SCOUTING THE WILDCATS
Villanova has bolstered its height and size on the front line a bit, and thus has gotten away from near-exclusive use of the four- and five-guard offense it has employed in recent seasons. However, Jay Wright's Wildcats are still a perimeter-oriented team, and can flash the four-guard set at any time.
Veteran juniors Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek have set the pace for the Wildcats in the backcourt, averaging 17.4 and 11.5 points per game, respectively. Both are excellent free throw shooters who convert at an 86% rate, and shoot just well enough from the three-point line to make them threats that have to be accounted for on the outside. The duo also rebounds well, combining for eight per game. Cheek at 6-6, is a threat on the offensive glass, where he has 20 of his 57 boards to date, while Wayns leads the team in assists and minutes played.
Third starter James Bell is an all-around contributor, chipping in 8.4 ppg and 3.9 rpg, but he's just the start of a solid supporting cast. Darrun Hilliard gets in starter-type minutes, averaging nearly 27 per outing while adding 7.0 ppg and 3.7 rpg. He's the team's most consistent three-point threat, making 37% of his tries this season. Achruf Yacoubou and Ty Johnson also put in double digit minutes per game, and while their stats don't jump out individually, combined they have a noticeable impact, and give the Wildcats a number of options at the guard and swing spots, as well as excellent depth across the board.
Up front, center Mouphtaou Yarou (6-10, 250 lbs.) and Jayvaughn Pinkston (6-7, 260 lbs.) provide strength and productivity in the paint. Yarou tosses in 12.9 ppg and leads the team with 8.5 rpg. While he has been overshadowed by the drama surronding fellow frontcourter Pinkston, Yarou has been much more consistent through the early going. Pinkston, a highly-regarded recruit who sat out all of last year due to disciplinary reasons, has pushed his way into the starting lineup, and is getting more comfortable in his first season on the floor. He's averaging 6.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, but has been pushign those numbers upward over his last few outings. Markus Kennedy provides the bulk of bench support, tossing in 3.3 points and 4.9 rebounds in just more than 12 minutes per game.
Like West Virginia, Villanova has been hampered by injuries and illness over the past few games, so recovery and availability will be keys in the Big East opener.
WVU 9-3, 0-0
VU 7-5, 0-0
WVU - 35
VU - 85
Kilicli's presence (or absence) will be a huge factor in the game, as he's the only Mountaineer who can battle Yarou on even physical terms. If he is still hampered physically, watch for 'Nova to emphasize its attack down low even more. Teams haven't gone at Kevin Jones as much as might be expected in attempts to tire him on the defensive end, but it won't be a surprise to see the Wildcats try to post the 260-pound Pinkston against him to draw some fouls.
Villanova and the Mountaineers also share another trait -- a preponderance of freshmen on the floor. In addition to Pinkston, key reserves Johnson, Hilliard, Yacoubou and Kennedy are also first-year players. They, like their Mountaineer counterparts, have suffered their share of ups and downs, but all have contributed at different points this year, and appear to be improving. The quintet combined for 40 points and 17 rebounds in Nova's 73-52 win over American on Dec. 22.
Even with West Virginia's physical woes, this is a game the Mountaineers should have a good shot at winning. The Wildcats haven't been nearly as battle-tested as WVU in the early going, and haven't fared well away from home, posting a 1-5 record in road and neutral site games. Although students aren't back from the mid-semester break yet, a good crowd at the Coliseum could help push the Mountaineers off to a good start in conference play.
Despite a preponderance of guards, and a history of good ballhandling, Villanova is struggling to take care of the ball this season. The Wildcats have just 13 more assists than turnovers, and have recorded only 62 steals to date. Only Wayns, with 62 assists against 32 turnovers, has been consistently good in both keeping and distributing the ball.
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Villanova is part of Philadelphia's Big Five, a quintet of city schools that have played a full-round-robin schedule for 55 consecutive seasons. The Wildcats finished 2-2 in play this year, defeating LaSalle and Penn while losing to Temple and St. Joseph's. This marks the first time that the Wildcats haven't had a winning record in the series since 2002.
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Kevin Jones' 17-rebound performance against Baylor was a tour de force of positioning, savvy and fundamentals -- the attributes that the senior has ridden to become one of WVU's top board men ever. That game marked the third time this calendar year that Jones has topped the 15-rebound mark -- he snared 16 against Louisville in March of this year and had 18 against Kent State in November.
Might Jones make a run at the next milestone -- a 20-rebound game? It's been a long time since that happened. Maurice Robinson turned the trick with 20 against CCNY on Dec. 7, 1977.
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Villanova has, for the most part, either won big or lost big this year. Four of its seven wins came by margins of more than 20 points, with no win being closer than seven. Four of the Wildcats' five losses have been by double digits.