Villanova’s impressive run through the NCAA tournament perfectly illustrated the blueprint for success that Xavier is trying to follow.
The Wildcats knocked off the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed in Kansas, the Naismith Award winner in Buddy Hield, and a North Carolina team that would have seemed to have caused serious matchup problems for them on paper. And they did it all without a sure-fire NBA player on their roster.
Villanova’s win was a nice boost for a conference that craved postseason success, but the more exciting takeaway for Xavier fans is validation that the current vision for their program is capable of yielding the ultimate reward.
Since the Big East conference realigned and added Xavier, Villanova has consistently outclassed the Musketeers, as well as the rest of the conference. Chris Mack’s squad finally got the best of Jay Wright’s Wildcats in front of a sold out crowd at the Cintas Center this season, but there’s no argument over who the Big East’s most dominant program has been for the last three seasons.
As Mack and his assistant coaches have continued to raise expectations with ambitious recruiting efforts since joining a more high-profile conference, they’ve also clearly taken some cues from Villanova when it comes to roster construction.
A lot of the game comes down to talent. To win big, you need a certain amount of it. But Nova proved on Monday night that having a well-constructed, cohesive lineup with players complementing each other perfectly may make up for not having overwhelming former All-American/future NBA lottery pick-type talent.
According to DraftExpress.com, the Wildcats don’t have a single player projected to get picked in the 2016 NBA draft. In fact, Josh Hart is the only Villanova player on any mock draft board; he’s projected as the 41st overall pick (11th pick of second round) in the 2017 draft. He was ranked as the 64th-best prospect nationally in the 2013 recruiting class. Wright and his staff have thrived by landing guys like Hart. It’s tough to win many recruiting battles against the bluebloods for five-star talent, but the Wildcats have loaded up on four-star guys ranked in the top 100. Freshman guard Jalen Brunson was the highest-ranked contributor on this year’s national championship team – he was ranked 26th overall in the 2015 class. Daniel Ochefu was ranked 44th in 2012, and Ryan Arcidiacono was ranked 60th in the same class. Kris Jenkins was ranked 74th in the 2013 class with Hart and Darryl Reynolds, who was an unranked two-star prospect. Phil Booth was ranked 71st and Mikal Bridges was ranked 93rd in the 2014 class.
Having a roster full of top 100 recruits may have seemed like a stretch for Xavier in the Atlantic-10 days. Both Hart and Jenkins were priority recruits for the Musketeers in their final A-10 recruiting class, but ultimately ended up at Villanova. However, since settling into the new conference, XU’s staff has shown the ability to reel in similar top 100 talents.
In the 2014 class, Trevon Bluiett was ranked 30th in the class, Sumner was ranked 97th, Macura was ranked 98th, and London was a four-star that was noted as “just outside the top 100” by Scout’s national experts. O’Mara rounded out that class as an unranked three-star. Kaiser Gates was also an unranked three-star prospect in 2015, as was Myles Davis in 2012. In the 2016 class, Quentin Goodin is ranked 67th in the latest Scout top 100. Eddie Ekiyor and Tyrique Jones are unranked four stars. Bluiett is the only Xavier player currently projected as a draft pick – DraftExpress has him slotted as the 52nd overall pick (22nd pick of the second round) in 2017.
Just as notable as the recruiting rankings and talent, is the approach to becoming more versatile -Xavier has clearly tried to add more interchangeable pieces. This recruiting strategy led to a small-ball approach on the court this season that catered less to defined positions and focused more on pairing four skilled interchangeable players with a big man, which is the same way Villanova has played since X joined the Big East.
Defensively, both programs have worked hard to develop an identity as tough and tight man-to-man teams. Villanova’s versatility on the defensive end shined throughout the NCAA tournament as the Wildcats were praised for being able to switch all ball screens, something the Musketeers did a lot more of this season while improving their defensive efficiency from 57th in the country last season to 20th. Villanova’s defense was ranked sixth in the country this year. The Wildcats played a match-up zone 18 percent of the time as a curveball to throw opponents off and cover up bad matchups, including during a handful of possessions in Monday night’s National Championship game against North Carolina. Xavier did the same thing with its 1-3-1 zone, though the Musketeers relied on their zone a little more at 32.4 percent of the time, probably in part because they had more bad matchups to hide. While the 2014 class definitely improved their skill-level and versatility on offense, their athleticism and toughness on defense still lagged behind Nova’s a bit. The staff addressed those issues in the 2015 and ’16 recruiting classes.
On the offensive end, Nova plays much slower and relies on the 3-pointer a lot more than X does. However, both teams feature multi-dimensional attacks that thrive off of ball-movement and execution. When Xavier first arrived to the Big East, they were relying on Semaj Christon to get box touches as their only consistent source of offense, which was too easy to shut down for the type of big and athletic defenders they came across in conference play. The 2014-15 team began to emphasize ball movement even while employing a traditional lineup that essentially ran everything through center Matt Stainbrook. This season the Musketeers went small by sliding Bluiett in at the four. They spread the floor with multiple scorers and playmakers in the lineup, and made the defense chase the ball around the perimeter as they swung it around and made more jump shots. Villanova does the same thing with Jenkins, Hart and Bridges being interchangeable at the three and four spots. Both Hart and Bridges can also guard the two, adding more versatility and options for the coaches.
Villanova may have benefited from a lack of elite freshman talent around the NCAA this year, but there’s no denying that the Wildcats convincingly handled the best college hoops had to offer. The Musketeers are positioning themselves to do the same.