If you’re a Cleveland State fan, what do you need to know about Villanova, a 28-6 squad that advanced to this year’s Big East championship game and now has Final Four aspirations?
Well, you can start with senior forward Maddy Siegrist. A lot of people might choose to end with her too, since the Wildcats score 70.7 points per game and Siegrist accounts for a national-best 28.9 of them. The Poughkeepsie, NY native has fired home at least 21 tallies in every contest this season and dropped a 50-piece on Seton Hall last month. She’s the all-time leading scorer in both Villanova and Big East history.
So yeah, she’s good.
That’s not anything terribly revealing, given her status as a consensus first-team All-American and the Big East’s player of the year. She’s 6-2 and presents matchup problems all over the floor, as someone who can excel at every level. Siegrist can knock down threes (she shoots 37.3 percent from behind the arc) and also battle down low with the bigs (it’s less heralded than her scoring output, but she also ranks in the top 50 nationally in rebounding with 9.3 per game).
“It’s the hard work and the willingness to put in those extra hours,” teammate Brooke Mullin said. “She’s up early in the morning, like I’m still in bed and Maddy’s like out the door, going to the gym. And kudos to her, because it’s really paying off.”
“It’s just good to see, and great to be by her side these whole three, four years.”
More than just Siegrist
However, those who choose to end their analysis there are making a mistake, thanks to a motivated and much-improved supporting cast that kicked into another gear following Villanova’s second-round loss to Michigan in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
“Summer came around, we had the full team back, and from that point, they really figured things out,” Wildcats head coach Denise Dillon said. “Just the commitment to working every day and getting to know each other. Maddy brought it to another level [this season], but those supporting members did just the same, improving from last year and wanting more responsibility on the floor.”
“Last year we were able to win a game in the tournament, it gave us a lot of momentum, everyone was feeling good,” Siegrist added. “Then coming back in the summer, Coach was like ‘if you guys want to do that again, you saw what it took last year.’ I think the commitment to doing that, starting in the summer, was really on the same page with everyone wanting to get back here.”
Lucy Olsen, a sparkplug guard who improved her scoring average by 5.3 points per game to 12.3 during her sophomore season, feeds into a lot of Siegrist’s output. Her 4.4 assists per game ranked fourth in the Big East, and she’s also a plus defender.
“To Lucy’s credit, it’s just the time she puts in is impressive, remarkable,” Dillon said. “We say it all the time, she gives everything she has at practice. She never skips steps, every drill she just gets after it. She is an absolute basketball player in everything she does.”
Glue player Mullin is another facilitator, while Penn State transfer Maddie Burke and Christina Dalce pop in a combined 15 points per outing. Those three players, along with Siegrist and Olsen, have been the starting unit for every single one of Villanova’s 34 games this season.
While Siegrist and her offensive prowess draws the bulk of the headlines around the Cats, most around the program consider their defensive end to be the stronger of the two. And there’s plenty of justification for that sentiment, given that the Wildcats only allow 58.4 points per game, 37th-best in Division I. VU isn’t really explosive, they roll up wins through grit and intelligence, set to a deliberate pace.
“The emphasis we have on defense, defense wins our games,” Mullin said. “Obviously the offense helps, but the focus on defense is what takes us to the next level.”
“Defense is always something we talk about first,” Dillon concurred.
A glimmer of hope
One wouldn’t necessarily expect a Big East team to have a ton of common opponents with a Horizon League foe in most cases, though Villanova shares a league with DePaul, a team Cleveland State defeated in overtime on November 15th. VU went 3-0 against the Blue Demons, including a conference tournament victory, taking those contests by seven, three and one points. The Cats also battled Iowa State in the non-conference portion of their schedule, dropping a 74-62 decision at a multi-team event in Connecticut.
For those who believe in the heavily-flawed transitive property as applied to the sports world, those results might offer a bit of encouragement. So, too, might a pair of Villanova’s weaknesses: the Wildcats disproportionately allow opponents the benefit of foul shots – they’re 258th nationally in free throws allowed – while Cleveland State gets to the stripe as well as any team in DI. The Wildcats also rank 310th in opponent three-point percentage, leading to the notion that Destiny Leo, Gabriella Smith and company could open the bomb bays once again on Saturday, as they did in the Horizon League championship game.
“You continue to remind the players of what the tendencies of the other team are,” Dillon said. “[Including Cleveland State’s] efficiency from the foul line. We always talk about discipline on the defensive end. If you want to stay out on the floor, you have to be disciplined, but also disruptive. We’ll rely a lot on our veteran players to keep that in mind and set the tone.”
“You want to get them off the three, get them to put the ball on the floor, and then you’re not bailing them out on the drive.”
“It’s just an emphasis on focus, focus on the personnel and not bailing out the person you’re guarding,” Mullin added. “Just staying down on defense and just being disciplined.”
A defense-first opponent that also has the nation’s leading scorer is a tough first-round ask for any team, but even the Wildcats understand that the Vikings have the tools to pull off a stunner.
“They’re a great team, anyone that wins their conference tournament, to be able to win that many games in a row is really impressive,” Siegrist said. “Obviously, they have a really strong resume. We just need to do what we do best on the defensive end of the floor, try to be disruptive, and execute on offense.”