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Villanova basketball preview: Jay Wright's Wildcats try to build on last season's success

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No. 16 Villanova returns plenty of firepower from a team that won 29 games a year ago.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

No one is happier about Shabazz Napier and Doug McDermott becoming first-round NBA draft picks than Jay Wright. A year ago, they were just about the only two players capable of defeating Villanova.

The Wildcats started last season by winning 16 of their first 17 games, with the lone loss coming against a Syracuse team that began the year 25-0. Then came Villanova's first meeting with McDermott and Creighton. Wright's team was ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll, but the Blue Jays came away with a 28-point blowout victory. A month later, McDermott went off for 39 and Creighton routed Villanova again, this time by 21.

The loss to Napier and UConn was even more painful because it ended the Wildcats' season. Villanova entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 seed against UConn, but Napier's 25 points helped the Huskies to their first upset on the way to the national championship.

Enough about where things went wrong for Villanova last season, though, because it was unquestionably the program's best campaign since reaching the Final Four in 2009. The Wildcats won the regular-season title in the Big East for only the second time since 1998. Their 29 wins were the second most of Wright's 13-year tenure. They showed great balanced on both sides of the ball, with the offense and defense each placing in the top 25 of KenPom's efficiency rankings.

No one used the three-point ball more effectively. The Wildcats attempted a three on 44.8 percent of their possessions, seventh-most in the NCAA, and scored over 34.4 percent of their points from deep. Oh, and Villanova only shot 35.6 percent on threes (No. 118 in the country, per KenPom), so there's room for improvement this year if the Wildcats keep jacking.

Leading scorer James Bell has graduated, but Villanova returns its next seven highest-scoring players. With another experienced and talented team, there's plenty of reason to believe this will be a big season for Wright and the Wildcats.

It starts with JayVaughn Pinkston, who should be in contention for Big East Player of the Year if things go according to plan. Pinkston is a matchup nightmare at the college level at 6'7, 235 pounds. He shot 52 percent from the field a year ago, and has surprising range on his jumper even if it didn't show in his three-pointer percentage last season.

Darrun Hilliard is the Wildcats' other senior star who will be looking to build off a breakout season as a junior. Hilliard is an extremely efficient scorer from all three levels, placing in the top 60 of effective field goal percentage and the top 75 of true shooting percentage nationwide last season, according to KenPom. He's the Wildcats' most willing and most competent gunner, making over 41 percent of the five three-pointers he took per game as a junior.

With Creighton losing McDermott and Providence losing star guard Bryce Cotton, Villanova enters the season as the odds-on favorite in the Big East. If the Wildcats can mantain the balance they showed on both sides of the ball last season, Wright should have his team in the mix to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009.

Projected starting lineup

PG Ryan Arcidiacono, junior

SG Josh Hart, sophomore

SF Darrun Hilliard, senior

PF JayVaughn Pinkston, senior

Daniel Ochefu, junior

Key bench players: G Dylan Ennis (junior), F Kris Jenkins (sophomore), G Phil Booth (freshman), G Mikal Bridges (freshman)

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How the Wildcats can go deep this season: Develop supplemental scoring and keep the defense dialed in

The key to Villanova's success last season was balance. Three players (Bell, Pinkston, Hilliard) averaged a shade over 14 points per game, while point guard Ryan Arcidiacono contributed 9.9 points per night. The floor spacing -- particularly when Wright moved Pinkston to the five and Bell to the four -- was tremendous. With Bell gone, it's on last year's freshman class to pick up the slack. That starts with Josh Hart.

Hart was a top-100 prospect entering college, according to ESPN, and he showed signs that he could be another fine guard in the Villanova lineage during his freshman campaign. Hart started the year hot with an eight-game stretch of double-digit scoring crossing December and January, and busted out for 18 points in Villanova's buzzer-beating loss to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament. He'll be counted on to improve his three-point accuracy while also being able to beat defenses off the dribble as a sophomore.

Improvement from Arcidiacono will be another key. The point guard is on pace to be a four-year starter (assuming he doesn't get usurped by star freshman Jalen Brunson next season) but he's never shot above 40 percent from the floor. That's an issue. Arcidiacono did do well to dramatically cut down his turnovers as a sophomore last season, and continuing to protect the ball will be even more important with Bell gone this season.

If Hart, Arcidiacono and sophomore bruiser Kris Jenkins can add some scoring punch, the onus will be on the defense to remain as consistently excellent as it was last season. Villanova held opponents to just 43 percent shooting on two-pointers, ranked No. 21 in the country. The Wildcats also did a good job of forcing turnovers. If the defense comes through again, the Wildcats should be able to hold off a bevy of challengers in the Big East.

How Villanova could have its season ended early: Lack of depth in the front court

The development of junior center Daniel Ochefu is paramount to Villanova's success this season. If he finds himself in foul trouble early in games, the Wildcats' depth will be tested. Pinkston and Jenkins are fine talents, but the pair of similarly-built big men lack the height and shot-blocking ability to serve as the rim protector the defense desperately needs.

Villanova doesn't need Ochefu to be a double-digit scorer; it mostly needs his 6'11 frame on the floor to act as the team's best interior defender. He proved he's a capable rebounder and shot blocker in playing over 21 minutes per game as a sophomore. The Wildcats' ultimate postseason success might depend on him building on last season.