Moments after punching their ticket to the Final Four despite having the kind of bad shooting day that would’ve wrecked most teams, a Villanova player spoke about the reason the Wildcats were able to overcome that and still survive.
“We knew we weren’t shooting the ball well,” he said. “But the backbone of our program is just defend, rebound and play hard and together. I think we did that.”
Yes, that certainly explains the Wildcats’ much harder than it sounds 71-59 win over Texas Tech Sunday in the East Region Finals, where Jay Wright’s team shot a sorry 4-for-24 from 3-point range and just 19-for-57, 33.3 percent overall. Their stifling defense, which held the Red Raiders to the same 20-for-60, 33.3 percent, coupled with owning the boards, 51-33, including 20 offensive rebounds, proved the difference. Only this quote doesn’t come from a player in that game. It’s from Ryan Arcidiacono, following the Cats’ 64-59 win over Kansas in the 2016 South Region title game. That set the stage for Nova winning it all a week later in Houston with Arcidiacono dishing to Kris Jenkins for the national championship winning shot.
That’s the same Kansas they’ll square off against Saturday night in San Antonio, following the battle between Sister Jean and the Wolverines when media darling Loyola of Chicago takes on Michigan.
But just as they did against the Red Raiders, Villanova shot just 4-for-18 from beyond the arc that day in Louisville and only 21-for-52, 40.4 percent overall. Yet they still managed to knock off the Jayhawks thanks to stingy defense and near perfect 18-for-19 foul shooting. What it proves is now, as then, Villanova can beat you any number of ways. For the early stages of the 2018 tournament against Radford and Alabama it was with their torrid 3-point shooting. In last Friday’s 90-78 Sweet Sixteen grinder past West Virginia and their stifling full-court press, it was their persistence to detail and enough timely offense to wear down the Mountaineers. Then Sunday they showed they can win even when the shots don’t fall.
None of this can be comforting to a Kansas team which actually was down 10 points to No. 16 seed Penn in the first round before pulling it together. The fact Bill Self’s Jayhawks have recovered from that rocky start to capture the Midwest, edging vaunted Duke in overtime in the title game, would seem to legitimize their No. 1 seed. But this hasn’t been your typical Kansas team, losing three home games this season, the most since 1999.
Guards Devonte Graham and Malik Newman provide the bulk of their offense, flanked by Lagerald Vick and Ukrainian Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. Ukoda Azubuike, the 7-footer from Nigeria, is a load in the paint and off the glass, but foul prone which the Wildcats will try to exploit. As skilled as Kansas is, though, they have flaws, probably more than a Duke team which might boast five NBA first round draft choices.
Of course, if you know anything about Villanova you know they’re taking nothing for granted, including the assumption the winner of this game will cruise to the title against the Loyola-Michigan winner. But since they always preach focusing on the “next game” regardless of the opposition, they won’t deal with that until the buzzer goes off Saturday.
Considering this will be Nova’s third straight Big 12 opponent, following a season of Big East wars, they’re ready for anything.
“If you’re going to advance in this tournament you can’t be one dimensional,” explained Wright, anticipating a Final Four where each team already has an NCAA title in their trophy case. “You have to be able to adjust and the fact that we have had experience doing that is important. We’ve played some of the best teams in the Big 12 and now we’re getting the best team in the Big 12 so you know it’s going to be tougher.”
Then again, chances are the same goes for the Wildcats. Those treys that clanged off the rim in Boston will nestle through the hoop. The defense, which shut down first West Virginia, then Texas Tech in critical stretches will do the same against Kansas, followed by either Loyola or Michigan.
And just as Arcidiacono, Jenkins and then freshman Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges cut down the nets in Houston, look for these 2018 Cats to do it again late Monday night in another Texas town.
After all, for Villanova winning a National Championship has suddenly become simply business as usual.