VILLANOVA, PA -- The arrival of the new year allows us to pause for a second, assess the past year and move into the next 365 days with all the wisdom we have acquired over the past 12 months. College basketball doesn't measure time in calendar months, but the start of January still stands as a valuable milepost. With the lion's share of non-conference competition in the rear-view mirror, we can evaluate teams' pros, cons, and skill levels with a great deal more clarity than we could two months ago.
So let's take a look at what we've seen from Villanova and Rutgers in the wake of the teams' January 2 Big East debuts, an 81-65 'Nova victory at the Pavilion just outside of Philadelphia.
What we thought: In the College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11, John Gasaway wrote that any anticipated "Ewing effect" created by the departure of Scottie Reynolds was in fact unlikely to materialize, and that the team's defense would need to get better in order to improve on its 25-8 (13-5 Big East) season. Also recall that last year featured a fairly precipitous collapse in February and March.
What they've done: Villanova has played some good defense, be it at the expense of a somewhat soft group of non-conference opponents. The Wildcats entered Sunday's game with the nation's 13th-best adjusted defensive efficiency (KenPom.com), up from 62nd at the end of last season. A lot of that increased success has come from keeping opponents away from the free throw line. Last season, 'Nova's opponents attempted 0.49 free throws for every field goal they tried. This year, that number is down to about 0.31, a move from 329th to 63rd nationally.
While the Wildcats didn't do a good job of keeping Rutgers away from the foul line on Sunday, they did mop up on the boards, grabbing 77 percent of the Scarlet Knights' misses (and 55 percent of their own). That tenacity on the defensive boards helped Villanova compensate its merely "fair" full-court press ('Nova coach Jay Wright's word, not mine) that led to a few early baskets for Rutgers and a surprising 37-33 for the visitors at the half.
"They have tremendous energy," said Rutgers coach Mike Rice of Villanova. "They send three guys as hard as anybody in America to the glass."
The Wildcats ended up yielding 65 points in 67 possessions on Sunday, a performance a bit more shaky than Pomeroy's predictions called for (59 points in 68 trips). Rutgers seemed to bring the action to Villanova point guard Maalik Wayns, perhaps because of his small stature, and 'Nova wing Dominic Cheek found himself on the wrong end of a nice dribble-drive or two, but overall Villanova looked tough -- like a team that could routinely hold opponents at or even below a point per possession in Big East play.
What they'll do: Pomeroy had Villanova pegged for a 12-6 campaign against a this season's strong Big East crop. After Sunday's game, disappointing and unsettling as the first half was, it'd be tough to forecast fewer conference wins for the Wildcats. PLayer by player their offense comes and goes, but the team has enough talented scorers to compensate for individual game-to-game struggles. Certainly it helps when Corey Stokes scores 23 points on nine field goal tries, like he did Sunday.
Defensively Villanova on Sunday looked a lot like the foul-always so-so group from last year. If that continues, the team's January stretch of Cincinnati, Louisville, Maryland, Connecticut, and Syracuse might not be pretty. On the other hand if bigs Mouphtaou Yarou and Antonio Pena do what they've done for most of the season and avoid fouls like the plague, their length, disruptiveness, and rebounding could contribute to some impressive victories.
Right now 12-6 in the best conference in America looks like a definite possibility, but 13-5 or 14-4 aren't out of the question either.
What we thought: In the book Gasaway mentioned that the only thing Rutgers did well last season was avoid committing fouls, making them an anti-Villanova of sorts. With the loss of Mike Rosario, Gregory Echinique and Hamady Ndiaye in the offseason and a new coach running things in Piscataway, Prospectus' preseason projection called for a 2-16, last-place conference finish for the Scarlet Knights.
What they've done: So far Rutgers has done a good job exceeding expectations. Two of the team's four losses have been "understandable" -- although Rice and guard James Beatty both expressed on Sunday their disdain for moral victories -- to North Carolina and Villanova, while two others have come on the road against not-too-shabby opponents (Princeton and Saint Joseph's). Meanwhile, the Knights blew out Fairfield and Miami in the best week the program has seen in a while.
So what does an opposing Big East coach think? Here's Jay Wright's take on Rutgers, version 2K11: "They really play good defense. They're very, very physical. You knew from the start of the game it was going to be one of those Big East, 35-foul shot [games]> They're just grinding and playing physical."
What they'll do: Wright was right about Rice's team playing physically -- the Scarlet Knights sent Villanova to the line six times for every ten field goals attempted -- but Rutgers just isn't big enough to be a quintessential, bruising Big East team. At least not a very good one.
Freshman Gilvydas Biruta is a fairly skilled and physical 6-8 post who has only managed to play about half the team's minutes this season because of referees' pesky whistles, which don't figure to disappear in conference play. He picked up three first-half fouls and eventually earned an ejection for what Rice called a "swipe", leaving Rutgers with wings (Dane Miller, Jonathan Mitchell and foul-plagued reserve Austin Johnson) in the post. Mitchell and Miller, the team's most assertive offensive players, combined for 28 points on 17 field goal attempts against Villanova, but Miller had his afternoon cut short by the aggressiveness of Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes and the resulting foul calls.
Rutgers is better than the 2-16 preseason prediction, and perhaps better than Pomeroy's most recent 4-14 forecast. The Scarlet Knights came into a full and fairly energetic Pavilion and played hard and well enough to put Villanova on its heels for most of the first half. If not for some widespread foul issues and Stokes' hot hand, Sunday's game could have remained interesting deep into the second half. With an offensive talent like Mitchell and the solid guard play of Beatty and Mike Coburn, it wouldn't be surprising to see Rutgers pull an upset or two later on in the conference season. Along with a 10-point improvement in Rutgers' losing margin against Villanova from 2010 to 2011, Rice's take on his team summed up the program's progression -- without admitting moral victory, of course.
"They laid down against North Carolina (78-55 loss December 28) -- whether it was Madison Square Garden or national TV -- but they didn't lay down tonight. So there's a positive. We just got in our own way."
Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.