Villanova head coach Jay Wright and his players have to take the NCAA Tournament one game at a time.
We don’t. We can look ahead at the potential tournament matchups as we evaluate whether the Wildcats will repeat as national champions.
The last team to successfully defend its tournament crown was Florida in 2007. The only other team to repeat as national champion since the UCLA dynasty that ended in 1973 was Duke in 1991-92. As the No. 1 overall seed, Villanova isn’t a long shot to match that feat.
But there are numerous obstacles in the way. That’s why not many teams win consecutive national championships.
Villanova lost center Daniel Ochefu and point guard Ryan Arcidiacono from last season’s national championship team. But the Wildcats also lost sharpshooter Phil Booth, who was limited to only three games this season by a knee injury. The Wildcats, who also lost Darryl Reynolds’ inside presence for five games due to a rib injury, overcame all of their personnel issues to finish 31-3 and win the Big East Tournament, something last year’s team was unable to accomplish.
There are new obstacles, though, in the NCAA Tournament. The East Region definitely presents some challenges for the Wildcats. A No. 1 team has never lost to a 16th seed, so let’s assume that Villanova will win its opener. But the Wildcats could run into an experienced Wisconsin team – there are four senior starters – that appears to have recovered from an awful six-game stretch in February. Outside of that six-game stretch, Wisconsin was 24-3, including a loss to red-hot Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game. The eighth-seeded Badgers seem to be seeded too low, which makes Villanova’s path to the Final Four more difficult.
If Villanova were to reach the Sweet 16, it could find Florida waiting there. The fourth-seeded Gators play good defense and have the frontcourt size that could cause problems for guard-centric Villanova.
When you reach the Elite Eight, you expect the opposition to be difficult. But having Duke as the second seed in the region might be a little more of a challenge than expected. Although Duke has been inconsistent at times this season, the second-seeded Blue Devils won the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, which might be the toughest conference tournament in the country. The Blue Devils are also very good at defending 3-point shots, which are a staple for Villanova.
The good news for the Wildcats is that Butler, which handed Villanova tw of its three defeats, is in the South Region. But the Wildcats still face a difficult road.
Fortunately, Big East Player of the Year Josh Hart (18.7 points, 6.5 rebounds) is there to lead the way for Villanova. Sophomore guard Jalen Brunson (14.8 points, 4.3 assists) has made tremendous strides since his freshman season. Senior forward Kris Jenkins (13.4 points), who drilled the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer against North Carolina in last season’s championship game, provides offense and leadership.
One positive for Villanova in close games is its free throw shooting. Brunson and Jenkins both convert 88.2 percent of their free throws. Mikal Bridges (10.6 points), who has developed an offensive game to complement his defensive intensity, is even better at 90.4 percent from the free throw line. Reynolds fills out the starting lineup, providing a presence that far exceeds his modest statistics (4.7 points, 5.4 rebounds).
Another positive is Wright. He seems to push all the right buttons, and his teams are well-prepared. The confidence that accompanies an NCAA Tournament title can’t be ignored as a factor. It’s difficult to believe that just a seasons ago there were people calling for Wright to be fired.
If there is an Achilles’ Heel for the Wildcats, it’s their depth. Redshirt freshman Donta DiVincenzo averages 8.3 points and sophomore forward Eric Paschall averages 7 points, but the Wildcats aren’t very deep. Foul trouble could be a major issue against deeper teams.
Villanova also is heavily reliant on its outside shooting. It has been able to overcome cold shooting most of the time, including the Big East Tournament semifinal against Seton Hall, but an off-night from the floor may prove fatal to the Wildcats’ chances in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats have a difficult road to travel in order to repeat as national champions. They will need to be at their best to avoid exiting earlier than planned.