NCAA Lacrosse Tournament Participant: Villanova

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Tournament Seed: Unseeded

First-Round Opponent: Denver (May 15, 5:15)

2011 Record: 11-4

Conference: Big East

Last Tournament Appearance: 2009

NCAA Championships: 0

Four Notable Players: Brian Karalunas (LSM); Kevin Cunningham (A)*; Jack Rice (A); Billy Hurley (G).

Downloadable Tempo-Free Profile: Villanova

In 2009 as the THUNDERDOME! (CAA) automatic qualifier, the Wildcats -- a first time participant in the NCAA Tournament -- were sacrificed to one-seed Virginia. The Cavaliers were 13-2 entering that game and were neck-and-neck with Syracuse as championship favorites.  Villanova didn't stand a chance against Virginia in Klockner Stadium and ultimately absorbed an 18-6 annihilation.

It could've been worse, I guess.  Virginia was up 18-0 at the close of the third quarter.  Welcome to big-time lacrosse, Villanova.

In 2011 as an at-large invitee to the show of shows, the selection committee sent Villanova the way of the Rocky Mountains to play Denver -- a team as hot as any in the country -- in the first-ever NCAA Tournament game contested west of the Mississippi River.

This leads me to a very important question: Who the hell did the Wildcats piss off at the NCAA home office with all these ridiculous tournament pairings? 

WHAT VILLANOVA DOES WELL

In a piece for Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, I wrote that Villanova had become a bit of Notre Dame-light.  I think that the characterization is accurate to a degree, but it deviates from the Irish's overall offensive mentality in that the Wildcats are running a cockamamie basketball-oriented, off-ball picking offense.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Villanova is getting good results from its offense this year.  This isn't a unit that has the strength to blow teams away like Maryland, Virginia, or Cornell.  It is, however, a model that imposes its will on opponents: The Wildcats are able to grind the pace of a game into a slow burn, limit defensive exposure through extended offensive possessions, and score goals at an efficient rate.

Isn't that what a good offense should do? Set a team up for success?

Here's a quick illustration of how Villanova is performing on the offensive end:

VILLANOVA: SLOW DEATH
METRIC VALUE RANK AVG.
Possessions Per Game 60.07 57 67.29
Defensive Possessions Per Game 28.47 3 33.73
Adjusted Offensive Efficiency 33.63 7 27.92
Shots Per Offensive Possession 1.05 21 1.00
Offensive Effective Shooting Percentage 31.36% 16 28.64%
Offensive Assist Rate 19.37 7 15.37
Face-Off Percentage 56.47% 16 49.79%
Offensive Clearing Percentage 84.47% 22 82.69%
Defensive Clearing Percentage 87.15% 53 82.76%
  • First, on the pace factors.  Where Villanova is making their money is at the dot. With the ability to win lots of draws, the Wildcats can work themselves into extended offensive possessions and control the momentum of the game.  This is especially important for Villanova as they aren't tilting pace in their favor at a nationally-impressive rate through either other pace factor (offensive and defensive clearing).  In short, if you want to know why Villanova plays so few defensive possessions and elongated offensive possessions per game, just look at their capability in taken draws.
  • Now, on the offense. The team is piloted by six guys -- Cunningham, Rice, Will Casertano, Nick Doherty, Matt Bell, and C.J. Small.  All of those guys are in the top-180 in individual points per 100 possessions. That's a myriad of options for opposing defenses to deal with and Villanova has taken advantage of that all season.  Only two other teams -- Stony Brook (which is chronicled here) and Robert Morris -- have that many offensive players ranked in the top-180.
  • The Villanova offense really shines because there's the great combination occurring of impressive shooting and a willingness to share the bean. With all of the Wildcats off-ball movement, guys like Caseranto and Cunningham have been providing helpers all over the place to cats that can finish like Rice and Small.  What's even better is that there aren't clearly defined lines between feeders and finishers; any of Villanova's top-six offensive players can fill either role, and the team's offensive strategy actually supports and requires that.  The fact that Villanova isn't whipping the ball at the cage at a high volumen isn't necessarily a bad thing when you view it in the context of how the Wildcats are recording tallies.  The team waits for the good shot and, far more often than not, buries the ball.  That is the epitome of a dangerous offensive team.

WHAT VILLANOVA DOES POORLY

Longstick midfielder Brian Karalunas gets a ton of ink on his play, but there's a dirty little secret that Villanova is hiding: The Wildcats aren't exactly a defensive monster.

In fact, a lot of Villanova's defensive problems are self-inflicted: Only Hartford, an absolute shocker to make the NCAA Tournament, is in man-down situations more than Villanova on a possession basis.  When your goalkeeper -- Billy Hurley (a man that is single-handedly spearheading the bow tie revolution) -- is only saving about 49% of the shots he faces, this is a huge cause for concern as the frequent occurrences of personnel imbalance aren't doing the Wildcats any favors.

THE 'NOVA DEFENSE: PENETRABLE
METRIC VALUE RANK AVG.
Defensive Possessions Per Game 28.47 3 33.73
Adjusted Defensive Efficiency 28.31 34 28.22
Shots Per Defensive Possession 0.97 20 1.00
Defensive Effective Shooting Percentage 29.97% 43 28.83%
Defensive Assist Rate 18.46 54 15.41
Man-Down Conversion Rate 37.10% 49 31.48%
Man-Down Per Defensive Possession 0.1449 60 0.1129
Opponent Man-Down Reliance 0.1917 60 0.1266
  • Don't be fooled by the amount of goals per game that Villanova gives up (8.00, 9th nationally).  That is ridiculously misleading when you realize that only two teams in the country play fewer defensive possessions per 60 minutes of play.  Focus on the adjusted defensive efficiency value: The Wildcats -- on a goals yielded per defensive possession basis -- are just about average. This is not a top-10 defense and nor should it be confused with one.
  • There's all kinds of problems here and they start with Villanova working in a personnel imbalance all the time.  As noted, only Hartford is in man-down more than the Wildcats.  Unlike the Hawks, though, teams are really converting a lot in the scenarios. What's more, Villanova's opponents are actually relying on these personnel imbalance scenarios to score; only Army's opponents have used the personnel imbalance more to score this year than the Wildcats' opponents.  When you're in man-down a lot, aren't particularly good at man-down, and teams need you in man-down to score, you're preparing a disgusting recipe for success.
  • A quick note on the number of shots Villanova's defense is seeing on each defensive possession: A lot of this has to do with the Wildcats' ability to cause turnovers.  There's only a handful of teams that generate turnovers more than Villanova, and Brian Karalunas is a big part of that.  When you talk about limiting Hurley's exposure to shots because he has a hard time stopping them, Villanova's ability to end defensive possessions via a turnover is monumentally important.
  • There's an interplay here between defensive effective shooting percentage (DESP), defensive assist rate, and Villanova's poor man-down play.  First, DESP is weighted to give value to personnel imbalance tallies.  So, part of the reason that Villanova's DESP is high is because its man-down conversion rate is so bad.  Second, how the hell is Billy Hurley supposed to stop a shot when the Villanova defense is allowing helpers to space that allow shooters a hands-free or doorstep look?  When Villanova has emphasized getting out and challenging the ball carrier to generate a turnover, it has become susceptible to allowing the assist.  Now, part of this is due to the fact that opponents oftentimes have an extra attacker to roam without a mark, but that high of a defensive assist rate presumes that teams are also doing a good job of sharing the ball against the Wildcats in six-on-six scenarios.

OUTLOOK

Intangibles aside -- playing at altitude in Denver, making a cross-country flight, etc. -- asking Villanova to slay the Pioneers is a tall order.  This Denver team has all the tools to beat the Wildcats, even if Todd Baxter isn't available: The Pioneers have one of the most-deadly offenses in all of college lacrosse.

If Villanova can control play from the dot (a big question mark as Denver is 12th nationally in face-off percentage), the Wildcats can deflate their defensive exposure and work tirelessly against the Pioneers' underrated defense.  If Villanova struggles taking draws, it could be another forgettable NCAA Tournament experience for the Wildcats.

* Cunningham is currently injured but is expected to play.

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