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2017-18 Big East nonconference schedule analysis: Villanova Wildcats

After a perfect 13-0 showing in non-conference play last season, can the defending Big East champs do it again?

NCAA Basketball: Butler at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Villanova went undefeated in non-conference play for the second time in three years. The Wildcats were a perfect 13-0 in these games, but they would finish 32-4 after a few Big East losses and a defeat in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32.

On the bright side, Villanova captured the Big East regular season and tournament titles, and will look to defend those for this upcoming year. Before they can get to that, the Wildcats have a pretty balanced out-of-conference slate that include appearances at the Battle 4 Atlantis and the Jimmy V Classic Doubleheader. Here is a look at the teams they will face along the way.


Columbia (November 10)

The last time Villanova hosted Columbia, it didn't go so well. The Lions pulled off a shocking upset five years ago at the Pavilion, and the two teams haven't seen each other since. In hindsight, that loss seemed to be the turning point of the program and a wake-up call for a group of freshmen to eventually lead the 'Cats to a national title. The Lions were 11-16 last season, and things might be even harder on them since Luke Petrasek has since graduated and is now a member of the Charlotte Hornets. It looks like they will turn to sophomore Mike Smith, who made an immediate impact as a starting freshman last season, and senior Nate Hickman, who will be entering his second season as a starter. These two are similar versatile players that can contribute on both ends of the floor. Overall, Columbia will seek to improve on itself defensively. It was great at creating turnovers, but it couldn't really defend the floor well. Columbia allowed opponents to make over 50 percent of their shots from inside the arc (214th) and 36.1 percent from deep (237th).

Nicholls State (November 14)

The Colonels had a rough go in conference play, going 7-11 in the Southland, ultimately finishing 14-17. Their struggles on the glass were especially apparent in those losses. Despite being one of the top ten shot blocking teams, they couldn’t own the boards, only sporting a defensive rebound rate of 37.6 percent—good for 351st in the country. It didn’t help that Nicholls State mostly played small ball, only having one key rotational player stand taller than 6-foot-5. The outlier, 7-footer Liam Thomas, has now graduated, but the Colonels have beefed up their size with some newcomers. They also had to battle through a couple of injuries that shortened a couple of players’ seasons. With those guys healthy and a batch of transfers and newcomers, this seems like it will be a better year for Nicholls State, who will need to improve offensively—but its biggest concern will be tidying up defensively. Aside from the Colonels’ rebounding woes, they were terrible at defending the three-point line, allowing opponents to drain 41.7 percent of three-point shots (350th in Division I). Against a team like Villanova, that loves the perimeter game, that could be very problematic for the Colonels.

Lafayette (November 17)

It hasn’t been an easy last couple of seasons for the Leopards, who have won a combined 15 games over the last two years. It was a harsh downward spiral from their last winning season in 2015, when they finished 20-13 and made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament as a 16-seed, losing to Villanova. Fran O’Hanlon and his Leopards will meet his alma mater once again, and will look to improve on one of their worst seasons—statistically—in recent memory. According to KenPom, Lafayette was ranked below 300 in offensive and defensive efficiency last season. O’Hanlon’s teams usually excel offensively, utilizing a balanced attack—one that’s characterized by a great three-point shooting ability. Unfortunately, Lafayette’s 32.7 shooting percentage from deep was its worst performance since 2009. On the other end of the court, it couldn’t defend the perimeter. The Leopards might suffer even more from deep, as they’ve graduated four-year starter Nick Lindner, who has been an important point guard for them since he first arrived. On the bright side they do bring back 6-foot-8 forward Matt Klinewski, who was their leading scorer last season. Who will step up to help him? That remains to be seen.

Battle 4 Atlantis -- Paradise Island, Bahamas

Western Kentucky (November 22)

The Wildcats return to the tournament that relaunched them back into the national polls. They return for the first time since they won it in 2013, beating top 25-ranked Kansas and Iowa along the way. This opening round game could have been an intriguing re-introduction to the tournament--especially with a battle in the frontcourt--but the Mitchell Robinson saga took one more recent twist. It appears that Robinson has once again decided to leave the program, and it seems like it will be for good this time. Regardless, the Hilltoppers still have one of their better incoming classes in years, even without Robinson. Four-star shooting guard Josh Anderson and Virginia-transfer Darius Thompson highlight a group of new faces coming to Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers are also happy to have their top scorer and rebounder from the last two seasons coming back. Justin Johnson has been the top player on the team, and he almost left to join the football team to play tight end. Western Kentucky should still be a solid squad, but it'll be missing Robinson.

Tennessee OR Purdue (November 23)

Tennessee: If the Wildcats end up playing the Volunteers in the second game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, it would be just the fourth time that these two teams would be squaring off on the basketball court. The last time these two teams played each other, Tennessee upset Villanova back in 2010. Last season, Tennessee was much better statistically than its 16-16 record suggested. The Volunteers were top 75 in offensive and defensive efficiency. There were some flaws on both ends of the court—on offense, they had a subpar team shooting percentage, while there were below average in corralling rebounds on defense. Tennessee excelled at getting to the free throw line, boasting the 13th highest rate in the country. Led by all-around sophomore Grant Williams, who is the top returning scorer, rebounder and blocker, the Volunteers will look to improve on their .500 standing from last year.

Purdue: Villanova and Purdue engaged in an intriguing early season matchup last season, one that came down the wire. The Wildcats will be happy to know that these Boilermakers will be operating without their star double-double machine, Caleb Swanigan, who left early for the draft and was scooped up by the Portland Trail Blazers. Despite this, the Boilermakers will still boast a great amount of size, especially against the Wildcats. 7-foot-2 center Isaac Haas was more than a handful for Villanova to deal with in their last meeting, and he’s back to anchor the frontcourt. Purdue also has 6-foot-8 wing Vince Edwards, who can score from almost anywhere and play both ways. Another player to watch for is sophomore point guard Carsen Edwards. Edwards is mainly a slasher, occasionally pulling up from deep, but he shines mostly on defense as one of the Boilermakers’ top perimeter defenders.

Arizona OR N.C. State OR SMU OR Northern Iowa

Arizona: This would be the dream championship game, a battle between two Wildcat squads and top-ranked teams. Arizona features a nice blend of newcomers and veterans, between a loaded freshman class and the experienced guys on the roster, this will be a dangerous team. This incoming class is headlined by a pair of five-star recruits—Emmanuel Akot and 7-foot center DeAndre Ayton—as well as three four-star recruits in center Ira Lee, point guard Alex Barcello, and former ‘Nova target, Brandon Randolph. Combine those guys with scoring machine Allonzo Trier and big man Dusan Ristic, this will be a formidable squad that should be okay after the early draft departures of Lauri Markkanen and Kobi Simmons.

N.C. State: Can’t mention N.C. State in a sentence without giving Villanova fans shuddering. Adding to some 2015 NCAA Tournament Round of 32 PTSD is the fact that Malik Abdul-Abu is still around and will be leading the team as a senior. Abu, an undersized 6-foot-8 center, most famously—or infamously—feasted on the Wildcats’ frontcourt. Of that game back in 2015, Abu is the only notable one still around. He will still be a key part of the Wolfpack’s game, one that will look very different without Dennis Smith Jr. They will also be without the graduated Terry Henderson and Maverick Rowan, who also left early to pursue a pro career. Smith, Henderson, and Rowan were N.C. State’s top three scorers from a tumultuous 15-17 season that included a 4-14 record in ACC play. With three out of four top contributors gone for N.C. State, the Wolfpack can only hope things start to look up.

SMU: Head coach Tim Jankovich had quite the debut after taking over for the legendary—and controversial—Larry Brown. The Mustangs’ 30-5 season beat any single season win total from the Brown era, and it also set a new program record for most wins in a season. Heading into this year, SMU would be fortunate to replicate that same success, but it seems unlikely. Former Duke transfer and top player Semi Ojeleye was drafted by the Boston Celtics, and other key contributors—Sterling Brown and Ben Moore—graduated. SMU does return second team All-AAC point guard Shake Milton, but he won’t have the same amount of weapons to work with. Milton is a talented two-way guard that can score, defend, and distribute, but the rest of his returning teammates seem somewhat unproven. Will he be able to carry a team? Will other players step up and fill in the gaps?

Northern Iowa: 2016-17 was Northern Iowa’s worst season since 2002-03, which was the last time it had suffered a losing season. The Panthers struggled when it came to scoring, a side of the ball they were usually good at in recent history--particularly from beyond the arc. They shot 32.3 percent from long range, their lowest percentage in the last 15 years. This poor performance reflected in their sub-40 percent shooting percentage as a team and their 61.8 points per game average, which was good for 344th in the country. One aspect that remained consistent was their dedication to defense, where they performed pretty well. However, as they showed last year, they can't rely on their defense to solely carry them. When there's only one player averaging in double-figures that's returning, it seems that won't be changing any time soon.

Penn (November 29)

It wasn't pretty, but it was a step in the right direction for the Quakers last season. Since 2013, Penn has not had a winning season, but last year's 13-15 finish was the closest it came to breaking even. After starting the season 7-12, the Quakers won six of their last eight regular season games to come from behind and clinch a spot in the first-ever Ivy League tournament. Even though they would then lose to Princeton, it was progress towards a rebuild. Penn fans got another reason to be optimistic for the future in sophomores A.J. Brodeur and Ryan Betley. Brodeur, a 6-foot-8 forward, shined as a freshman last season, with team highs in scoring (13.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.9 boards per game). As for Betley, he was plugged into the rotation and a starting role midway through the season. He flourished in his role and helped be a sparkplug coming down the stretch, averaging in double figures and shooting pretty well on the floor. Penn graduated two players going into this season--Matt Howard, who was one of the Quakers' top scorers, and Dylan Jones, who missed all of last season due to injury. There will be plenty of pieces to reload for this year, and that is promising for the Quakers. Not only will this game be the first Big 5 matchup for Villanova this season, but it will also be noteworthy in the fact that this will be the first played at Jake Nevin Field House—the Wildcats’ former home until the Pavilion was opened in 1986.

St. Joseph's (December 2)

The Holy War. The Wildcats and the Hawks renew their special Big 5 rivalry. Villanova got the best out of a young, inexperienced St. Joe’s squad that fell to a triple-double performance by Josh Hart. The Hawks were hurt by two key injuries to a pair of Hawks that were performing very well before going down—Shavar Newkirk and Lamarr Kimble. The two guards put in great work during the offseason and thrived in a much bigger role. Their injuries left some huge gaps and St. Joseph’s struggled in conference play and ultimately ended the season at 11-20—its lowest win total since 2011. On the bright side, head coach Phil Martelli got great production from forwards James Demery and freshman Charlie Brown. Demery played at his highest level yet, while Brown proved himself to be one of the top newcomers in the Big 5. If Newkirk and Kimble can return to their level of play before injury—or even surpass that—the Hawks will be in great shape, especially when you add Demery and Brown to the mix.

Gonzaga (December 5)

The Jimmy V Classic Doubleheader is fortunate to have two national championship game finalists from the last couple of years meet up to tip off the night. While both teams have certainly lost some key players since their appearances in their respective title games, Gonzaga is getting hit hard by losing four out of five top scorers and players from last season's deep run--leading man Nigel Williams-Goss, graduate transfer Jordan Mathews, the winningest college basketball player in Przemek Karnowski, and NBA Lottery Pick Zach Collins. Even with such a big roster turnover, the Bulldogs do return rotational players like Johnathan Williams, Silas Melson, and Josh Perkins--a trio that got a lot of playing time during that deep run. They will be relied on to maintain a Gonzaga tradition that involves strong hard-nosed defense. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 last season, according to KenPom, in defensive efficiency. While they might not be able to achieve the same success this season, with so many key pieces gone, it's hard to see them falling too far down defensively. Over the last decade, Gonzaga was ranked top 100 in defensive efficiency and in eight of those years, it was top 50. This is a Catholic school that values defense and team-ball, much like Villanova.

La Salle (December 10)

With the help of their three high-major transfers finally eligible to play last season--B.J. Johnson (Syracuse), Pookie Powell (Memphis), and Demetrius Henry (South Carolina)--the Explorers finished with a much-improved 15-15 record from a year earlier and had Villanova on upset watch for 38 minutes of their Big 5 game at the Palestra. So far, Johnson and Powell proved to be able to contribute immediately, helping the likes of the now-graduated scoring machine and three-year starter, Jordan Price. The two transfers, along with senior Amar Stukes seem to be the only proven, consistent players on an Explorer squad that is pretty young and will welcome a number of new faces. One player they're excited for is the debut of Cian Sullivan, a 7-foot-2 big man from Ireland that redshirted last season. The Explorers have been searching for a reliable, consistent big man that can help anchor the floor on both ends of the court, for some time now. Sullivan might be a solution. Aside from that, the Explorers will look to improve defensively, as that's been an area they've struggled in for the last two years. They allowed opponents to shoot 39.4 percent from deep (336th in three-point defense) and have given up an effective field goal percentage of 54.3 (321st).

Temple (December 13)

The Owls were pretty young last year, and Fran Dunphy is hoping that an added year of experience will do well for his team this year. A majority of Temple's eight-man rotation were filled with freshmen and sophomores. It didn't help that senior point guard Josh Brown tore his Achilles and was limited to playing just a handful of games last year. The Owls were a middle-of-the-pack team last season, and their 16-16 record was indicative of their up-and-down status. Now, Brown is back and healthy to lead the team, along with senior veteran Obi Enechionyia. Enechionyia is a stretch big that has started the last two years for the Owls. These two will have a solid supporting cast of younger players right behind them. Injuries allowed Dunphy to test some of his inexperienced players with minutes and some of them shined. Junior Shizz Alston Jr. led Temple with 13.9 points per game and 4.1 assists per game as a sophomore last season, after doing virtually nothing as a freshman. Quinton Rose averaged just under 10 points per game, while sharpshooter Alani Moore II helped prove that the two belonged as freshmen on the court. With a blend of youth and experience, this is looking to be a much more formidable Temple team, if it can stay healthy.

Hofstra (December 22)

Jay Wright will be taking his Wildcats to Long Island to play Hofstra as part of a basketball double-header that involves Maryland and Stony Brook in the other game. This would be somewhat of a homecoming game for Wright, who used to coach at Hofstra from 1994-2001, before coming to Villanova. The last time Villanova and Hofstra squared off was in 1997, when Wright took the Pride to the Pavilion to face off against the Wildcats. Now, for the first time, Hofstra will be seeing its former head coach on the opposite side bench. The Pride excel at taking great care of the ball, boasting a 15.3 percent turnover rate, the 13th best in Division I. It also returns its top player, Justin Wright-Foreman, who averaged 18.1 points per game as a sophomore. Glass cleaner Rokas Gustys was a top five rebounder last season in Division I and he returns to his post in the middle. Hofstra could have been a much better team than its 15-17 record implies, but its defensive struggles could not be ignored. Hofstra was among the bottom feeders when it came to forcing turnovers and generating blocks. It was also subpar when it came to allowing opponents to shoot well from the floor.

Connecticut (January 20)

The Wildcats will take a quick break from conference play to take on UConn, which is the beginning of a three-year series between both schools. This is the first time Villanova will be taking on the Huskies in the regular season since conference realignment, and the first time these two teams meet since UConn pulled off the upset victory back in the 2014 NCAA Tournament Round of 32. Not a single player that suited up in that game are still around, but it should still be a good game between a couple of former Big East foes. It's also a homecoming game of sorts for Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall, two Wildcats that played some of their high school careers in Connecticut. The Huskies are led by Jalen Adams, who averaged a team-high 14.4 points and 6.1 assists last season. With Rodney Purvis graduated, the Huskies will be leaning on him a lot. Also keep an eye out for a pair of Huskies that are looking to bounce back after getting their seasons cut short by injuries--Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert. Both looked pretty good before getting their seasons ended preemptively.

Outlook

Villanova would love to go undefeated again in conference play, but it doesn’t seem likely. The Wildcats have a beefed up slate, and depending on what happens in the Battle 4 Atlantis, they could have some real quality games. (No offense to last year’s Charleston Classic.) This will be an interesting time to see how the ‘Cats deal with graduating Big East Player of the Year Josh Hart, 2016 National Championship hero Kris Jenkins, and big man Darryl Reynolds. It appears that Big East fans will get to see some more of Jalen Brunson unleashed, Mikal Bridges, and finally—Omari Spellman. This process of adapting to those losses and getting guys accustomed to bigger roles might cost a couple of games, but the Wildcats shouldn’t lose more than two non-conference games.