NCAA Tournament Preview: If It’s March, It’s Villanova Time

Wildcats coach Jay Wright still has it going the right way.

It’s remarkable, really, this system Jay Wright has put into place at Villanova. While other programs flirt with five-star mercenaries who have little to no desire to be on college campuses—thank you, NBA— Wright recruits players who will stay three or four years, willingly defer to their elders and then demonstrate outstanding leadership traits when called upon to stand out front.

He tried it the other way for a little while, amassing gaudy recruiting classes but failing to achieve the results he wanted. But he has it going now. Every season, a different tandem or trio of veterans emerges as principal players, and off the Wildcats go, headed for another high seed.

In 2016, Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu and the senior-laden Bench Mob won it all. Last year, with Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds out in front of the parade, Nova won the Big East regular season title, the conference tournament and 32 games before bowing out and in the second round of the NCAA tourney. Now, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth—with senior support from Tom Leibig and Matt Kennedy—are in charge.

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The results? Conference tournament championship, 30 wins and the program’s third No. 1 seed in the last four years. The formula is tried and tested. The players believe in it, so they don’t gripe about playing supporting roles before it’s their time for the star turn. And Villanova heads into March again as a Final Four favorite and one of the nation’s undisputed top teams.

This year’s squad has been a marvel to watch—with the exception of a 3-3 February stretch when the basket was smaller than usual, or something. No team in America is more efficient offensively, and none can boast a lineup that has seven players capable of hitting the triple and five that have converted at least 50 this season. The Wildcats share the ball with remarkable ease, making extra passes when extra passes aren’t even necessary. These guys are so generous, they make Bill Gates look like Hetty Green. The Wildcats don’t turn it over much, shoot a ridiculous 50.4 percent from the field as a team and make their free throws at a 77 percent clip. VU even plays some tight defense, as evidenced by their holding opponents to just 32.8 percent success behind the arc and their increased ardor at that end during the Big East tourney.

If you want to nitpick, Villanova, with its plus-2.9 rebounding margin, isn’t a collection of backboard-sweeping monsters. They take 46.6 percent of their shots from three-point range, so if the deep missile launches aren’t falling, they’re in trouble. And since only one member of their team—Omari Spellman—can be considered a true interior player (and even he can stroke the big jumper), the Wildcats could be overrun inside by a taller, stouter opponent.

OK, so they’re not perfect. But the WIldcats are pretty darn good. And as they head into the tournament, they have an excellent chance of reaching the Final Four for the third time in Wright’s tenure. In fact, I’ll say it right now: The Wildcats will reach the Final Four in San Antonio. Don’t worry about the first game, Thursday night, against the 16 seed. No one seed has ever lost to the 16, and Villanova is too good for either LIU Brooklyn or Radford.       

The second-round matchup—Virginia Tech vs. Alabama—will be a lot more interesting, and not just because Nova has bowed out of the bracket at this spot four times in the last eight seasons, including last year, when Wisconsin took down the Wildcats. VT is a high-scoring bunch with five-double figure scorers and the ability to shoot it from all over. However, Tech isn’t good against the three-pointer and doesn’t hit the boards too effectively. Meanwhile, Alabama has high-scoring Collin Sexton (19.0 ppg) but does commit a lot of turnovers.

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Another offensive juggernaut could await the Wildcats in the Sweet Sixteen. Wichita State goes nine deep, shares the ball well and pounds the boards. Guard Landry Shamet is a threat to shoot as soon as he leaves the locker room, and should big man Shaq Morris stays out of foul trouble, he’ll be a problem inside. If West Virginia knocks off Wichita State, Villanova had better get ready for 40 minutes of fullcourt pressure led by furious guard Jevon Carter.

A lot of things could happen in the other half of the bracket. Arkansas’ great guards could get hot and remind everybody of the 1977-78 Hogs, or Texas Tech could reprise its early season success, when the Red Raiders appeared primed to end Kansas’ Big 12 title streak. However, it’s more than likely two-seed Purdue and its senior-laden squad will meet the Wildcats in the Elite Eight. This will be something of a collegiate anomaly: two veteran teams slugging it out at a high level. The Boilermakers can shoot and pound it inside with seven-footers Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms. But Villanova has too much firepower to be defeated.

What happens from there? Well, you’ll just have to check back here to find out. Meanwhile, it’s time for the Wildcats to start “Marching.”

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