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City 6 Preview: Bigger 'Nova not trying to change styles

10/20/2017, 11:30am EDT
By Josh Verlin

Eric Paschall (above) is one piece of a Villanova frontcourt that's bigger and potentially better than its predecessors. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)

Faced with the notion that his team could perhaps play a slightly different style this year, Villanova’s Jay Wright was quick with a rebuttal.

The Wildcats have become heavily reliant on the 3-point shot under Jay’s four-out, motion-based offense, from the days of Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Mike Nardi in the mid-00s all the way through the present. It’s become especially prevalent of late: Villanova has taken more than 40 percent of its overall shot attempts from deep each of the last four seasons, placing them inside the top 35 in the country each time.

And though the current ‘Nova roster still has several talented guards who can all gun it from deep, it also has just as many -- if not more -- scoring options who might not be at their most efficient on the long jumper.

Despite that, it doesn’t sound like Wright’s philosophy will change too much for 2017-18.

“We still like the 3,” Wright said. “Even our big guys, we want (them) to shoot 3s.”

It’s not that Villanova has been a small team under Wright. Last year, basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy had the Wildcats as the 63rd-tallest team in Division I, weighted to minutes played; they’ve been in the top 100 in that category each of the last seven years, and all but one of the 11 that KenPom has tracked it.

Part of that came from just having tall guards: Darrun Hilliard (6-6) and Josh Hart (6-5) most notably, but the Wildcats haven’t had a major contributor shorter than 6-2 since Corey Fisher graduated in 2011. That’s why despite that overall team size, the Wildcats have generally been outside the top 100 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages in Wright’s tenure.

This year’s team has a different makeup.

In the middle is 6-10 center Omari Spellman, a former 5-star recruit who was named Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year after an NCAA academic technicality forced him to redshirt last season. Instead of just one backup big man, these Wildcats have two: 6-10 sophomore Dylan Painter, and 6-9 freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree.

At the ‘4’ spot is going to be 6-8, 245-pound redshirt junior Eric Paschall, a big bruising wing in the mold of JayVaughn Pinkston. And its two wings, redshirt junior Mikal Bridges and freshman Jermaine Samuels, both stand right around 6-6 with close to 7-foot wingspans.

It’s the biggest frontcourt that Villanova has had since 2012-13, when Wright had seniors Mouphtaou Yarou (6-10) and Maurice Sutton (6-10) plus freshman Daniel Ochefu (6-11).

“We have a big team, and we could be pretty good on the interior,” Paschall said. “We should rebound well and defend well because we have a lot of tall, mobile guys.”

There are still shooters, of course. Bridges knocked down 39 percent of his long-range shots last year. Junior guard Jalen Brunson hit just under 38 percent. Redshirt sophomore Donte DiVincenzo, a 6-5 guard who looks primed to become one of the team’s leading scorers, hit 36 percent of his 115 3-pointers last year.

Other than those three, someone’s going to have to step up and hit shots. Freshman Collin Gillespie, an Archbishop Wood product, shot better than 40-percent from deep during his senior year in high school, but his role this season is still to-be-determined. Phil Booth hit 48 percent of his 3s as a freshman but just 31 percent as a sophomore in 2015-16 before missing last season due to knee issues.

Paschall’s development in that regard will be crucial to Villanova’s hopes of a fifth consecutive Big East championship.

The 2014-15 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year while at Fordham, Paschall has only shot 30 percent from 3-point range in his first two seasons on the court. Last year, his first playing at Villanova after sitting out his transfer year in 2015-16, he averaged 7.2 ppg and 3.8 rpg but only hit 28 percent of his 3-pointers.

Paschall said he worked with Villanova assistant George Halcovage on his shooting this summer.

“A lot of footwork,” he said. “Having your footwork right does a lot, as I learned. When I was younger I used to twist my feet, now when I shoot it’s straight up, straight down. Up, down, hold my guide hand up, that’s about it.”

Another X-factor on the perimeter could be the team’s biggest body. At 6-10 and 250 pounds, Spellman displayed smooth touch on his jump shot in high school, with range out near the 3-point arc, though he was most used effectively on post-up situations. If he’s used this extra year to work on his shot as much as he’s worked on his body -- Spellman has noticeably slimmed down over the last year -- then Villanova could go five-out effectively.

Wright gave a lot of credit to strength coach John Shackleton for getting Spellman ready for his first year of college hoops.

“A lot of times when you’re not conditioned well and you’re talented, it prohibits you from being effective, but now he’s in great shape, his talent is able to really show,” Wright said. “He’s also a pretty coachable and humble kid, but he’s still a freshman, and he’s going to learn a lot from this league and we’ll see how he’s going to grow through the year.”

Though Villanova might still want to “shoot ‘em up and sleep in the streets,” as they’ve become fond of saying, they might want to think a little bit about beating opponents around inside, if only just a little more often.

After his initial rebuke of the style change, Wright relented somewhat.

“Yeah, I think we have a chance to have a better inside game than we’ve had in a while,” he admitted. “The year we had a lot of injuries at the guard spot [in 2012-13], we played big because we were big. We weren’t that effective, though. I think this team has a good chance to have good overall team size and be effective.”

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