Texas travels to MSG to take on the number 12 ranked Villanova Wildcats in a game that should be a mirror image matchup wise to that of Texas' tilt against UCLA. The game, that tips at 8 central time, will once again be a battle of contrasting personnel strengths in that Texas employs a more traditional 3 forward look while Villanova plays almost exclusively 3 guards with 2 smallish frontcourt players in Dante Cunningham and Antonio Pena, both listed at 6-8 230 lbs.
Aside from their differences in personnel, the schedules of the respective clubs couldn't be more different. Texas has been tested against top flight competition like Notre Dame and UCLA. The Wildcats have faced a slate of teams headlined by Fordham and Pennsylvania. Yikes. Granted Villanova hasn't struggled a bit with their run of patsies, but the Wildcats will get their first true test tonight and won't face another ranked opponent for nearly a month. Definitely two different scheduling philosophies employed by Rick Barnes and Jay Wright. Let's take a look at Villanova's personnel.
Scottie Reynolds. The Wildcat show runs through 6-1 junior guard Scottie Reynolds. Reynolds is more of a combo guard in that he looks for his shot but still manages 4.8 assists per contest. And what's not to like about a fella that gave double rods to Oklahoma after the Sampson fiasco and found his way to a Jesuit school in Philly? True salvation. Reynolds has struggled with his shot this year evidenced by his less than stellar 38% field goal percentage including a mediocre 35% from deep. Still, Scottie is clever with the basketball and he can probe and break down defenses with quick change of direction similar to Darren Collison. Reynolds is also adept at drawing contact and finishing near the rim despite his smallish stature. Texas must keep him in front while also keeping him out of rhythm with his perimeter looks.
Corey Stokes is a 6-5 sophomore off guard that can really stroke it from beyond the arc. He's just on fire in 2008 shooting a playstation-like 51% from deep. What makes him unique to the gunslingers Texas has faced like McAlarney and Collison, is that Stokes has excellent size and great lift on his jumper that make it difficult for smaller players to contest his shot. The second year phenom prefers to catch and shoot, however, as just 7 of his 32 made field goals have come inside the arc. He's averaging just 2 free throw attempts per contest, as well.
Corey Fisher, a 6-1 sophomore guard from the Bronx, is the third backcourt player. Fisher will take the occasional 3, but he's much more comfortable penetrating and attacking the basket. In fact, since he's shooting just over 20% from deep, it's probably a good thing for the Wildcats that Fisher focus on breaking defenses down and finding shots for himself or others. Corey's 0-6 in his last 3 games from distance, but still managed double digits in 3 of the last 4. He's definitely a player you want to stay in front of and make him hit a couple before you really contest aggressively.
Dante Cunningham. In the frontcourt everything begins and ends with the 6-8 230 lbs senior. The kid is an absolute beast in the paint and on the glass. As he goes, so go the Wildcats. Currently Dante is averaging 17 and 8, with nearly half of his boards coming on the offensive end. Dude is strong, quick, and athletic, and he'll be a handful for whoever is checking him. He's also got surprisingly good touch for such a physical player, with a capability to finish that our frontcourt folks should not only envy but emulate.
Antonio Pena is the other forward. He's a 6-8 235 lbs redshirt sophomore who is averaging 9 and 6 currently. Since Antonio is often the forgotten man offensively, he has thrived attacking the weakside glass as defenses tend to focus help on Reynold's and Cunningham. Keeping Pena off the offensive glass will be a subtle key in this battle.
The Bench. 'Nova isn't the deepest bunch in college basketball. Just seven players have gotten more than 15 minutes per game this year. First off the bench is Reggie Redding, a 6-5 junior wing, who is a statsheet guy averaging 7 points, nearly 6 boards, and almost 3 assists per game in 28 minutes of play. He'll hit the occasional 3, but he can also penetrate and create.
Frontcourt depth is provided by 6-7 205 lbs. senior forward Shane Clark. Clark is averaging 5 points and 3 boards per.
Keys to the Game
Tempo. Get used to this being the key to every game involving teams with superior guard play. It is so important for Texas to be able to play the basketball game in a manner and tempo that emphasizes its advantage in the frontcourt and this game is no different. As discussed in the UCLA Post Mortem, crisp ball movement, quick cutting and screening, and moving with a purpose in the half court game are a must if Texas wants to impose its will in the paint. If the Longhorn perimeter players are easy to deny and defend, it's going to be tough to find good post entry angles and help and recover mismatches that lead to easy points in the paint through post ups or offensive rebounding opportunities.
Shot Selection. Since tempo is usually a manifestation of running offense and taking good shots within the confines of that offense, shot selection becomes a key. Texas cannot afford to take deep shots early in the shot clock against a perimeter smothering defensive squad like 'Nova. When Texas takes early shots that aren't coming off of secondary breaks, they're bailing the Wildcats out. Point blank. It's precisely what Jay Wright wants Texas to do. It's like when you agree not to post up the 5-2 kid in a game of one on one. Screw that shit, let's post that little Big East kid up.
Stay in front. Defensively, Texas needs to keep guys like Cunningham, Reynolds, and Fisher out of the lane. It'll be a difficult task to be sure, but Villanova wants to move the bigger Texas frontcourt around and attack vulnerable helping defenders off the bounce and with kickouts to open shooters. Keeping the initial penetrators out of the lane is job 1. This becomes more manageable when you recognize who can shoot it and who can't. It's one thing to get out and contest a great shooter like Stokes, and an entirely different situation defending a poor shooter like Fisher who wants to drive the basketball. With Cunningham, I woudn't double unless he turns his back to the basket and tries to back our forwards down. If he wants face up offense, he can have anything from 15 feet out.
Attack Cunningham. Dante is the only legitimate frontcourt threat that Villanova brings to this game, and getting him out of the game either through fatigue or foul trouble would most likely lead to a victory by the Longhorns. You wear out Cunningham by running offense while making sure his man is getting touches. If he's on Big Dex or Clint Chapman, they need to get the basketball.
Pack Your Zone Offense. Given 'Nova's lack of depth especially in the front court, don't be surprised to see some zone, whether it be a 2-3 to buy time and rest for Wildcat players, a 1-2-2 trapping zone to entice midrance jumpers, or some sort of matchup zone that allows 'Nova to navigate our perimeter screen game. Our guards need to recognize it early so we can attack it early in the shot clock.
Prediction. Looking at this game, I can't get past Villanova's soft schedule especially as it compares to the tests the Longhorns have taken. I also was encouraged by the first half of play the Longhorns displayed on the offensive end against UCLA...a team that is very similar in talent and style to Villanova. That should be Barnes' blueprint for taking apart the Wildcats. And with a week off, and hopefully a hostile Madison Square Garden crowd, the Longhorns will come out with the same kind of energy the showed against the Bruins in the early going. If the Horns revert to the second half of that game, however, regressing to poor shots and early shot clock heat checks, then Texas will get beat. As always, I'll be watching intently.