Phil Knight Invitational Preview


Olivia Pasquale/Villanovan Photography

Eric Dixon will be key to the Wildcats’ success in the PK Tournament

Jacob Artz, Staff Writer

After an up-and-down start to the season for Villanova, including a surprise loss on the road to Temple, a lackluster home win against a two-win team a year ago in Delaware State, and close loss to Michigan State, it has more questions than answers heading into the PK85 Invitational.

Villanova’s first opponent, Iowa State, on Thanksgiving Day at 3:30 p.m (ET) in Portland, OR has much more questions than Villanova because it has not played any team of comparable competition.

Iowa State has faced the stiff competition of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, North Carolina A&T State University and Milwaukee in its first three games.

The Cyclones won these games 88-39, 80-43 and 68-53.   

Last year, the Cyclones finished 22-13 (7-11, Big 12) last season, going undefeated in non-conference play before losing in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament. They made a run in the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the Sweet 16 where they fell to Miami.

The run was remarkable considering Iowa State garnered two wins in the 2020-2021 campaign and did not win a single conference game.

This year, Iowa State is led by two transfers via Saint Bonaventure. Its leading scorer was a Bonnie and that is senior guard Jaren Holmes, who is averaging 18 points per game. The other transfer, senior center Osun Osunniyi, is averaging 13 points per game. 

A returnee who is making a difference is senior forward Aljaz Kunc, who is putting up 13 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game. Another senior guard Gabe Kalscheur is the fourth player in double figures with 11.5 points per game.

Kalscheur is banged up with a hip injury in practice, holding him to limited minutes against Milwaukee.

The defense for Iowa State could present problems for the Wildcats. The Cyclones are ranked number one nationally in turnover percentage entering the Milwaukee game and forced 27 turnovers from Milwaukee, including its first five possessions.

Iowa State missed all 14 of its three-point attempts in the second half against Milwaukee.  

The last meeting between Villanova and Iowa State occurred on December 11, 1961, where Villanova triumphed, 74-53.

If both Villanova and North Carolina come out victorious in their first game, which North Carolina most likely will be against Portland, then the two would play each other for the first time since the 2016 National Championship, which Villanova won, 77-74, on a Kris Jenkins three-point buzzer beater. 

The Tar Heels are loaded, and are ranked No. 1 in the country for a reason. They are undefeated, and they were runner-up in last year’s NCAA Tournament. This team won 17 of its last 21 games en route to the championship game and returns four of the five starters from last year. 

The matchup to watch is the North Carolina 6-11 senior center in Armando Bacot against Villanova redshirt junior forward Eric Dixon. Dixon will have problems against the bigger Bacot, who showed in the NCAA Tournament how special he is. He was third in the country last season in rebounds at 13.1 per game. 

In the NCAA Tournament, he averaged 15.3 points per game and 16.5 rebounds per game. 

Thus far, Bacot is averaging 18.2 points per game and 11.8 rebounds per game.

Another marquee player to watch is 6-4 junior guard Caleb Love. Love has the ability for the big game. An example of that was against UCLA when he dropped 30 points, including six three-pointers in the Sweet 16. He also is inconsistent, like when he was 5-for-24 in the National Championship.

Other pieces to look out for are junior guard RJ Davis and graduate forward Leaky Black.

Love averages 17.8 points per game and Davis averages 15.8 points per game.

This article is referring to the NCAA Tournament because the Tar Heels have played a soft schedule.

North Carolina is undefeated but is not tested against comparable opposition. It has not looked that dominant against these foes, winning only by six against Gardner-Webb and 10 points against UNC Wilmington.

A game against Villanova will certainly be a tough game after its first round matchup against Portland.

The Pilots could be another team the Wildcats would play in the second round. Portland hails from the West Coast Conference, the same conference that Gonzaga headlines, along with Saint Mary’s and San Francisco.

The Pilots are a dinosaur in college basketball as they return their top seven starters. In the age of the transfer portal, this is rare. The Pilots are not to be overlooked as they had their most wins since the 2010-2011 season, going 19-15 a year ago with a 7-7 record in conference. Their biggest conference win came against San Francisco, who made March Madness as an at-large team.

Portland was 1-6 against the top five in the West Coast Conference, as it finished sixth in the conference. Portland is currently 4-2 on the season, coming off of a loss to Seattle, 80-68.

The star player to look out for with the Pilots is junior forward/guard Tyler Robertson. He is averaging 17.5 points per game and leading the team with 4.3 assists per game. Redshirt forward Moses Wood is leading the team in rebounds at 7.6 per game.

After these two games, Villanova will have the opportunity to play a team from the other side of the bracket. Those teams include UConn, Oregon, Michigan State or Alabama.

UConn would be a test against a Big East opponent that Villanova will see twice in conference play down the road. A player to watch out for is junior forward Adama Sanogo, who is vying for the Big East Player of the Year award and is averaging 21.4 points per game and 8.0 rebounds per game.

Michigan State could be another opponent. After the 73-71 loss Villanova suffered in East Lansing last week, the Wildcats could get a chance at revenge. Closing out on the three-point shooters and having more than two players do the damage with Dixon and graduate forward Brandon Slater will be imperative for the ‘Cats to win this time around. 

Oregon will essentially be playing a home game. This is the school where Nike founder Phil Knight graduated from, the namesake for the tournament. The Ducks are consistently ranked inside the top 25 and this sustained success includes a Final Four run in 2017. Oregon boasts a potential NBA Draft lottery pick in 7-0 freshman center Kel’el Ware. However, the team is led by senior center N’faly Davis, who averages 14.8 points per game and 9.0 rebounds per game.

The last team is Alabama, where former highly touted Villanova recruit, Jahvon Quinerly plays. The Crimson Tide have a top five recruiting class. Headliners from this class include Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley. Junior forward Brandon Miller is averaging 20.3 points per game and 9.3 rebounds per game.

The PK85 Invitational will tell Villanova fans more about what to expect from the team as currently constructed and what the expectations should be moving forward.