Dylan Ennis leads the team in 3-point shooting at 47 percent. (Kelly Ryan/The Villanovan)
by Greg Habeeb
Any way you slice it, the Villanova Wildcats are exactly where they want to be at this point in the season.
Nine games into the 2013-14 campaign, ’Nova has yet to be defeated, the longest stretch to start a season since 2009-10, when the Wildcats also went 9-0 out of the gate.
The latest Wildcat victory was the most recent chapter in the Holy War between the ’Cats and the St. Joseph’s Hawks, a game in which ’Nova dispatched their cross town rival fairly easily, riding a 59 point second half surge as well as a 25 point 14 rebound night from senior guard James Bell.
Now, the No. 10 Wildcats will turn their attention to another local competitor, the La Salle Explorers, in an attempt to exact revenge for last season’s 74-77 overtime loss.
La Salle (5-4) has struggled with inconsistent play out of the gates this season, failing to build on last year’s campaign which saw the Explorers go 24-10 and reach the NCAA tournament, where they made the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history. The Explorers have won their last two games, a 13 point victory over the Hartford Hawks on Dec. 4 and an eight point win over Stony Brook three days later.
One reason for La Salle’s early season struggles has been their inability to fully replace last season’s leading scorer, senior guard Ramon Galloway. Galloway averaged 17.2 points per game and often stuffed the stat sheet when it mattered most, including a 26-point, five-steal performance in last year’s game against the Wildcats.
In Galloway’s stead, the Explorers have turned to senior guards Tyrone Garland and Tyreek Duren, who are averaging a combined 31.2 points per game.
That offensive production is coming at an inefficient clip however. Garland is shooting a mere 36.4 percent from the field and Duren has not been much better, converting field goal attempts at a 39.1 percent clip.
La Salle has also seen a decline in their defensive play from last season to this season. The Explorers allowed 99.1 points per 100 possessions in 2012-13.
This year, that number has ballooned to 105.5, over six points higher. The defensive regression coupled with what has averaged out to be a small step backward offensively on a points per 100 possessions basis has kept La Salle from looking quite like the squad that won the hearts of many last March.
The Wildcats are also a different team from last season. ’Nova had an up and down start similar to the Explorers’ last year, going 4-4 to start the season before ripping off seven straight wins.
In 2013-14, the ’Cats have had no such struggles. Villanova’s nine game win streak to start this season is longer than any such streak from last year, and big-time victories over Kansas and Iowa have the Wildcats ranked in the top 25 for the first time in two seasons.
A large portion of the credit for Wildcats’ perfect start can be attributed to Head Coach Jay Wright’s decision to give opponents a heavy dose of small ball, with a rotating set of four guards with junior forward Jayvaughn Pinkston playing a sort of pseudo-center.
Pinkston has been a revelation in this new role. The junior is listed at only 6-7, which is an average height for a combo forward but undersized to be anchoring a defense from the center position.
Yet Pinkston has been undaunted by this challenge. He leads the team in scoring at 17.8 points per game and is doing so with surprising efficiency, shooting 52.1 percent from the field despite facing players four or five inches taller than him.
Pinkston’s quickness and craftiness around the rim has proven to be a mismatch for the bigger defenders guarding him and he has managed to hold his own defensively as well, allowing Coach Wright to deploy his smaller lineups at will.
’Nova’s small ball tactics have also been aided by a willingness of the guards to fly in amongst the trees and snare rebounds. Freshman guard Josh Hart has impressed with his ability to crash the boards and his hustle has netted him five rebounds per game through the team’s first nine contests, good for fourth on the team.
Against La Salle, the Wildcats will be looking for sophomore guard Ryan Arcidiacono to heat up offensively.
Arch has struggled to find the range early on save for some clutch marksmanship at Atlantis, shooting only 25 percent from downtown this season.
La Salle is likely viewing this upcoming matchup as a chance to right the ship and get a victory against one of the nation’s best 15 teams.
For Villanova, Saturday’s contest will be about taking care of business at home while attempting to keep a spotless record heading into Dec. 28 matchup with Syracuse.
But for now, the Wildcats are taking it one game at a time.