PORTLAND, Ore. — Villanova doesn’t have a crisis, but it does have a problem, and it goes something like this: It’s not terribly good at being Villanova. Not right now. The system and the on-floor personality hasn’t changed, even if the leadership has. And that’s fine. Reinvention wasn’t an option, anyway. But if the philosophy is the same and the results aren’t, and it’s not even close, that’s a warning light on the dashboard. That’s indicative of a group unequipped to live up to an identity. That is a problem.
“We’re in a spot where right now where we define ourselves completely different than everybody else,” first-year coach Kyle Neptune said after a third loss before the end of November, an 81-79 overtime wringer against Iowa State at the PK Invitational, and it was hard to know exactly what he meant by that. Probably because it’s not something anyone at Villanova has had to say in a while.
Best we can tell, Neptune already wants to dice up the season and the process into the smallest pieces possible, such that every player can digest it all more easily. Improvement and growth, one play at a time. Hoary, but understandable. Everyone looked at this group and wondered if things would ever be the same before a single minute was played. The usual anticipation, replaced with a heaviness. Expectation smothered under a weighted blanket.
Somewhere in what Neptune said is an acknowledgment, though. Not a surrender. Not on Nov. 24, which is the earliest Loss No. 3 has arrived for this program since 2013, but still very early days nonetheless. But a nod, yes, to the idea that Villanova’s ability level isn’t what everyone at Villanova is accustomed to, certainly not with a five-star freshman still idling on the sideline. So the whole enterprise might take a lot longer to look like it’s supposed to look.
— Iowa State Men’s Basketball (@CycloneMBB) November 24, 2022
The outline of Villanova proper was there on Thursday, for sure, with all the ball movement and the probing on the perimeter and the drive-and-kick with small-ball lineups on the floor. Generally, these Wildcats shoot 3s at about the same rate as those that came before them. Same as ever. “They do such a great job of driving you, getting two feet in the paint and getting you to overreact, and then finding shooters,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “It’s not easy to defend.” But it’s an empty threat if those shooters make only 28.2 percent of those shots, which is Villanova’s success rate over the last four games. When the rate of long-range looks spikes like it did against the Cyclones — 36 of its 57 field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, which is a lot, even by program standards — then this version of Villanova becomes almost no-dimensional on offense.
Again: A problem.
There is a salve, if not a solution. Overall energy level can make up some of the difference. And if Villanova hasn’t learned that after Thursday, it never will.
One of the benches at the Moda Center was a beehive. One of the benches chanted “Kill, kill, kill” every time there was a chance at three straight defensive stops. The other bench was Villanova’s. For as activated as Neptune is on the sideline, the vibe of his team didn’t match, at least early. Iowa State thrives off creating turnovers and crashing the offensive glass, and the Wildcats should’ve understood the terms of the fight and knuckled up accordingly. Instead, Villanova got bullied. It’s jarring to even write it. But it’s difficult to frame the first 25 minutes or so on Thursday otherwise. “The way they play is pretty unique,” Neptune said. “It took us a while to get settled in. It definitely discombobulated us a little bit and put us on our heels.”
When Villanova came around, everything changed. Eleven forced turnovers in the second half and overtime. Nine offensive rebounds in the same span, none bigger than Brandon Slater more or less climbing over Iowa State’s Aljaz Kunc to corral a miss and set up his game-tying free throws with 10.6 seconds remaining in regulation. One of the least formidable offensive rebounding teams in the country to date ultimately finished plus-4 in second-chance points. Villanova outperformed a team that makes a living chasing down its misses, all while going with undersized lineups to forge a comeback.
Kyle Neptune’s Villanova looks a lot like Jay Wright’s Villanova — for now
That’s an active choice a team makes, and the Wildcats didn’t make it soon enough. “By the last four or five minutes of the game, we were playing hard, we got into a little bit of a groove, a little bit of a rhythm,” Neptune said. “It was just a bit too little, too late.” Acceptance, they say, is the last step. Which may explain the delay. But if Villanova doesn’t understand that out-talenting the other side isn’t an option — not yet and maybe not all the way through March — then it will invite more nights like the three already this season it would prefer to forget.
The latest one may bruise Villanova for a while — with Portland on the docket Friday in the consolation bracket, only one chance is left to come out of Portland with a quality win — but there are paths forward. For one, Cam Whitmore theoretically will play college basketball this year and fill up the ability reservoir some more. On a more granular level, Neptune and his staff can learn and adjust; two of Iowa State’s biggest buckets, for example, were the direct result of a game plan to attack Villanova’s switches, with a Wildcats guard losing a battle to a Cyclones big for a pair of meaningful and-ones.
These are not unimportant dynamics. They’re not quite the essence of the problem, though. Or at least not the quickest way to fix it.
As overtime came to a close Thursday, Iowa State chased down a loose ball while Villanova guards Chris Arcidiacono and Jordan Longino were left flat on their back on the Moda Center floor. One last chaotic sequence. One final desperation test failed. Villanova might not be as excellent at being Villanova as it usually is. But it can decide to be something more than it is right now.
(Top photo: Soobum Im / Getty Images)