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Why national finalist Villanova is college basketball’s Houston Rockets

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Like Houston, Villanova has bent basketball norms. Now the Wildcats are a win from another national championship.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Villanova vs Kansas Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Villanova can establish a miniature college basketball dynasty by beating Michigan in the national championship game at the Final Four on Monday. A victory would make two titles in three years for a program that’s long been one of the sport’s most consistent winners.

On some levels, the Wildcats have gotten here the old-fashioned way. They might be the best program in the country that hasn’t signed one-and-done players (although that could change as soon as the class of 2018). One of their longest-standing strengths is fundamental ball security to limit turnovers. They thrive on physicality, a trait honed in the brutal old Big East and carried on to the new Big East with different competition.

But to go from elite program to possible two-time-in-three-years champion, Villanova has played a new-school brand of basketball that most teams wouldn’t try. This transformation was never more on display than during a thrashing of Kansas in a national semifinal on Saturday. As they’ve done it, the Wildcats have come to resemble the NBA’s Rockets.

The Rockets are the best team in the NBA this year.

They have 62 wins, more than anyone else.

Villanova sure looks like the best team in college this year.

But the comparison runs deeper than that.

Houston has gotten this good by playing a weird brand of basketball. Villanova has played a similar style, never more than against Kansas.

The Rockets are shooting more three-pointers than any team in league history. They set the record for most three-point attempts in history last year, when they chucked up 40.3 per game. They’re on pace to beat that by about two attempts per game this season.

Twenty-nine of the NBA’s 30 teams are shooting 40 percent of their shots or fewer from beyond the arc. The Rockets are the other, at 50 percent. No team has ever cared as little about two-point shots as these Rockets do, and they’re thriving on it. The Rockets are scoring 116 points per 100 possessions, more than anyone. They have the best offense in the NBA, even though they’re only 11th in three-point shooting percentage.

Villanova has pursued a similar approach. Of the 351 teams in Division I, the Wildcats have taken the 12th-highest percentage (47.5) of their shots from deep. They’ve made 454 triples in total, an all-time single-season record. This approach crescendoed in their semifinal domination of Kansas, when Nova took 40 threes out of 65 shots from the field.

The Cats drained 18 of those and had the Jayhawks out of the game by halftime. Like Houston, Villanova isn’t the best three-point shooting team in its sport. But the Wildcats make a lot of them, and they take so many that their efficiency is off the charts. Nova has scored an opponent-adjusted 128 points per 100 possessions, the most in the country.

Beyond their love of threes and efficiency, the teams share a lot.

  • Both have infinite shooting options. Every guy in Villanova’s rotation has an effective shooting percentage of at least 56, well above the national average of 51. The Rockets have 10 players with effective shooting rates better than the NBA average of 52 percent.
  • Both play incredible wing defenders. The best on Villanova is future lottery pick Mikal Bridges. He’s not Trevor Ariza or Luc Mbah a Moute, but give him time.
  • Both have star point guards who aren’t big but can dictate the flow of a game. Jalen Brunson is not Chris Paul, but he’s been college hoops’ best player this year.

The teams also have a couple of differences. No comparison’s perfect.

The biggest is that Villanova doesn’t have James Harden. Well, nobody else has Harden, but Villanova doesn’t have a guy who uses up 36 percent of its possessions like Harden does for the Rockets. The Wildcats have a couple of stars, and they spread shots around the lineup pretty evenly. That’s the biggest stylistic difference between the teams.

Houston starts a rebounding specialist at center in the 6’10 Clint Capela. Villanova plays small ball and doesn’t have a rotation player taller than 6’8. The Rockets do plenty of floor-spacing, but their games look different because Capela’s in the middle as an anchor.

Villanova is its own team.

But if the Wildcats win the championship, they’ll have done it using the same basketball theory that’s made the Rockets the current class of the NBA.