Why Villanova Basketball Deserves to Be Ranked Number One

The human poll voters and computers are in agreement: Villanova is the best college basketball team in the country.

When writing about advanced sports statistics, we often find ourselves taking stances that fly in the face of conventional thinking, so it can be refreshing when the numbers jive with the mainstream.

Such an occasion presented itself Monday, when Villanova was voted number one in both the AP and Coaches Polls. It just so happens that the Wildcats also top our college basketball ratings here at numberFire, as well as the Sagarin Ratings and KPI. Villanova is also in second at KenPom, trailing Iowa by only 0.0006 points.

There are cases to be made for other teams, like Iowa and Oklahoma, but the numbers are pointing in Villanova’s direction.

The scariest thing about the Wildcats is the fact that they may not have even peaked yet, given an offense that is heavy on three-point attempts. They’ve struggled from deep thus far, but given the volatility of three-point shooting in general and the talented shooters on the roster, some positive regression could be coming for an offense that already ranks in the 88th percentile nationally.

Even if Villanova’s three-point struggles continue though, it might not matter, and it certainly hasn’t up to this point, given their dominance inside the arc and on defense.

Not Your Slightly Older Brother’s Wildcats

For all the success Jay Wright’s team has had in recent seasons, interior scoring has not exactly been a hallmark of his teams.

Over the previous five seasons, despite the nation’s 25th-best winning percentage, Villanova was tied for 111th in two-point field goal percentage (49.3%).

According to Hoop-Math, in terms of field goal percentage at the rim, the Wildcats ranked 226th in 2011-12, 304th in 2012-13, 62nd in 2013-14, and 77th last season.

This season, though, they are fourth in two-point percentage (56.9%) and are tied for 16th in field goal percentage at the rim.

This has helped Villanova rank 34th in half-court effective field goal percentage, per Hoop-Math, and in the top 50 in overall eFG%, despite their aforementioned struggles from three-point range.

They are also tied for 36th in our Offensive Efficiency ratings, overcoming roughly average Turnover and Offensive Rebounding Rates, where they are tied for 88th and 148th, respectively.

Josh Hart has been a difference maker here, as the 6'5" forward has taken a third of his shots at the rim, making 79.3% of them.

His frontcourt mate, 6'11" center Daniel Ochefu, is taking nearly 74% of his shots from inside, making 66.0% of them (the national average is roughly 60%).

Ochefu and Hart are two of the five Wildcats who have taken 30 shots at the rim and made more than 65% of them.

Last season, there were only three such players (Ochefu, Hart, and backup guard Phil Booth). Compounding the problem last year was the fact that two high volume inside scorers, Jayvaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, were inefficient near the bucket. Both were valuable players in other regards, but Pinkston was only 77-for-144 inside (55.0%), while Hilliard was 56-for-96 at the rim (58.3%).

Floor spacing remains a key to the Villanova offense, and for the third straight year, they rank in the top 25 in three-point attempts per field-point attempt.

As mentioned, the makes have not been as frequent however, as after shooting 35.6% and 38.9% from deep in 2013-14 and 2014-15, respectively, they are shooting 32.7% on threes this season.

They came into the week tied for 255th nationally, and this is hard to figure out, even considering the randomness inherent in three-point shooting.

Even if we include this season, the Wildcats feature four players who have averaged at least 3.0 three-point attempts per game in their career, while making at least 35% of them.

Hart, Booth, guard Ryan Arcidiacono, and forward Kris Jenkins took over half the three-point attempts on last year’s Wildcats team that was tied for 25th in three-point shooting.

Rather than conclude Villanova all of a sudden can’t shoot, it might be better to assume this is just random variation and expect regression towards the mean.

In 2012, Ken Pomeroy looked at three-point shooting in one half of the previous conference season and found that it had next to no correlation with three-point shooting in the second half, implying there is a ton of randomness at play here (see graph below via KenPom).

This work matches up nicely with a later post from Pomeroy on how three-point shooting regresses to the mean.

Armed only with this information, you would assume that Villanova, a team in the 28th percentile in terms of three-point shooting, would regress towards the national average of 34.6% going forward.

Of course, we have not only this information but also the knowledge that Villanova has a history of shooting well from beyond the arc in the past, so we can probably be even more confidence in this inference.

In fact, we can already see evidence of this regression if we divide the season into halves. During their first 12 games, Villanova shot 31.0% from deep; over the next 11, the Wildcats shot 35.1%

It’s still a far cry from last year’s team, but it does support the inference Villanova is a fine jump shooting team, whose three-point numbers are weighed down by a bad start.

For a team that has been so good from the inside, not to mention one that also ranks ninth in our Defensive Efficiency ratings, this has to be a scary thing for opponents.

So AP and Coaches Poll voters, I tip my hat to you. This week, you got it right.