Villanova NCAA preview: Finally, the title defense begins

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All season Villanova’s men’s basketball team hasmanaged to dodge the question.

“We’re not thinking about that,” they’d say in unison almost like robots. “We’re just thinking about the next game. We just want to get better.”

In fact, even though they’re the top seed throughout the land —a veteran team which has been through the wars and whose seniors never lost two games in row throughout their careers — they’re still saying it. Still dodging that question.

Can Villanova repeat? Can Jay Wright’s 31-3 Wildcats become the first team since Billy Donovan’s 2007 Florida Gators and only the third since the tournament field expanded to 64 (Duke ‘92 was the other) to go back-to-back.

Don’t expect an answer from them, but it’s finally time to find out.

“No expectations will exceed the ones we have for ourselves,’ said last year’s hero Kris Jenkins, before the Wildcats left for Buffalo, where they’ll open defense of their crown vs. Mount St. Mary’s at 7:10 tonight. “We’ll be ready to take on whoever’s in front of us.We know the grind it takes, the mental toughness. How detailed you have to be. on every little thing, It’s up to the players to go out play Villanova basketball and see where it gets us.There’s no failure when you play Villanova basketball.”

They start hearing that phrase “play Villanova basketball” as soon as they arrive on campus. Just because the stakes are a bit higher now than when they opened smashing Lafayette 88-48 doesn’t mean the approach changes.

“One thing about this program is nothing changes,” said Big East Player of the Year and likely All-American Josh Hart. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the first game of the season, the Big East Tournament or the NCAA Tournament, no team can be taken lightly.None of these games are cakewalks. If you go in thinking it’s a cakewalk this game will humble you. We just have to bring our intensity every game.”

It wouldn’t hurt if Jenkins brings his jump shot which has been inconsistent all season and if role players like Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall bring their blend of defense, athleticism and power respectively.

The three times Villanova went down this year—twice to Butler and once to Marquette—they fell victim to a combination of poor shooting, defensive breakdowns and struggles rebounding. For someone to take down these Wildcats conventional thinking says will likely require a team with size, poise and depth, because Nova’s not that big —6-foot-9center Darryl Reynolds and the 6-foot-7Bridges and Paschall top the charts — and only go seven deep for the most part.

Yet Villanova seldom gets into foul trouble and for the season has out-rebounded the opposition by an average 3.6 boards per game. More telling, their stifling defense, which has held teams to just 41.8% from the floor, 31.3 percentfrom 3-point range, will keeps them in games even when their shots aren’t falling. And that doesn’t happen often, considering the Cats lit it up at a 49.7 percent clip, including 37.0 from beyond the arc.

So if any team seems poised to repeat this could be the one.

“You usually lose a lot of players when you’re champion,” said Wright, who besides losing Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu to graduation, hasn’t had injured Phil Booth—who scored 20 points in the title game — since mid-November. “When Duke repeated that whole team returned.Nowadays you either lose ‘em early to the draft or they’re seniors. We lost three players so we’ve been pretty fortunate so far. But it’s still so difficult to repeat.”

To make it through the East bracket alone, likely facing tournament tested teams like Wisconsin, Florida and none other than Duke, will be tough enough. That’s simply to make it Phoenix where powers like Arizona, Gonzaga, Kansas, North Carolina or someone else could await.

But if they don’t succeed it won’t be because they weren’t ready.

“There were a lot of things we did well last year preparing and some things we didn’t do well,” said Wright. “But the experience is invaluable.Having that [championship] hangover all year, it’s a challenge and I thought our guys handled it really well. But right now it doesn’t do us any good. We’re just one of 68 teams.”

Yet the only one with a chance to carve out a piece of history alongside UCLA, Duke, Florida and four others from at least 50 years ago. Logic says Villanova will stumble somewhere along the way, because everyone else has.

Then again these Wildcats have been defying logic all season.

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