurt us.”
Villanova (3-3) has lost three in a row after a promising start to the season that included wins over Marshall and Purdue. Since then, the Wildcats have averaged 15 turnovers per game during their current losing streak, which started with a blowout at the hands of Alabama in the 2K Sports Classic, continued with a shocking home loss to Columbia, and culminated in an overtime setback to La Salle in a Big Five thriller on Sunday.
Villanova held an 11-point second-half lead against the Explorers, only to watch it slip away, the chance for an impressive road victory lost when JayVaughn Pinkston drove the length of the floor for a lay-up instead of pulling up for the potential tying three. Headed into Saturday’s showdown at Vanderbilt (5 p.m., ESPN2), Wright wants the Wildcats to put the end result behind them, but emphasize the positives that put them in position to come away from Gola Arena with a win.
“Not letting a tough home loss and a tough loss at La Salle to affect us,” Wright said. “There were a lot of good things at La Salle. Obviously our end-of-game execution was not good, but we’re going to build on the positives and try to fix end-of-the-game execution. A lot of that comes with experience. We have a freshman point guard (Ryan Arcidiacono), and even Tony Chennault, it’s his first time with us. You feel bad after the game, but we don’t feel as bad as a team after we watched the film and see a lot of good things.”
Now it’s back to the drawing board for the Wildcats, who enter Saturday’s game in Nashville desperate for a win. Some might expect Wright to go to the laboratory, concocting new plays to fix the ills of a team shooting just over 39 percent from the field during its skid. Quite to the contrary.
“We’re down to about four plays,” Wright told CoBL. “I’m not joking.”
Turnovers, after all, are no laughing matter. Despite the success of Arcidiacono, the team’s leading scorer at 13.7 points per game, miscues have continued to plague the Wildcats. The freshman is averaging nearly four per game, and committed six in Sunday’s loss. Chennault had three, and Villanova is averaging 17 turnovers to just 12 assists per game as a team. The plan, then, is to keep things as simple as possible.
“We’re trying to get them to feel comfortable so they can just play basketball, rather than have to remember plays, what we do, options,” Wright explained. “Just simplify our game plans and get everybody comfortable and confident first. Then we can build off that.”
“Just in general to cut down on turnovers, make things more simple and give us more chances to make plays off of easier reads and easier ball screens,” Arcidiacono told CoBL.
Looking for a win in one of the nation’s most challenging venues, minimizing turnovers will be crucial in Saturday’s game, part of the Big East-SEC Challenge. The Commodores (2-3) have one of college basketball’s most substantial home-court advantages, and not only because of a raucous student section. Head coach Kevin Stallings is 178-47 (.791) in his career at Memorial Gymnasium, where the floor is elevated and the benches reside on the end of the court rather than the sidelines. Wright, who knows all too well how difficult it is to win there, said getting accustomed to the unique court design is half the battle.
“I did coach there once before with a really good Hofstra team and we got blown out in there,” Wright said. “For the coaches, it’s weird being on the baseline, and for the players it’s just a strange…the floor is elevated. We ‘re going to get in there and practice the day before.”
Once the Wildcats figure out Memorial Gymnasium’s dimensions, they’ll turn their attention to a Vanderbilt squad without a single senior. The Commodores lost almost all of their scoring from last year in sharp-shooter John Jenkins, do-it-all forward Jeffrey Taylor, and shot-blocking center Festus Ezeli, all of whom were among the first 31 picks in this year’s NBA draft. Vanderbilt’s squad is comprised of six freshmen, five sophomores, and just two juniors, meaning the Wildcats have a rare advantage in experience. Still, that doesn’t mean stopping their losing streak will be an easy task.
“I see a team that is very skilled, very intelligent,” Wright said of the Commodores. “An inexperienced defensive team can get sliced there. Now, they are young. Last year’s team was incredible, but this is a young team. We always know they shoot it well at home. They’ve lost some games where they just haven’t made shots…We expect them to shoot a lot better.”
Before ending their own three-game skid with a victory over UTEP on Sunday, the Commodores had floundered through a historic slump, shooting 23 percent from the field in a 50-33 loss to Marist two days earlier to match their lowest point total since 1982. Vanderbilt struggles to score, its 59.2 points per game average ranking 307th in the nation, and 40-percent marksmanship from the field sitting at 282nd. That’s not to say that the Commodores lack scorers.
Sophomore point guard Kedren Johnson is the team’s top weapon, pouring in 17.6 points per contest to go along with 4.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists. Junior guard Kyle Fuller (12.2 ppg) is the other double-digit scorer, while junior forward Rod Odom (8.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and freshman swingman Kyle Bright (5.8, 6.2) can do damage on the boards. Keeping tabs on Johnson, however, is Wright’s biggest concern.
“The point guard is really good in end-of-the-shot clock, end-of-game situations,” Wright said. “He can make plays for himself and get other people shots.”
While Arcidiacono leads Villanova in scoring, Pinkston (12.3 ppg), James Bell (11.2) and Darrun Hilliard (10.7) continue to be consistent scoring options. The Wildcats could use another performance from senior forward Mouphtaou Yarou like the one they got on Sunday. After struggling to crack the score sheet in the early going, Yarou netted a season-high 20 points against La Salle. Spending more time on the floor with senior center Maurice Sutton could be just what the doctor ordered.
“Mouph is a lot better facing the basket, and when we have Mo in there, he can face the basket,” Wright told CoBL. “That’s where he is most comfortable and most effective, and he really did play a great game.”
The breakout performance was a long time coming from Yarou, who attempted as many shots on Sunday (15) as he did in the season’s first four games. Despite the Wildcats’ current struggles, Yarou insists there’s no panic on the Main Line.
“It’s good,” Yarou said when asked about the mood in the locker room. “Everybody’s smiling; I mean, look at Ryan over there (points to a smiling Arcidiacono). We know we have a really good team, and we keep getting better every day. The results probably don’t show it, but soon enough we’re going to see.”
Wright and the Wildcats hope that time is Saturday. A win in a difficult road environment would do wonders for a Villanova team that faces three straight Big Five tilts, including games with Atlantic 10 contenders Temple and St. Joseph’s, after returning home.
“It’s important,” Arcidiacono said. “Going into their house is going to be a tough environment, but I think we’ve had a good week of practice. We’re just trying to play hard and stick with each other for a full 40 minutes. The last couple of games, we’ve played as individuals. We’re just trying to get together for 40 minutes, play like brothers and be a good Villanova basketball team out there.”