The Wildcats are currently ranked 7th in both the writers' poll and the coaches' poll. In many ways Nova represents a match-up nightmare for the Bruins but there are some things that the Bruins will have in their favor. The concern for Coach Ben Howland and UCLA must be whether Villanova's backcourt advantage is so great that it really doesn't matter about the frontcourt advantage that the Bruins may have.
Villanova comes into the contest with a record of 4-0. Like UCLA, the Wildcats have won their games against middling competition, including Bucknell, Marist, Boston University and Lafayette. In all honesty, three of these teams (Boston University isn't bad) are very poor, at least as poor as Cal State Northridge. UCLA's toughest opponent to date, Pacific, is better than anything that Nova has yet faced. In all probability, however, the combined seven games that UCLA and Villanova have faced haven't truly showed Howland or Nova's Coach Jay Wright where their respective teams stand at this point in the season. This will be the first real test for both teams.
Villanova's strength is UCLA's weakness, namely quickness and athleticism in the backcourt. To most basketball observers Villanova has become known as a "guard school" to recruits and Wright has intentionally recruited that way. As is his way, Wright starts a 3-guard, 2-post line-up and all three guards are quicker and more athletic than what Howland has in the UCLA backcourt.
The team's ‘go-to' player is senior Corey Fisher (6'1" 200 lbs.), who leads the team in scoring (16.5 PPG) and is second in assists (3.9 APG). He has attempted the most shots on the team and the second most three-point attempts (23). He is a threat to drive to the rack or shoot from deep. He has been in a slump since the beginning of the season from behind the arc (6-23), but he has the capability of going off in a given game and hitting 5 or 6 three-pointers. Defensively he's a handful because he is stronger than he looks and has that great quickness. He is averaging almost 2 SPG. He is also careful with the ball having only turned it over twice in four games.
The second guard and ostensibly the point guard is sophomore Maalik Wayns (6'2" 185 lbs.), who is probably the next great guard at Villanova. While Fisher leads the team it is probably Wayns who has the talent to play at the next level. He is second on the team in scoring at 13.5 PPG, although he too is struggling from behind the arc (4-19 or 21% on the season). He leads the team in assists at an eye-popping 7 APG, but he also leads the team in turnovers at almost 3 per game. His quickness is probably better than Fisher's. He doesn't yet have Fisher's savvy or strength but he should get there sooner rather than later. His first step can be a killer and whomever Howland has guard him will have to be ready to scramble to keep him out of the lane. Like Fisher he is a superior on-ball defender because of his athleticism.
The third guard is senior Corey Stokes (6'5" 220 lbs.), who is averaging 12.5 PPG and is clearly the team's biggest three-point threat. He is 11-28 from behind the arc (39%) and his 11 makes are almost half the team's total. He too can get to the basket using his quickness and surprising strength, but he is much more apt to wait outside the arc for one of his teammates to kick it out to him. He can be sloppy with the ball, averaging almost 2 turnovers per contest.
The biggest thing with these three is that they get to the foul line a lot and when they get there they hit their free throws. They are a combined 33 of 42 from the charity stripe (79%) and they are ‘money' when the game is on the line. They also rebound well. In fact, as a team Villanova has six players who average at least 4 RPG. That's a very good number. They are also outrebounding their opponents 43-30 per game. That's enormous no matter how poor the opposition may be.
The two post players are senior Antonio Pena (6'8" 235 lbs.) and sophomore Mouphtaou Yarou (6'10" 250 lbs.). Pena has been a very solid contributor for Wright's program since he was a freshman. He averages 10.5 PPG and 7.3 RPG. He's a decent shot blocker (1 BPG) but his biggest attribute is his toughness. His skill level isn't the best but his competitive fire is outstanding. If Howland could get Reeves Nelson to play with even some of the fire that Pena always plays with then Nelson would be on his way to national honors.
Nelson having his ‘A' game for this contest would be huge for the Bruins. If Nelson plays with fire and plays hard at both ends of the floor for most of the game then he will win his match-up down low against Pena. It's key for UCLA that Nelson do this because the Bruins must take advantage of the match-ups they have in the post, especially since Villanova will probably have an advantage in the backcourt.
Yarou is a big body who leads the team in rebounding at 7.5 RPG, is second on the team in blocks and scores 9.3 PPG. Still, if Josh Smith can stay on the floor for UCLA then it could be a big advantage for the Bruins. Yarou is used to muscling players off their spots on the block. With Smith having an 80-lb. weight advantage, Yarou simply won't be able to do that. He will, however, be able to do that against both Anthony Stover and Brendan Lane, who will both be at a weight disadvantage against Yarou. The Nova big man is very raw, though, and if the UCLA posts can play within themselves and in a fundamentally sound way then they could make Yarou a non-factor.
Villanova's bench is young and unproven but has quality athletes. The bench is essentially made up of three sophomores, post Maurice Sutton (6'11" 220 lbs.), wing Isaiah Armwood (6'7" 205 lbs.) and guard Dominic Cheek (6'6" 185 lbs.). Of the three, Sutton is the most dangerous because he is an excellent shot blocker. He leads the team with six but plays the least amount of time of the three subs. He also averages 7.3 PPG in only 15.8 minutes of play per night. Cheek is the offense off the bench, averaging 7.8 PPG and statistically being the team's best long-range threat, and he also rebounds well (3.5 RPG). Armwood is clearly the guy that gives Pena a rest. He averages 4 RPG, has five blocks and generally plays with a chip on his shoulder.
Outside of Pena and Wright, the Wildcats have an athletic advantage at almost every spot. Anthony Stover and Sutton are probably a wash, but Sutton plays more, and while Malcolm Lee can use his length to make up for his very slight athletic disadvantage to any of the Nova guards, that still leaves four spots on the floor that Nova has a distinct athletic superiority.
Villanova's style of play can also burn the Bruins. Villanova likes to get out and run in both the fullcourt and the halfcourt. They play a variation of the dribble-drive motion offense with the idea that there is movement and spacing to allow one of the guards to penetrate. When they get by their man the guard either gets to the hoop or, if his way is blocked, kicks the ball out to an open shooter. They move the ball extremely well and quickly and, even though they turn the ball over in spurts, Wright can live with that because they often get easy baskets and get opponents in foul trouble because of their style.
Assuming Tyler Honeycutt guards Stokes and Lee guards Fisher or Sutton that means that Lazeric Jones or Jerime Anderson have the job of taking the remaining guard and it's that match-up where Nova has a distinct advantage. Until Anderson proves he can handle the job, last year's visions of his poor defense will be the norm. Jones simply hasn't played anyone of this caliber yet, and while he may be more than adequate on the defensive end by the end of the year, Fisher and Wayns are probably going to come as a huge shock to him on Wednesday.
Up front the Bruins should have at least a bit of an advantage, especially with Smith in the game. If either of the Nova bigs allow Smith to get in close to them when he's got the ball then they'll be the ones in foul trouble, and Nova's bench isn't deep. However, when Smith isn't in the game then the Bruin advantage will be almost negated. The Bruins at least have the depth to pound the Wildcats without worrying as much about foul trouble.
Villanova does a very good job of forcing opponents to move laterally with the ball at the point of attack. They are good enough to play off their men to prevent a drive to the hoop and athletic enough to close out on shots if they face a pull-up jumper. UCLA's best hope is to force Villanova to be patient on defense. They don't stay focused for 25 seconds, let alone 35. They will reach and foul.
UCLA is actually in a match-up they can win. This Nova team doesn't look like it will do well with an opponent who has a big and deep frontcourt. However, Villanova's backcourt advantage may be so great in this game that it trumps anything the Bruins can do up front.
This is the first time most of UCLA's roster will travel this far for a game and they will be facing a hostile crowd ( being less than a 2 hour drive from Philly to Manhattan). Lee's ankle is bound to still be gimpy. UCLA's bugaboo this season will be athletic teams (like Washington, but that's for later). If this game were later in the season, when perhaps UCLA's frontcourt had developed more, it might be different. It all adds up to UCLA's first loss of the season, but it may not be by much.