Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)
When Villanova hits the court Thursday at Madison Square Garden to oppose Purdue in the nightcap of a 2K Sports Classic double-header (9:30 p.m., ESPN), the Wildcats just might see a lot of themselves in the team staring back at them.
After all, the Boilermakers, like Villanova, have just two seniors on a roster comprised of equal parts returnees and newcomers. Like the Wildcats, Purdue (1-1) starts a freshman at point guard and lost several significant contributors from the 2011-12 squad. And like Villanova, the Boilermakers are young and deep, with 11 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. Both squads even have a Croatian.
It’s not quite a mirror image, but the non-conference foes have enough in common to make their first meeting since 1995 more about the intangibles than anything else. The Wildcats (2-0) have defeated UDC and Marshall on the young season. Now the question is, can they beat themselves (Or at least a similar version)?
“I think we’re both in a similar situation,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said Wednesday. “We have a lot of new guys in new spots…And they’re deep. They’re deep up front, we’re deep up front. It’s a good matchup.”
Despite their commonalities, the comparison is by no means perfect. The Boilermakers have some oranges to the Wildcats’ apples, namely a successful 2011-12 season. Unlike Villanova, which finished 13-19 a year ago, Purdue won 22 games and reached the third round of the NCAA Tournament, making the Big Dance for the sixth straight season under head coach Matt Painter, who has a pair of Sweet Sixteens to his credit in seven years at the helm. Sixty-two percent of the scoring is gone from that outfit in the form of departed seniors Robbie Hummel (16.4 ppg), Lewis Jackson (10.4), and Ryne Smith (9.1), as well as junior Kelsey Barlow (8.3), who was dismissed last year because of a violation of team rules.
Wright, meanwhile, was tasked with replacing 40 percent of his scoring when junior guards Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek left to turn pro at the end of the season. The replacements for both schools have a familiar feel.
Ronnie Johnson is Purdue’s answer to Ryan Arcidiacono, the freshman phenom who poured in 25 points in Villanova’s victory over Marshall. The first-year player from Indianapolis does a bit of everything for the Boilermakers, averaging 10.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in his first two collegiate games. After his coming out party against the Thundering Herd, Arcidiacono brings plenty of hype with him to the World’s Most Famous Arena. With all of eyes on him, watching to see what he’ll do for an encore, Arcidiacono is approaching his first game on the sport’s biggest stage like any other.
“I honestly haven’t even thought about it, Arcidiacono told CoBL. “It’s just going to be another game for me. I’m sure once I get there, it’s going to be like, ‘oh wow, this is the Garden,’ but I can’t think about that. That would be a selfish act of mine, and I know I’m not going to do that. I’m going to play hard for everyone, and hopefully whether I have a 20-point game or a zero-point game, as long as we win that’s all that matters.”
After becoming the first Villanova freshman since Scottie Reynolds to score 25 points in a game, the hype surrounding Arcidiacono has surged exponentially. His first Madison Square Garden experience happens to be his third collegiate game, but the highly-touted freshman is also juggling rapidly-expanding expectations in addition to the already demanding responsibilities that come with being the starting point guard at a tradition-rich program. For Wright, the ‘one game at a time’ mantra is the best advice he can give his budding star.
“The hype is growing by the day,” Wright said. “I want him to learn to take one day at a time and just take on the next challenge. We’re trying to treat it that way. We haven’t talked about the Garden…We’ll get to shoot-around tomorrow and talk about how we’re going to play there. It’s 94 feet by 50 feet, same as any other court, but we’ve got to talk to these guys because they haven’t gone through that and they don’t know how we do it.
“Each experience is a new experience, especially for him because he’s our leader on the floor.”
Like the Wildcats, Purdue has two other productive guards who figure to see extensive playing time Thursday. Junior Terone Johnson, Ronnie’s older brother, missed a season-opening loss to Bucknell with an ankle injury, but came off the bench to score six points in 17 minutes of an 83-54 win over Hofstra on Sunday. Anthony Johnson (no relation) started the opener and is averaging 11.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 5.0 assists on the young season.
“They didn’t have (Terone) Johnson in their first game, but when they got him back they were really impressive,” Wright said.
James Bell (14.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Darrun Hilliard (10.5 ppg) form the rest of the Wildcats’ starting backcourt, which takes a significant height advantage with it to the Big Apple. At 6-foot-3, Arcidiacono has three inches on Ronnie Johnson, while Bell and Hilliard, both 6-6, tower over 6-foot-3 Anthony Johnson and 6-foot-2 Terone Johnson. With such a decided edge, expect Wright to challenge his guards to crash the boards against the Boilermakers’ undersized perimeter unit.
“That’s a point of emphasis we have for every game,” Hilliard told CoBL. “We work hard to rebound as much as we can, and we go into every single game with that same mindset of rebounding and playing Villanova basketball.”
Painter has no shortage of bodies to run out against Villanova’s talented front line. In addition to D.J. Byrd, a bullish 6-5, 230-pound wing with almost 600 career points to his credit, the Boilermakers have six interior players who average between 10.5 and 19 minutes per game, each of whom is at least 6-foot-8.
Freshman Donnie Hale (9.5 ppg) heads Purdue’s frontcourt-by-committee, which also features 7-foot freshman A.J. Hammons (5.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Croatian import Sandi Marcius, who has 14 points in 25 minutes of action. Throw in freshman Jay Simpson (3.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg), sophomore Jacob Lawson (6.0, 2.0), and junior Travis Carroll (3.5 rpg), and the Boilermakers have a deep complement of post players that makes up for what it lacks in flash with toughness and balance.
Before the season, Wright touted his frontcourt as one of the best in his 11-year stint on the Main Line. He’ll likely be looking for more from that unit than he got on Sunday, when Mouphtaou Yarou, Maurice Sutton, and JayVaughn Pinkston combined for just 16 points as Arcidiacono, Bell, and Hilliard carried the Wildcats on offense. Still, Villanova’s front line helped hold the Thundering Herd to just three offensive rebounds and crafted a 34-23 advantage on the glass.
With the 6-10 Yarou patrolling the paint, and Sutton and freshman Daniel Ochefu, both 6-11, providing productive minutes off the bench, the Wildcats have the edge in size down low, but Purdue has it in numbers. Whether quality or quantity wins out will go a long way toward determining which side advances to Friday’s championship game against the winner of Thursday’s opener between Alabama and Oregon State.
“Our frontcourt is a little more experienced than theirs,” Wright said. “It’s a good matchup.”
Arcidiacono was still in diapers the last time Villanova and Purdue squared off on the hardwood, a John Wooden Classic game in 1995 won by the Wildcats, who were ranked second in the nation at the time. That doesn’t mean he isn’t familiar with the Boilermakers and their consistently effective style of play. If the Wildcats are to start 3-0, Arcidiacono knows they’ll have to be at their best.
“Purdue is a good Big 10 team, and then we’ll have either Alabama or Oregon State, but we’re just focused on Purdue right now,” he told CoBL. “They’ve always been at the top of the league. I watched them in high school and always admired how hard they played and how well they shot the ball. It’s going to be a great challenge for us, but I think we’re up for the task.”