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Villanova’s NIT run begins tonight at the Finn | #1 Villanova vs. VCU Preview

Written by on March 20, 2024

Villanova will not be 2023-24 National Champions, but their season continues tonight with the hope of winning the NIT and ending the season on a positive note. In the first round of the National Invitational Tournament, the Cats’ battle Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) at 9pm at the Finneran Pavilion. Villanova’s entire healthy roster is expected to play, and they are favored to win this game. The Wildcats are playing in the NIT with one goal: win the tournament.

Villanova has only played one game in their program history against VCU. The Wildcats defeated the Rams, 77-53, in November 2013. Coach Neptune faced VCU as the head coach of Fordham in 2021-22. He is 0-1 against the Rams in his coaching career.

The Cats’ are 24-18 all-time in NIT games and they won the tournament in 1994 against Vanderbilt.

The Wildcats enter this opening round game of the NIT with a 18-15 overall record. They finished 10-10 in Big East regular season conference play for the second consecutive season. The Cats’ have lost three of their last four games, including their most recent loss to Marquette, 71-65, in the Big East Tournament Quarterfinals on Thursday. Villanova barely pushed past 3-29 DePaul, 58-57, in the final seven seconds on Wednesday night. The theme in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden was the same as the entire season: tremendous defense and inconsistent offense. Villanova will try to use their talent advantage, excellent defense, and home field advantage from the #1 seed to bring the NIT trophy to Lancaster Avenue.

VCU Preview

The Wildcats’ opponent, VCU, is 22-13 overall in the 2023-24 campaign. They finished their A10 conference season with a 11-7 record. They finished fourth in the conference, four games behind Richmond and Loyola Chicago for the top spot. Richmond lost to Virginia Tech in the NIT last night. Dayton and Duquesne earned the two berths to March Madness from the A10 conference with Duquesne pulling the upset to win the conference tournament in Brooklyn.

Despite a run to the A10 Conference Championship, VCU has not played well in the month of March so far with a 3-4 record. They lost to Richmond, #25 Dayton, and twice to Duquesne in March. VCU lost to the Dukes, 57-51, in the A10 Championship game on Sunday, March 17th. However, the Rams play competitive ball games, and this is not an easy task for Villanova.

VCU’s offense is similar to Villanova’s offense: fairly low scoring but depend heavily on their stars. They have four players that average at least ten points: Max Shulga, Joe Bamisile, Zeb Jackson, and Sean Bairstow. The Rams average 71.5 points per game, which is about one more point per game than the Wildcats. However, Villanova has played a much tougher schedule, and they play in a fiercely competitive Big East conference with great defenses.

As a team, VCU shoots 44.4% from the field and 36% from behind the arc. Max Shulga and Joe Bamisile, the Rams’ two average leading scorers, both convert about 40% of their three-point attempts. The Rams are also a great free throw shooting team with a 78% success rate. The offense is overall one of their weaknesses due to their struggling bench. Bamisile has to come off the bench at times due to a lack of depth. They also average 12 turnovers per game. That is not a bad turnover rate, but Villanova definitely has a clear advantage on paper in the turnover margin and they play in a stronger conference.

VCU’s strength is their defense with almost seven steals and four blocks per game. The Rams are a strong rebounding team with 35 rebounds per game, which is about one more rebound per game than Villanova. The Cats’ did not rebound well in the Big East Tournament, especially against DePaul, and they have struggled to get offensive rebounds all season. The rebounding battle will be something to watch closely tonight between Villanova and VCU.

VCU’s Players to Watch

G Max Shulga (Senior, Kyiv, Ukraine): 14.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, scored 25 points against St. Joseph’s on 3/16

G Joe Bamisile (Senior, Chesterfield, VA): 13.7 ppg, scored 20 points against Duquesne in the A10 Championship game, transfer from Oklahoma

G Zeb Jackson (Senior, Toledo, OH): 11.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, scored at least 10 points in his last eight games (13.7 points per game in his last eight games)

My Thoughts + Keys to the Game

The Wildcats are favored by almost nine points, according to Vegas. However, as previously mentioned, this game will not be easy for Villanova, especially after their poor performance against DePaul one week ago. It will be a battle between the two defenses, which are the clear strengths of both Villanova and VCU. Villanova’s defense is much better statistically than VCU’s defense, so the Cats’ deserve the advantage. Villanova’s tough Big East schedule and competition will also play a role in tonight’s game against the Rams, but also if they advance into the next rounds of the tournament. The Big East is 0-3 in NIT games this season with Providence, Xavier, and Butler losing last night, but it seems like Villanova will be trying 100% to bring the trophy home to Villanova. It’s obviously not the tournament Villanova wanted to be playing in here in late-March, but the NIT is still a fantastic opportunity for Villanova, especially for Mark Armstrong and Brendan Hausen.

My main key to a Cats’ win tonight would be to get off to a hot start. Villanova is 10-4 all-time at the Finn in NIT play, and they should use their home crowd to their advantage. If Villanova gets off to a strong start, especially offensively, I think VCU will have trouble keeping up to the pace of the game and Villanova will use their talent to cruise to victory. In addition to that, Villanova needs to get other scorers besides Eric Dixon involved in the offense tonight. Yes, Dixon is Villanova’s best player with 16.5 points per game, but as shown in the Big East Tournament, Dixon cannot do it all by himself. Villanova needs players like Justin Moore, TJ Bamba, and Mark Armstrong to get close to double-digits tonight and contribute offensively for the entire game, not just a few minutes. Villanova’s defense is clearly good enough to dominate VCU, but as per usual, it will depend on Villanova’s offense to advance Villanova to the next round of the NIT, where the Cats’ would face either UCF or South Florida this weekend.

WXVU’s Live Coverage of #1 Villanova vs. VCU TONIGHT

WXVU has live coverage of tonight’s Opening Round NIT game beginning at 8:30pm from the Finneran Pavilion. Tipoff is scheduled for 9pm.