While brackets were being busted across the country and history was being made (when unheralded UMBC stunned Virginia became the first No. 16 seed to ever knock off a No. 1), the East Region was sticking pretty much close to form.
Which is why even after finally getting out of its usual first weekend rut, top-seeded Villanova’s road to the Alamo City and the Final Four in San Antonio doesn’t figure to be an easy one. Beginning Friday when the 32-4 Wildcats take on rugged, 26-10 West Virginia, (a one-time Big East rival and a team that can disrupt anyone with its frenetic pressure), Villanova will be put to the test in Boston.
And should they make it through to the Elite Eight Sunday either No. 2 Purdue or No. 3 Texas Tech will be waiting for them, both big physical teams who can also hurt you with their outside shooting.
Of course when it comes to teams who can hurt you from beyond the arc no one does it better at it than Nova, which bombed 31 three-pointers in blowout wins over Radford and Alabama. While victory was never in doubt against the Highlanders with seven players draining treys in an 87-61 romp, Saturday’s deceiving 81-58 rolling of the Crimson Tide might’ve been a different story had Donte DiVincenzo not erupted for all 18 of his points in the first half.
That kept the Cats barely in front until Mikael Bridges and Jalen Brunson got it going, enabling Jay Wright’s team to break it open with an 18-1 run to start the second half.
But now come the Mountaineers, whom old timers will recall lost to the Wildcats in the 1961 NCAA tournament at the Palestra, back when Rod Thorn was the star of the show right after Jerry West left.
While they’d play periodically after that they haven’t met since WVU left the Big East for the Big 12 after 2011, meaning it’s been awhile since Wright had to go against Bob Huggins’ vaunted full court press. As Marshall found out Sunday night — turning it over 18 times — it can pose problems.
But Villanova, with skilled guards Brunson, DiVincenzo and Phil Booth and forwards Bridges, OMari Spellman and Eric Paschall, should have the right ingredients to neutralize the Mountaineers’ most potent weapon. At least Wright hopes so.
“The biggest challenge is that you never see anybody that plays like they do,” said Wright, who’s back in the Sweet Sixteen after getting knocked out early six of the last seven tries. “They score at a high rate and that’s what gets them into their press. So your half-court defense has to be good because if they’re scoring on you they’re in their press. I think we are going to have to get in there and take a hit every now and then and hope it doesn’t affect us too much and that we can grind through it.”
Considering the kind of stifling defense the Wildcats played over the weekend they may be needless worries. Then again, as explosive as Bama’s Collin Sexton was, he’s different from WVU’s Javon Carter, who scored 49 combined points and came up with a whopping 11 steals in easy wins over Murray State and Marshall. They’ll also have to deal with shot blocker Sagaba Konate, guard Daxter Miles and power forward Esa Ahmad, all averaging double figures.
Yet the Wildcats will try to approach the Mountaineers, who back in January were ranked as high as No. 2, like any other opponent.
“Our next game is the biggest game every time,” said Brunson, the Big East Player of the Year, who’s rediscovered his shooting touch after a late-season slump. “So, we just need to go out there and stick to what we do and not worry about the Sweet Sixteen or the opportunity to make the Elite Eight. Go out there and play for 40 minutes.”
It’s a formula that’s worked 32 of 36 times this season. Should it work again Friday then the Cats will play either a Purdue team that’s still adjusting to the loss of big man Isaac Haas or Texas Tech, which has an explosive guard in Keenan Evans along with athleticism along the front line. Both were ranked in the top six or higher at one point.
Then, again Villanova spent eight weeks at the very top and seems to be peaking at the right time, which is why there’s no reason Wright & Co. shouldn’t soon be preparing for their third trip to the Final Four since 2009.
At least that would be some small consolation for those whose brackets haven’t been completely busted.