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Brian Mull | | November 18, 2016

Plenty to love and room to improve for Villanova

  Villanova head coach Jay Wright (left) chats with guard Mikal Bridges (25, right) during Friday's win.

Defending national champion Villanova is playing like the best team in the country again. Earlier this week, the Wildcats won a road game against a top-20 team (Purdue). They can overwhelm opponents behind a cohesive offense propelled by unselfish players driving, shooting and delivering pinpoint passes.

There’s plenty to love if you dig efficient, eye-pleasing offense.

Josh Hart is off to a phenomenal start. He appears slightly improved in every area, which is troubling for opponents. Eric Paschall, a 6-7 transfer from Fordham, is already making an impact creating mismatches and should flourish in the system. Title game hero Kris Jenkins dropped 15 pounds in the offseason and still looks very comfortable shooting from the right wing.

After dismantling Wake Forest on Friday, the Wildcats are 2nd to Duke in the Pomeroy Ratings.

The offense is 15th nationally in points per possession. The Wildcats played amazing offense against Wake, scoring 1.55 points per possession per, hitting 58 percent from the field and 16 3-pointers.

RELATED: Hart goes off for 30 as Nova rolls by Wake

It’s unlikely they’ll have a better offensive performance against a power conference opponent this season. But to become the first program to repeat as national champion since Florida in 2007, the Wildcats must continue to grow on the defensive end, where they are 138th in the nation, allowing 0.99 points per trip.

Villanova coach Jay Wright recognized the room for improvement following a tense 11-point defeat of Western Michigan on Thursday.

That process will take time because Villanova is replacing its two defensive leaders from last season’s team, guard Ryan Arcidiacono and center Daniel Ochefu,

  Villanova took down UNC to win the NCAA Championship in April, but the title defense has already begun.
“They were the type of guys they knew they could score anytime they wanted. But they didn’t care about that,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They always wanted to keep us united defensively. It wasn’t just Daniel’s size and athleticism, it was his communication. Same with Arch.”

Ochefu’s defense on UNC center Brice Johnson in the national title game was critical. At 6-11, 240 pounds, his presence helped the Wildcats hold the Tar Heels to 35 percent 2-point field goal shooting.

And, the Wildcats defense suffered when he was on the bench. In the final five games of the NCAA tournament, Villanova allowed 0.94 points per possession when Ochefu was in the game, according to information provided by Lean Basketball Analytics. The team allowed 1.20 points per possession when he was out.

Wake was the third consecutive team to shoot at least 55 percent inside-the-arc against Villanova this season, joining Purdue and WMU.

Darryl Reynolds, a senior who had a solid defensive rating of 94.2 last season, has replaced Ochefu in the starting lineup.

  Villanova Wildcats guard Jalen Brunson (1) has filled in quite capably for Ryan Arcidiacono at the PG spot.
“We’re disjointed, we don’t communicate yet,” Wright said. “But we’re missing the two best guys. The best perimeter guy and the best inside guy in terms of communicating and running the defenses. Even as much as changing the defenses, Arch was always calling ‘em out and talking to everybody. Now it’s in Jalen’s hands and he’s got different guys. It’s going to take us some time.”

Jalen Brunson is the Wildcats’ sophomore point guard, tasked with replacing Arcidiacono, the gutsy emotional team leader last season. He started every game except one last season, but filled a complementary role. Like his teammates, Brunson’s offense has been sharp. He has a 129.1 offensive rating, making 65 percent of 2-pointers, 42 percent of 3-pointers and 84 percent at the line.

Still, he knows even more is expected from him.

“It’s a challenge,” Brunson said. “A role I’ve been in most of my life. I have to make sure I’m an extension of coach out on the floor, knows what coach wants at all times, rarely makes mistakes, so our team can be really fluid offensively and defensively.”

That Villanova has room for improvement is scary for the rest of the Big East - and the country. The Wildcats are smoking on offense, forcing the defense to spread out by using four players who can hit a 3-pointer or drive to the basket.

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One coach who faced Villanova last season described them as the best passing team he’s ever seen. Excellent court vision and accurate deliveries create an open look before a defender can recover. Uber-athletic small forward Mikal Bridges was a liability beyond-the-arc last season, shooting 29.9 percent. He’s 6 of 14 on 3s this season and 6 of 8 at the line.   

The Wildcats don’t have to be great on defense because of their offensive firepower, they just have to be capable of getting stops in tight games. If the interior defense improves, it could be a historic repeat for Villanova.

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