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2020-21 Big East Women’s Basketball Team Preview: Villanova Wildcats

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The Wildcats have a new coach for the first time since the Carter administration. No, seriously.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Villanova vs Marquette
Maddy Siegrist was a freshman sensation last season. What’s on tap for Year #2?
Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Team: Villanova Wildcats

2019-20 Record: 18-13, 11-7 in the Big East

2019-20 Big East Finish: Part of the five-way tie for third place, but drew the shortest draw and ended up in seventh and last place in the five team group because of tiebreakers.

Final 2019-20 Her Hoop Stats Ranking: #118

Postseason Projection: High Post Hoops did not have the Wildcats in the field of 64, but it seems like they would have been a pretty good candidate for the WNIT based on record. That HHS ranking kind of indicates that they would not, though.

Key Departures: The Wildcats head into 2020-21 after losing three starters from the previous year’s squad. Mary Gedaka is the biggest name in the trio after averaging 17.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists last season. She did shoot just 27% from long range, so it wasn’t all perfect. Bridget Herlihy also wrapped up her eligibility with the Wildcats last year after starting all 30 games. She gave the squad 9.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game. Finally, there’s Cameron Onken, who was a redshirt junior a year ago but it appears that she finished her degree in the spring and elected to move on to dental school instead of returning for a final year of college hoops. She played in all 30 games with 28 starts, so that’s a pretty notable loss from the lineup. The 5’10” Indiana native didn’t score all that much, chipping in just 93 points for the whole season. However, she did absorb rebounds incredibly well, averaging 6.9 per game, and she was a quality passer at 2.9 assists per game.

And of course, we can’t talk about departures from the Villanova women’s basketball program without discussing Harry Perretta. The retirement of your coach after 42 years on the sidelines is going to create a bump or nine, no matter who the new coach is. Perretta compiled a record of 783-489 while guiding Villanova to 11 NCAA tournament appearances and 11 WNIT appearances. His peak of success came in the early 2000s when Villanova went to four straight NCAA tournaments and reached the second round each time as well as an Elite Eight in 2003.

Key Returners: Okay, so here’s the good news: Big East Freshman of the Year Maddy Siegrist is back after leading the team in scoring (19.3 points/game) and rebounding (9.1/game). Villanova only had two double digit scorers a year ago, so it’s safe to say that what they were doing with Siegrist was working well enough. As you can put together though, there are no other double-digit scorers returning outside of Siegrist.

Raven James is the next best scorer back for another go-round after chipping in 5.5 points per game last year. That’s fine for what she was asked to do, as she led the team in assists at 3.6 per game. Brooke Mullin averaged 14.1 minutes per game while appearing in all 30 games as a freshman last year, so we can kind of just handwave her stat line of 2.8 points and 1.6 rebounds.

Now we move into the question mark department. Brianna Herlihy started Villanova’s first two games of the season and contributed 15 points and 11 rebounds in 50 minutes before going down for the year with an injury. It seems safe to say that she could be a valuable piece this year as long as she’s all the way back from that season ending injury. Also in the question mark department is Sam Carangi. She missed most of December and almost all of February due to injury, but in the 16 games she played, she was a cog in the machine. 14.5 minutes per game, 2.6 points per outing. Useful, but not depended upon. Kenzie Gardler played in all but two games last season, but averaged just under 10 minutes per game and scored even less than Carangi. We’ll have to wait to see what kind of roles they have on the squad in the upcoming season which has more question marks than merely just “who steps up?”

Key Additions: Sarah Mortensen is a transfer from Miami and is now eligible after sitting out last season. She was never a major impact player for the ‘Canes, although she played in at least 30 games in all three of her seasons in Coral Gables. I presume that she’s expecting to have a bigger role with the Wildcats, which is why you volunteer to go from Miami to Philadelphia on purpose. Noga Peleg Pelc transferred in from Rutgers in the offseason, so I presume that she’ll have to sit out this season, but who can really say?

There are also four freshmen on the roster this season. Prospects Nation says that the Wildcats have the #45 recruiting class in the country, trailing only Marquette and Connecticut in the Big East. We have a bit of conflict in terms of who the best prospect might be. PN lists three recruits for the Wildcats to get that #45 team ranking, including #89 overall Taliyah Medina. However, Blue Star puts the 6’0” Medina at #142 and trailing behind #130 Bella Runyan (5’11”) for the top spot in the recruiting class.

Kylie Swider and Lior Garzon round out the recruiting class. Swider is a 6’4” forward/center listed at #226 in the country by Blue Star, and because I know you’re wondering right now: Yes, that’s Cole Swider’s sister. Garzon is a 6’1” forward from Israel and is the mystery prospect not listed by Prospects Nation on their page for the Wildcats.

Somewhat unrelated: I would like to know why Blue Star lists Kiera Booth as a basketball commit for Villanova..... when she’s on the volleyball roster as a freshman right now and she’s not on the basketball roster at all.

Coach: Denise Dillon, entering her first season on the sideline at Villanova, but 18th as a Division 1 head coach. She built up a record of 329-204 at Drexel over the past 17 seasons. The Dragons were a regular postseason squad over the past decade-plus under her direction, but after an NCAA appearance in 2009, it was only nine WNIT appearances in 10 seasons.

Outlook: It all depends.

I know, wishy-washy, right?

Villanova basketball has been The Harry Perretta Show for the past 42 seasons. And now it’s not. It is, to a certain extent, impossible to try and figure out where things go from here, and honestly, it’s almost irresponsible to try to draw any conclusions after this kind of a tectonic shift.

However, it might not be that much of a shift. Facts are facts, and in this case, the fact is that Denise Dillon played for Harry Perretta. No matter what else she might have learned about coaching basketball while running Drexel since 2003, we can’t avoid the fact that her collegiate career was guided by Perretta from 1993 through 1996 and she got her start in coaching as his assistant from 1997 through 2001.

Conveniently, Her Hoop Stats allows us to take two teams and compare them, so if nothing else, we can look at Dillon’s last two Dragons teams and compare it to Perretta’s final two Wildcats squads. Here’s what we can immediately identify:

  • Dillon appears to prefer the same pace as Perretta. The last two Villanova teams were sub-330 in terms of possessions per 40 minutes, while Dillon’s last two Drexel teams both ranked #351 in that department.
  • Dillon has had a better time coaching up the defensive end in the past two seasons. Villanova has struggled mightily in terms of points per possession on that end, while Drexel was #7 in the country in 2018-19 and a perfectly acceptable #63 last season.
  • Drexel hasn’t had the shooters that Villanova has had. The Dragons were lagging well behind the Wildcats in the field goal percentage departments, but that can easily be a “Big East talent vs CAA talent” issue just as much as it can be an issue of coaching players into the best spots on the floor.
  • Perretta was really leaning into using the three-pointer over the past couple of years with his squads going 1-3 in three-point rate. Dillon was not, with her teams shooting an average amount of three-pointers as part of their offense. That definitely seems to indicate that Dillon knew she didn’t have the shooters to let it fly like crazy.
  • Ball control is a prime concern. Both sets of teams went out of their way to find the open woman for a bucket with three of the four seasons we’re looking at ranking in the top 10 in the country. The same goes for turnovers with both teams being limiting their own mistakes.
  • The only difference in the ball control department is that Dillon was pushing for steals much more than Perretta was. Drexel was #58 and #8 in the country in steal rate the past two seasons while Villanova was down around #330. At the slow pace involved, ending more than 10% of possessions (6-8 per game!) by taking it away from your opponent is incredibly beneficial to tilting outcomes in your favor.

That’s just a fly-by overview of what we can maybe expect to stay the same and also change. It’s hard to make any detailed statements about who needs to step up or what needs to change until we actually see what Villanova is doing under Dillon, so this is the best that we have to work with for now. With Siegrist providing the scoring and rebounding and James controlling the backcourt, that gives Dillon an excellent two-woman base to work outwards when it comes to building her team in her image. If the rest of the returners are comfortable being relied on for important roles, this could go pretty well out of the gate. If Dillon has to turn to her freshmen to get things done, Year One might not be very pretty.