It’s become fashionable lately to compare these Villanova Wildcats to the ones which rocked the college hoops world in 1985 by winning it all. Like that Rollie Massimino club which pulled off one upset after another on its way to the crown, this 33-5 Jay Wright team has warmed its way to the city’s heart with a team that’s become much more than the sum of its parts.
But if these Cats are to truly have a chance to reach the summit they need to follow that ’85 team’s lead when they take the court against Oklahoma Saturday night in Houston in the National semifinal. They need to beat a team that has already beaten them.
The difference is instead of Patrick Ewing and mighty Georgetown, it’s Buddy Hield and the explosive Sooners.
In a made-for-TV event set on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, in Hawaii,Oklahoma ran its record to 6-0 by breaking open a tight game in the second half to rout the previously unbeaten No. 9 Wildcats, 78-55. The Sooners, who shot a blistering 14-for-26, 54 precentfrom three-point range, placed five men in double figures led by Isaiah Cousins and Hield with 19 and 18 points respectively. Villanova shot just 32 percentoverall, including just 4-for-32, 13 percentfrom beyond the arc.
Don’t expect that to happen again when they meet nearly four months later Saturday.
“Oklahoma has obviously gotten better but we have gotten a lot better, too,” said Wright, whose club did limit Hield to just 6-for-17 shooting from the floor, 4-for-9 on threes, a performance the coach would probably be thrilled to emulate at the Final Four. “In my mind. I think we had a lot more room to improve than they did.
“We were an inexperienced team and it really showed. I think we’re a much more experienced team now. The good thing about playing them is I think our guys have great respect for them.”
Just as Massimino’s ’85 team respected John Thompson’s Hoyas, who beat them 52-50 and 57-50 during the regular season, but certainly weren’t intimidated by them, Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Daniel Ochefu and the rest won’t be intimidated by the 29-7 Sooners. If Nova can shut down a powerhouse like top-seeded Kansas, then why can’t they do the same to the Sooners — who lost twice to the Jayhawks?
“In the first game they all played well except for Buddy,” said Arcidiacono, who had 10 in that game, matching Ochefu and Hart for teaming scoring honors. “Hopefully we can shut them all down, but we know it’s going to be tough.We know they’re going to score their points and make their shots. We just have to make sure they’re tough, contested shots.
“But we didn’t do anything in that game basically. It is great to get another opportunity and to be able to play them in a Final Four. It’s going to be a great game.”
Yet certainly a game the Cats have a legitimate shot to win, which would send them into Monday’s championship game vs. the North Carolina-Syracuse winner. While Nova’s offense has been the story much of the tournament, their real forte throughout the season has been at the defensive end.
Never was that more evident than their upset of Kansas in the South Region final, holding the Jayhawks to a season’s low 59 pointswhile taking leading scorer Perry Ellis (4 points) completely out of the game. Now they’ll focus on Hield who’s been knocking down shots from Steph Curry range while averaging 29.3 and shooting at a blistering 57 percent clip throughout the tournament.
“We have a certain game plan and a couple of backups,” said Wright, who says he learned from his previous Final Four experience in 2009 the key is maintaining focus amid all the distractions. “but I thought we had a good game plan the first time.We did a decent job on Hield in the first game, and Cousins killed us. So we know it’s going to be more than a basic plan. We aren’t going to just do one thing, because those guys are too smart and too good for that.
“We want our guys to come in and be really confident and aggressive at the start.”
Sometimes that can backfire, as it did in Hawaii. But most of the time it’s paid dividends for a Villanova squadthat thrives on balanced scoring, precision ball movement and depth. As a result they’re back in the Final Four for only the second time since Eddie Pinckney, Dwayne McClain, Gary McLain, Harold Pressley and Harold Jensen shocked the hoops world and the Hoyas that night in Lexington.
“They’re so special around here and it was such a special run,” said Wright, who’s had the 81-year-old Massimino, still coaching at Division III Keiser University in Florida, jumping on the bandwagon “This isn’t as magical.”
At least not yet.