Villanova Wildcats head coach Wright yells at officials during NCAA men's basketball tournament against North Carolina Tar Heels in Kansas City

Villanova’s offense needs more balance to be an elite team

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In the game’s opening nine minutes against Syracuse, Villanova looked like one of the nation’s elite teams as they jumped out to a 25-7 lead in the Carrier Dome and silenced the crowd early.

The Wildcats started 5-for-7 from behind the three-point line as they moved the ball quickly around the perimeter and found open players for jumpers.

Villanova was aggressive and assertive on both ends.

But reality quickly set in for the Wildcats as the Orange made adjustments in their zone. A mediocre-shooting Villanova team — they’re shooting 32 percent from the three-point line on the season; and they shoot a lot of threes — missed their next six three-pointers and began rushing shots and Syracuse’s zone took over as the Orange went on a 71-37 run to close out the game for the 78-62 victory.

Things began to unravel for Villanova when the perimeter shots stopped falling.

Spacing became an issue for the Wildcats towards the middle of the first half as they attempted to throw the ball around the perimeter and Villanova settled for jumper-after-jumper. It almost seemed like for minutes at a time, Villanova wouldn’t work the ball inside their own three-point line during their offensive possessions.

Look at this photo of Villanova’s floor spacing captured by CBT’s own Rob Dauster:

That kind of floor spacing might work in an intermediate men’s league — or if Steph Curry is your floor spacer — but with the kind of length, lateral quickness and athleticism that Syracuse brings with their zone, Villanova needed to do a better job of being patient and working the ball in the high post to find better looks.

If Villanova is going to beat long and athletic teams, their offensive attack has to be more patient and seek out better shots.

Working the ball into the high post would be a big step in that equation. James Bell played well offensively for Villanova — going for 25 points before fouling out — but Nova’s other guards did a poor job of working the ball inside, or even pass faking to move the Syracuse zone from side-to-side to create driving or passing lanes. The Wildcat starters around Bell on offense — Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard, JayVaughn Pinkston, Daniel Ochefu — combined for only four field goals as they seemed to feel the affects of Syracuse’s zone as their halfcourt offense crawled to a halt.

Villanova ended up shooting 10-for-31 from the three-point line for the game against Syracuse — which, at 32 percent, matches their season average

Villanova is going to shoot a lot of three-pointers —  at 45 percent of their attempts coming from there this season that should be a continuing trend — but they have to make sure they’re smart about it.

The Wildcats shot their season average from three-point range and lost by 16 to a superior team, but there is plenty of time to refine their approach before facing another opponent like Syracuse. Thankfully, there aren’t a lot of teams like Syracuse for Villanova to face, but can they strike more balance in their offensive approach? It might be the only way the Wildcats reach their full potential.

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.