College Preseason Top 25: No. 5, Villanova
Can the ‘Cats earn a trip to consecutive Final Fours?
OK, be honest, some of us were a little surprised by Villanova’s run to the Final Four last season. That isn’t to say there weren’t plenty of people who thought the guard heavy attack could get the job done again, but still, all the way to the final weekend of college basketball season? This season will be different as the Wildcats likely won’t sneak up on those filling out their brackets in March, let alone any conference opponents as Jay Wright and company will be the favorites to take the Big East this season. ‘Nova welcomes back four of its top five scorers from last season and locked up one of the top recruiting classes in the country to boot, giving them more than enough firepower to make another run towards a national championship.
The knock against Villanova last season was the lack of a true post presence — but let’s be honest it’s been a while since they’ve had one. The loss of Dante Cunningham certainly hurts as the senior forward led the team in scoring and rebounding, but the ‘Cats will have the necessary personnel to fill his shoes. It’s been a while since the roster has featured a true post man with talent, but that’s exactly what Montrose Christian product Mouphtaou Yarou will give them when he takes the floor for the first time this November. At 6-9, 235 pounds, the freshman already has the size and strength to handle himself in the post against Big East competition as shown by the way he manhandled defenders at the high school level. Yarou spent the summer working out with several college players in hopes of adding some polish to his post game, but while his offensive skills develop, his build and athleticism will still allow him to be an impact player from an early point in the season. Expect to see a fair amount of garbage points and impressive rebound totals from the newcomer in the non-conference schedule while he acclimated to the college game.
Redshirt freshman Maurice Sutton had a year to bulk up and add a little bit of weight, reportedly now packing close to 220 pounds onto his spindly 6-11 frame. The Maryland native has the length and agility to be a solid interior defender, altering shots in his area while also crashing the glass. This Villanova team is loaded with talented perimeter players and Yarou looks like the future of the interior game, so Sutton’s only concerns will be his two aforementioned talents. Junior forward Antonio Pena looked solid for stretches during the first half of last season only to see his playing time dwindle as the year progressed. At one point in the conference schedule, he posted three straight games of at least 12 points and 8 rebounds against St. John’s, Louisville and Connecticut, not eye popping numbers but certainly solid from a player who is the fourth or fifth option on the floor. Either way, Pena should see a slight bump in his numbers next season with some additional minutes and his athleticism which allows him to step away from the basket on occasion. Any production that the Wildcats see above six to eight points and five to six rebounds from these two should be considered icing on the cake.
The frontcourt player that will likely provide the most intrigue and frustration early on will be another freshman, forward Isaiah Armwood, a high school teammate of Yarou’s. The rail thin youngster carries slightly under 190 pounds on his 6-7 frame, a fact that will make it very tough for him to operate consistently in the post during the Big East schedule this season. Where the potential for stardom rests is with Armwood’s ability to operate at a high level away from the basket for a player his size. He has great handles, is very athletic and though his shot is streaky at this point, the youngster has more than enough ability to develop into a player who can shoot off the dribble and connect from the perimeter. At this point in his career the player that Armwood most resembles might in fact be Cunningham, of course possessing much less strength right now. Still, the potential for the Montrose Christian standout to develop over time into an oversized small forward is very much evident in his game right now, fans just may have to be patient for the time being.
Of course, as has been the case for so many years at Villanova, the strength of this year’s team will be in the backcourt. Other than the loss of swingman Dwayne Anderson, the Wildcats return their top four scoring guards from a season ago, making this an extremely experienced backcourt. Senior Scottie Reynolds will be the top dog not only in the backcourt, but likely on the team period, as the top returning scorer on the roster. The Virginia native is very much a shoot first guard and has never been a true point at the college level simply because of the fact that Villanova has so many guards who can handle the ball on the perimeter. He was definitely up and down as a scorer last season although no one will question his ability to go off for a huge game (see 40 points at Seton Hall and 31 at Providence), but as senior there is going to have to be more consistency. Reynolds isn’t an off the charts athlete but does a very good job of getting to the rim and finishing thanks to his creativity and soft touch; he also gets to the line at a very good rate. The scorer saw a dip in his shooting numbers last season though as he struggled with the consistency of his jumper. Reynolds shot a career low from beyond the arc and while he is a good catch and shoot player from mid-range, he is significantly worse when he is forced to shoot off the dribble. There aren’t many defenders in the Big East who will be able to contain him from getting to the rim on a regular basis, but if he doesn’t improve his shot, life will be easier for opponents who will be able to play him for the drive.
The Corey’s will be expected to contribute in a big way this season – Stokes and Fisher that is. Stokes, the big 6-5 shooting guard from New Jersey, it can be argued was the most efficient scorer on the ‘Nova roster last season, the problem was he only got about eight shots per game. Nearly half of his shots came in spot up situations where he was able to catch and shoot which is no surprise given how much of a sharpshooter he is. Stokes connected on over 41 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc, hitting four or more three-pointer in six games. The second-year man proved to be equally as good, if not better, as a finisher in transition and in isolation situations. Stokes knows how to run the floor well and keep proper spacing to set himself up for open looks when cutting to the basket. When left alone to break down defenders, he does a great job of creating off the dribble then connect on pull up jumpers. His taller frame also makes him a touch match up for smaller guards since he is crafty enough to create space, but big enough to shoot over pesky defenders who stick with him. Then there is Fisher, the smaller but quicker of the two players, who builds his game around his speed. The junior saw a significant increase in his shooting numbers last season despite taking more shots, as he improved his ability to finish around the basket. At a slight 6-1, the St. Patrick’s graduate struggled in the lane as a freshman, often getting bumped easily off his line of direction, but some time in the weight room and improving his touch helped in that regard. In spot up and isolation situations, the more often than not will put the ball on the floor and try to get to the rim as well since his perimeter shooting is still lacking somewhat at this point. He shows good mechanics overall, but for whatever reason, his percentages from beyond the arc actually fell slightly last season. Both Stokes and Fisher posted modest scoring averages as sophomores, with each taking turns putting up big games periodically throughout the season. As upperclassmen on a team that will be welcoming in several new guards, they will need to set the tone early on the court, particularly with the suspension of senior Reggie Reading for the first month of the season stemming from marijuana possession charges in July.
From there, expect the ball to be in the hands of two more super talented guards who will be joining the Wildcats this season as well as part of the outstanding recruiting class the Jay Wright locked up for this season. Another New Jersey product, Dominic Cheek, is a 6-6 McDonald’s All-American who will have a couple of inches on most two-guards he’ll be matching up with this season. The newcomer has the type of versatility that will allow him to line up as a small forward as well, which for most teams wouldn’t be a major additional plus, but for a guard heavy offense like Villanova, it is. Cheek has fantastic range on his shot despite a unique shooting form and can go to work in isolation situations as well. Early on, the freshman may not be the kind of player to take over a game, as he often times seems content to get his points within the framework of his team’s offense – as he gets more comfortable though he will assert himself more. One of the more endearing qualities of his game is the toughness with which he plays defense and attacks the glass. Cheek has good length and really gets after opposing players in the opposite end of the floor. Villanova went local with their other All-American signing, bringing in Philadelphia product Maalik Wayns, a super quick point guard. The 6-1 floor general could see a good amount of time right away as the one thing the ‘Cats have been lacking lately is a true point guard and Wayns is one of the more talented passers in his class making him a prime candidate.
One final addition to the backcourt is Duke transfer Taylor King who sat out due to NCAA regulations last season and fell somewhat by the wayside as a result. The sophomore small forward is a big time scorer, with a deadly perimeter shot and a strong 6-6 frame that will allow him to rebound as well. As a freshman in the ACC, King tied a Blue Devil freshman record by draining six three-pointers on his way to 27 points in a win over Eastern Kentucky. He already has an impressive resume, earning McDonald’s All-American honors in 2007 after finishing fourth in California state history in scoring with an absurd 3,124 points, earning the state’s Mr. Basketball Honors in the process. Even if all King does is set up camp on the perimeter and shoot from deep he will be a major weapon for Villanova who has plenty of guards capable of driving and kicking. The transfer could be the type of weapon capable of keeping the Wildcats in games down the stretch with his shooting prowess.
Villanova was at its best last season when the guards were able to get out and run in transition – that won’t change this year. The team also attempted well over half of its jumpers from beyond the arc, that fact likely won’t change either. Perhaps the biggest difference from last season to this one will be the addition of two more stellar outside threats in King and Cheek as well as the arrival of a true pass-first point guard in Wayns. Yarou and Sutton might be the pieces that the team needs in order to handle more physical teams inside and the returning guards all have at least three seasons of experience under their belts now. All of those factors add up to the potential for another very special season in the City of Brotherly Love and a potential repeat trip to the final weekend of the season.