Georgetown enters the last week of the regular season with a lot at stake: a winning streak stretched to historic lengths; back-to-back rivalry games; a potential conference championship; a top-five ranking; post-season seeding; and individual honors. The Hoyas already have reached heights that were quite distant when conference play began. Now, they must hit to road to prove it on the court once again. Awaiting them in Philadelphia will be longtime rival Villanova Wildcats. So what can we expect Wednesday night? Let's get to it.
It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. Villanova has ridden the rollercoaster in the last several years. The 2009 Final Four was the Wildcats' zenith under Jay Wright, a breakthrough after two Sweet Sixteen appearances and one more Elite Eight. Things headed south from there. A second-round loss to St. Mary's ended ‘Nova's 2010 tournament prematurely, then the Wildcats were bounced in the first round in 2011. Last year, the program bottomed out with a disappointing sub-.500 finish.
Hopes weren't much higher entering this year, though some improvement was inevitable, given how bad last year was compared to Villanova's track record. A talented incoming recruiting class also held promise. The early returns weren't great, low-lighted by an 18-point loss in November to Columbia. But things turned around, first modestly, with seven straight wins over middling competition, then more dramatically, with back-to-back home wins over Louisville and Syracuse. An above-.500 conference record entering Wednesday puts Villanova squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, ever so slightly on the "in" side, depending on the expert. An overtime loss at Pittsburgh on Sunday set back those hopes slightly, making Wednesday's showdown with Georgetown all the more important.
Wildcats to Know. Villanova is a balanced bunch, with five players averaging between 9 and 13 points per game. Running the show from up top is freshman Ryan Arcidiacono (11.8 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.1 stl pg), who's not an effective shooter just yet, but who distributes and gets to the line well enough to have earned the starting point guard slot. Expect to hear a lot about his intangibles and grit. On the wings, James Bell (9.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 38.8 3FG%) provides a long-distance threat and, on defense, a bit of rebounding, while Darrun Hilliard (11.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.6 stl pg) is a disruptive force on defense but, on offense, an inconsistent shooter. In the front court, stepping to the fore this year is former McDonald's All-American JayVaughn Pinkston (12.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg), who, despite being a house at 6'6", 240 lb., is surprisingly skilled, though turnover-prone (2.5 TO pg). Manning the middle once again is Mouphtaou Yarou (9.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg). Off the pine, Wake Forest transfer Tony Chennault (3.5 ppg, 1.6 apg) is the main back-court option, while freshman Daniel Ochefu (3.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and 87th-year senior Maurice Sutton (3.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg) are the reserve bigs.
When Villanova Has the Ball.
- Wildcats' strength: getting to the line. The Wildcats are the very best in the entire country at getting to the charity stripe. Depending on the metric, Villanova is either first (FTA/FGA) or second (FTA/possession) nationwide, and averages more than 26 free throws per contest. Pinkston leads the charge to the line, averaging nearly seven free throws per contest, while Arcidiacono, Hilliard, and Yarou take more than four freebies per game. And 'Nova makes the most of those opportunities, shooting a very respectable 72 percent from the line on the season.
- Hoyas' strength: forcing bad shots. This has been Georgetown's specialty throughout the season, as the Hoyas are tops in the conference in opponents' effective field goal percentage. It's part defensive philosophy, part vocal teamwork, part smooth execution, part dogged effort. Villanova is just a middling shooting team from the field, suggesting that good looks will be tough for the Wildcats to come by Wednesday night.
- Three more things to watch:
- Turnovers. Villanova's soft spot offensively is in turning the ball over: the Wildcats committing 15 giveaways per game. Arcidiacono (2.6 TO pg) and Pinkston (2.5) make the most miscues, though seven different Wildcats commit one or more turnovers per game. Georgetown's press hasn't been particularly effective without Greg Whittington, but will the Hoyas ratchet up the pressure against ‘Nova?
- The front line. Villanova's ability to get to the line will put the Hoyas' tendency toward foul trouble in the spotlight. Pinkston in particular figures to draw fouls in the Hoya front court, where Mikael Hopkins, Moses Ayegba, and Nate Lubick lead the team in foul rate. Those bigs are inevitably going to rack up some fouls, and so must avoid the ticky-tack, ref-baiting fouls 94 feet from the opposing basket.
- Pick-and-roll defense. For years, Villanova's offense has been predicated on pick-and-roll action, often from the top of the key or from the wing. These sets allow the Wildcats easy access to the lane and, in turn, the free-throw line. Containing the damage from these sets, through effective hedging by the Hoya bigs and recovery by all Hoya defenders, will be essential.
When Georgetown Has the Ball.
- Hoyas' strength: three-point shooting. Georgetown hasn't been the highest-volume three-point shooting squad this year, but it has been the most accurate in the Big East. Otto Porter has been as brilliant from deep as from everywhere else, Markel Starks has faded a bit but still has strong shooting numbers, and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera is coming on strong. Villanova have yielded fully 37.5 percent from three, the second-worst mark in the conference. Georgetown may find plenty of open looks from deep. Will the Hoyas be able to convert them?
- Wildcats' strength: defensive rebounding. Georgetown has not been a strong offensive rebounding team this year, in part because the Hoyas sell out the offensive boards to get back on defense and prevent opponents' transition opportunities. Villanova closes off the offensive glass, gathering more than 71 percent of misses. Yarou is the bedrock, grabbing five defensive rebounds per game, but Pinkston, Bell, Ochefu, and others all contribute as well.
- Three more things to watch:
- Pace. Villanova plays at the third-fastest pace in the league, while Georgetown plays at the fifth-slowest. The Wildcat guards will try to push the issue in transition, particularly off of turnovers. It's not clear that playing at one pace favors any particular team, though. Villanova has performed according to expectations against slow teams, beating South Florida (twice) and losing to Notre Dame, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh (twice). Meanwhile, Georgetown is undefeated against the faster teams in conference, though wins against Providence and Connecticut both got a bit loose at times. Still, a fast pace may indicate a lot of Hoya turnovers or long, missed shots, which obviously would not be good.
- The battle for the paint. Georgetown has the second-highest two-point field goal percentage in the conference. Villanova holds its opponents to the second-lowest two-point field goal percentage in the conference, and one of the best marks in the country. Yarou, Ochefu, Sutton, and the rest of the Villanova defense will shrink open spaces inside the arc with equal part long wing spans and grabbing, bumping, and prodding. Georgetown recently has overcome other sticky interior defenses, and must find some daylight inside again Wednesday.
- Lineups. Georgetown increasingly has relied on a three-guard lineup, one that has proven effective. Villanova presents an interesting case, with Bell, Hilliard, and Pinkston all measuring 6'6" (and the Wildcat bigs taller still), meaning the Hoya three-guard alignment may face some size disadvantages. Will JTIII roll with this smaller lineup anyway? Will we see more Moses Ayegba? What about Aaron Bowen?
Prediction. Games at Villanova rarely are easy, and this year should be no exception. Georgetown will not lack for motivation, between the high stakes listed at this post's outset, Jabril Trawick's homecoming, and the endless clips of the 1985 championship game. For its part, Villanova will be fighting for its tournament life. The Wildcats' ability to force the Hoyas into foul trouble could made things difficult, early. But Georgetown has staved off other motivated challengers during this run, so don't be surprised if the Hoyas do so again. Expect a physical game at the Hoyas' pace, and a tight finish. Georgetown 60, Villanova 57.