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Joe Boozell | | January 14, 2016

Why Jay Wright's Wildcats are scarier than ever

  Jay Wright and the Wildcats are now 37-4 in their last 41 regular season conference games.

On Dec. 19, Villanova lost to Virginia by 11. It was the Wildcats’ second defeat in three games, as they were blown out by Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7.

Villanova was not to be considered a college hoops dynasty going into this year, by any means. But a new-era Big East dynasty? That's not crazy to suggest. Since the Big East reshuffled, Jay Wright’s team had gone 32-4 in regular season conference play and was looking to add its third consecutive league crown going into 2016.

But at the time of the Virginia loss, some speculated that Villanova might not even be one of the Big East’s three best teams.

Xavier started off the season 12-0, notching quality wins over Michigan, USC, Dayton and Cincinnati. Butler began the year 11-1, the last win of that run coming in convincing fashion against a Purdue squad that was previously unbeaten. And Providence, behind Naismith Award hopeful Kris Dunn, got off to a 14-1 start.

In the Dec. 28 AP Poll, the rankings reflected as much. The Big East hierarchy was as follows: Xavier was ranked No. 6 in the country, followed by No. 9 Butler, No. 12 Providence and No. 16 Villanova.

Fast-forward less than three weeks, and Villanova is back to where it’s been for the better part of the past two seasons: the clear-cut favorite in the Big East, dominating foes at home and pulling out scrappy wins in tough road environments. The Wildcats are 5-0 in conference play.

Hindsight is 20/20, but this wasn’t terribly hard to predict. Villanova teams always launch a ton of 3’s, and they simply weren’t making them. In conference play, they’ve heated up a bit from deep, sinking 34.6 percent of their triples compared to 32.1 percent on the season. That’s still not up to Villanova’s standards, per se, yet the Wildcats are sitting pretty at 5-0 in conference play with a plus-15.2-point differential.

The scary thing? Every returning Wildcat rotation player is shooting well below his season 3-point percentage from a year ago.

Player Ryan Ardiciacono Josh Hart Phil Booth Kris Jenkins
2014-15 3 FG% 37.2 46.4 48.5 37.2
2015-16 3 FG% 36.5 36.5 29.8 30.5

And although this is Jalen Brunson’s first season in Philadelphia, most expected him to be better than a 33 percent shooter from behind the arc. His best shooting could be yet to come.

Sure, some of the slippage has to do with Darrun Hilliard’s departure for the NBA. Hilliard was Villanova’s best player last season, and while he was a great shooter in his own right, he was also the Wildcats’ best shot creator. He was more of a threat off the bounce than any current Villanova regular. But even if that's true, these shooters are likely to creep closer to their 2014-15 marks than they are now. The law of averages should even out at some point.

And yet, Villanova is still 14-2, with its only two losses coming against two elite teams in Oklahoma and Virginia. The Wildcats have struggled from behind the arc, but their spacing is still very good -- they make 60 percent of their 2-point field goals. That ranks second in the country.

Virtually all of Villanova’s non-3’s come at the rim or at the foul line, and that shot selection has paid dividends. The Wildcats have the No. 11 adjusted offense in the country, per KenPom. Given their collective 3-point shooting slump, they have lots of room to improve.

MORE: The 9 strongest conferences in college basketball this season

We saw what a Villanova team clicking on all cylinders looks like. The Wildcats absolutely eviscerated Xavier on New Year’s Eve, carving up the Musketeers for 95 points en route to a 31-point victory. Hart and company made 13 of 25 3’s in that game.

As usual, Villanova is an outstanding defensive team. Wright fielded a top-16 defense in his first two new Big East seasons, and the Wildcats rank sixth in defensive efficiency at the moment. Daniel Ochefu is one of the top rim protectors in the nation, and redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges might already be the best perimeter defender in the conference not named Kris Dunn.

Nova has not had the success in the NCAA tournament it has wanted to in recent years. The Wildcats haven’t made a Sweet 16 since 2009, and that’s not due to a lack of quality regular season teams. Villanova very well may falter in this year’s NCAA tournament, too. Various potential outcomes are possible in any do-or-die college basketball game.

But like Villanova’s outside shooters on a micro level, you’d think this team’s big picture luck would eventually correct itself.

Perhaps this is the year.

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