It's not often that a top-seeded NCAA Tournament team gets even better the next season, especially with all the roster turnover in contemporary college basketball. Enter Villanova. Knocked out of last year's tournament in the round of 32, the Wildcats look stronger in 2016, even after losing non-conference games to Oklahoma and Virginia.
Here's what Villanova has done since New Year's Eve:
● Won their first five Big East Conference games.
● Beat Xavier by 31 points. That's No. 7 Xavier, which is projected as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by CBS.
● Won at Creighton, a top 50 team in the KenPom.com ratings, by 14.
● Won at Butler, where it's never easy to win.
All the above has vaulted the Wildcats to the No. 1 spot in the KenPom rankings, ahead of Oklahoma and Kansas. And that's despite losing three starters—Dylan Ennis, Darrun Hilliard, and JayVaughn Pinkston—from last year's squad. So what's the secret?
Simple. The Wildcats still have good players, and lots of them.
Not every team gets on-court production to match its talent—Kentucky and LSU are good examples of being less than the sum of their parts this season—but Villanova certainly has. Statistically, the Wildcats feature two of the five best players in the country, according to KenPom. Guard Josh Hart has a blistering effective field goal percentage (61.4 percent). Center Daniel Ochefu has been a monster on both the offensive and defensive boards while also shooting well. Add in sharp-shooting point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, wing Kris Jenkins, and star freshman Jalen Brunson, and it's impossible to find a Villanova weakness anywhere on the floor.
Better shot selection has been the other key. Last year's Wildcats were talented, too, but Villanova had too many games where the team's shooting choices were less than ideal. Let's take a look:
That's a lot of mid-range shots.
Much of the time, Villanova was good enough to get away with inefficient shot selection—again, the team had talent—but in some games, like their NCAA Tournament loss to NC State, the Wildcats' shooting faltered.
This season, Villanova actually has worse shooters, but the Wildcats are taking better shots, and that's a strategy for greater consistency. Here's the team's shot chart from the first five games of Big East play:
By favoring higher-percentage shots near the basket and higher-reward shots from three, Villanova is better able to maximize its possessions, even with some relatively inexperienced players.
The Wildcats have also helped themselves by creating wasted possessions for opposing offenses. They have great length in their rotation—Brunson is 6-foot-2, Arcidiacono and Phil Booth are 6-foot-3, Hart is 6-foot-5, Jenkins is 6-foot-6, and Ochefu is 6-foot-11—and are masterful at altering shots.
Villanova's guards are so long that teams are only shooting threes 37 percent of the time against the Wildcats. Instead, opponents rely on inefficient mid-range jumpers or shoot from the paint, where Ochefu is blocking 8.8 percent of shots he faces, good for No. 43 in the country. Overall, Villanova's opponents are shooting an abysmal 38 percent.
To a degree, success in the NCAA Tournament is about luck. One bad game, and you're cooked. That's what happened to the Wildcats last year. Play the percentages, however, and you can tilt luck in your favor, increasing your margin for error.
Take good shots. Mostly hit good shots. Play suffocating defense. Maximize your talent. It's simple to write, yet hard to execute. So far this season, Villanova has managed to do all of those things. If they keep it up, the same formula could push the Wildcats over the hump come March.