South Region Preview: Villanova Faces Tough Draw

After the tournament cancellation in 2020, the Villanova Wildcats were named a five seed in the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament South Region. The Wildcats stand at 16-6 on the season and went 11-4 in Big East regular season play. The Wildcats won the Big East regular season title, but lost starting senior point guard Collin Gillespie for the season in the March 3 game against Creighton when he tore his MCL. Since then, the Wildcats lost to Providence in their regular season finale and to Georgetown in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament.

Due to the injury and subsequent losses, Villanova fell to a five seed in the south region, where it will take on the Winthrop Eagles on Friday in the first round. The South region is also highlighted by one seed Baylor, two seed Ohio St., three seed Arkansas and four seed Purdue.

Starting with the Wildcats matchup, the Eagles went 23-1 this season, winning the Big South regular season title and tournament championship to earn a 12 seed. Their lone loss was a 57-55 defeat to the hands of UNC Asheville back on Jan. 29. Despite the Eagles’ impressive record, they only received a 12-seed because their schedule is considered very weak. The best team they played all season was either UNC Greensboro or Furman. According to Kenpom.com, the Eagles’ strength of schedule stands at 309th most difficult out of 357 teams.

The Eagles are certainly talented, but the Wildcats will be the toughest team they have faced this season by far. The Eagles are led by senior Chandler Vaudrin, a 6’7” forward from Uniontown, Ohio. The senior leads Winthrop in points (12.2), rebounds (7.2), assists (6.9) and steals (1.3) per game. He also is shooting 37.5% from the three point line and 51.3% from the field.

D.J. Burns is one of three other Eagles who average more than 10 points per game. The 6’9” big man from Rock Hill, South Carolina averages exactly 10 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 58.3% from the field.

As a team, the Eagles are average on offense and slightly above average on defense. They are 120th in the country in adjusted offense and 70th in adjusted defense, per Kenpom.com. The defense number is respectable, but the Wildcats have played numerous better offenses in the Big East and even out of conference this season. 

They also are 11th in the country in adjusted tempo per Kenpom.com, meaning they play very fast. That clashes strongly with the Wildcats slow tempo, which is 320th in the country. If Villanova can make Winthrop play slow, it could give them an advantage, since the Eagles will likely be uncomfortable playing that way.

When it comes to the Wildcats, they look much different than they did when they had Gillespie. That is also skewed, however, because in the first game without Gillespie, sophomore Justin Moore suffered an ankle injury in the first half and only played 12 minutes. He was also doubtful to play in the Big East tournament, but played 27 minutes in the game against Georgetown coming off the bench. He is believed to be mostly healthy heading into the tournament.

The biggest change for Villanova has been sophomore guard Chris Arcidiacano getting serious minutes after Gillespie’s injury. The brother of Wildcat legend Ryan Arcidiacano, the younger “Arch’s” season high in minutes before the last week of the season was seven in a blowout victory against Hartford. He didn’t appear in the Creighton victory, but after Moore’s ankle injury, he checked in and didn’t check out again, playing 25 minutes, scoring zero points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out two assists.

With Moore’s status in question against Georgetown, Arcidiacano started and played 34 minutes. The most interesting part about that was Moore was not only able to play, but played 27 minutes, meaning they played together a large amount. In the loss to the Hoyas, Arcidicano had three points, five rebounds and four assists.

The question then becomes, with Moore likely to be fully available and start, what does Jay Wright do with Arcidiacono? With Moore likely to slide back in the starting lineup, will he take Arcidiacono’s spot in the starting lineup, or possibly junior Caleb Daniels spot, who only played 11 minutes in the Georgetown loss after picking up two early fouls?

For virtually not playing real minutes in college up to this point, Arcidiacono played well. However, the first two games he played major minutes in and was the primary ball handler resulted in losses to a 13-13 Providence team and 13-12 Georgetown team. Daniels has struggled since returning from the COVID-19 pause, in which he contracted the virus, but he is the higher upside play. Arcidiacono won’t turn the ball over, but he has played 59 minutes the past two games against mediocre teams and hasn’t made a field goal.

Without Gillespie, the offense has suffered and will be worse no matter who plays. However, when Gillespie left the Creighton game with the injury the Wildcats were leading a nationally ranked team by 12 points. They ballooned the advantage to over 20 points, before struggling to find a consistent rhythm without Gillespie, but still won by 12 in the end.

In that game, Moore and Daniels played 31 minutes, junior Brandon Slater played 23 and sophomore Bryan Antoine played 10, while Arcidicano didn’t play. Minimizing Cole Swider’s minutes could also be helpful. His best skill is shooting, but hasn’t made more than one three in a game since February 7th, against Georgetown. Spreading Gillespie’s 13 minutes from that game among those four players still puts a Villanova team on the floor that can win two games this weekend to get to the Sweet Sixteen.

To get to the second weekend, the Wildcats would have to defeat Winthrop and the winner of Purdue and North Texas. North Texas is the 13 seed from Conference USA and went 17-9 on the season. Purdue is the more well-known team and the team more likely to advance. The Boilermakers went 18-9 on the season in the Big Ten, arguably the best conference in basketball this season.

Purdue is a solid team, who has the 23rd ranked adjusted offense and defense, per Kenpom.com. It is led by junior Trevion Williams, who is averaging 15.6 points and nine rebounds per game. Freshman Jaden Ivey is the only other Boilermaker who averages in double figures, with an average of 10.5 points, while also grabbing 3.4 rebounds per game. Junior Sasha Stefanovic is also a threat, averaging 9.3 points on 40.2% shooting from three.

Oddly enough, if the Wildcats meet Purdue in the second round, it would be the second consecutive tournament in which they met in that round. Back in 2019, the third seeded Boilermakers crushed the sixth seeded Wildcats 87-61. This Purdue team doesn’t have the same firepower as the 2019 version, mainly missing Carsen Edwards, but a Villanova team playing well could be in a battle with Purdue for a Sweet Sixteen berth.

The two other headliners in the South region are number one seed Baylor and two seed Ohio State. Baylor earned its one seed by going 22-2 in the regular season, not taking its first loss until Feb. 27 at Kansas. The two seeded Buckeyes faltered down the stretch, losing their last four regular season games, but rallied to make the Big Ten tournament championship game, losing to Illinois.

The Buckeyes finished the season at 21-9 and possess the fourth best offense in the country, per Kenpom.com. Junior guard Duane Washington Jr. leads Ohio St. in scoring, averaging 16.3 points per game. It would be of little surprise if Baylor and Ohio St. meet in the Elite Eight to determine who heads to the Final Four, but third seeded Arkansas, Purdue or even Villanova could have something to say about that.