By Michael Bennett
Here’s a look at defending national champion Villanova as they start their repeat performance in March Madness tonight against Mt. St. Mary’s:
Best wins: Notre Dame, Virginia, at Creighton, at Xavier
Worst losses: None
Regular-season conference finish: 1st, Big East
Polls and metrics: The Wildcats are the top team in the BPI, ranked second by KenPom, and fell no lower than fourth in the Top 25 at any point this season, including five weeks as the nation’s No. 1 team.
All-time tourney record: 57-35, five Final Fours, two national titles
Coach’s tourney record: Jay Wright (20-12), two Final Fours, one national title
F Kris Jenkins (12.9 PPG, 4.1 RPG)
F Mikal Bridges (10.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG)
F Eric Paschall (7.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG)
G Josh Hart (18.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG)
G Jalen Brunson (14.3 PPG, 4.2 APG)
Key Bench Players
G Donte DiVincenzo (7.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG)
F Darryl Reynolds (5.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG)
F Dylan Painter (0.4 PPG, 1.3 RPG)
Biggest strength: The Big East regular season and tournament champion Wildcats carry themselves with a swagger and confidence few can match. They pride themselves on their effort and boast perhaps the nation’s most balanced starting five. Four double-figure scorers pace the Cats, all shooting better than 35 percent on 3s — led by Big East Player of the Year Josh Hart. Villanova overcomes its lack of depth with exceptional effort, and the Wildcats’ unwavering desire could propel them into the Final Four once more.
Biggest weakness: Depth and lack of interior presence. Perhaps the only thing missing in Nova’s offensive stockade is a consistent inside scorer. The Wildcats had that with Daniel Ochefu and have gotten by with the likes of Paschall and Reynolds, but it’s not quite the same. That hurt them down low twice against a more physical Butler team, and could again as they move deeper into the field.
Best player: Hart. The Wooden Award finalist has all the shots in his arsenal, is relentless on the glass, and leads by example. His most underrated attribute may be his ability to consistently get his teammates good shots. If the Cats need a big shot, he’s the best option of many.
X factor: Bridges. The Big East Defensive Player of the Year does pretty much everything but drive the bus. Bridges has long arms and quick hands, and he can guard any position on the floor. He can score off the dribble, finishes well at the rim, and serves as an unlikely assassin from the outside. If the Cats repeat, the redshirt sophomore will likely play a huge role.
How they beat you: They constantly outwork you. Nova has a relentless desire to be the best team on the floor at all times. Combine that with the Wildcats’ offensive precision, balanced scoring punch and stifling defense, and the blueprint for a repeat remains.
How you beat them: Find a way to match their intensity and wear them down. In all three of its losses, Villanova shot the ball poorly in the second half and couldn’t withstand late runs from its opponents. Chances are that some team in the tournament will have both the mental and physical stamina to go toe-to-toe with the defending champs.
Offensive efficiency, 3rd (123.0)
Defensive efficiency, 16th (92.8)
3-point percentage, 91st (36.8)
3-point percentage D, 21st (31.1)
Free throw rate, 191st(19.5)
Free throw rate D, 348th (14.5)
TO percentage, 68th (17.0)
TO percentage D, 93rd (19.9)
HOW FAR WILL THEY GO?
Best-case scenario: Repeat
It’s been a decade since the last true dynasty in college hoops. The Wildcats still possess the leadership, scoring and togetherness that helped them to the top of the college basketball world a year ago. If they can avoid foul trouble and weather the storm of the tournament’s deeper teams, there’s no reason that can’t happen again.
Worst-case scenario: Sweet 16
Early-round exits seem like a thing of the past under Wright. While the Cats may have an off shooting night at some point in the tourney, it likely won’t come for a few games. Villanova has too much experience and offensive firepower to go home before the second weekend.