By Harry Allison
Villanova gets it chance for revenge tomorrow night.
Its first of only two losses this season came on Jan. 4, when it went to Butler and fell 66-58. Now, the Bulldogs must visit the Wildcats, and once again they will be facing a Nova team that has been one of the hottest teams in the country.
The defending national champion, Villanova was named the No. 1 overall seed in the selection committee’s sneak peek at its top 16 teams for the NCAA Tournament on Feb. 11. Since then, the Wildcats have given nobody any reason to believe that they’ll fall from that top spot.
They destroyed Seton Hall 92-70 on Saturday for their seventh win in a row — and their fifth straight win by double digits — in a game in which they shot an absurd 67.3 percent from the field, getting big-time performances from Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson.
This is a Villanova team firing on all cylinders, a team that stands as good of a chance as anybody in college basketball of capturing the national championship.
In fact, Villanova looks like one of the national champions most well-equipped to defend its title in recent memory. The Wildcats are 26-2 overall with wins over Purdue, Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Creighton, Xavier and Virginia, and they’ll be favored to win out in remaining regular-season games against Butler, Creighton and Georgetown.
Despite Nova’s clear strength, there is no margin for error in the NCAA tournament, and even a seemingly perfect heavyweight can have an off day and be sent home early. Villanova is far from perfect, in a season filled with flawed championship contenders. So can Villanova become the first program since Florida in 2006-07 — and the second team since Duke in 1991-92 — to go back-to-back in March Madness?
Why Villanova Will Repeat
1. Josh Hart. A leading candidate for national player of the year, Hart just keeps getting better and better. He was Big East sixth man of the year as a sophomore, the centerpiece on the national title team last year and now arguably the best player in all of college basketball. The 6-foot-5 senior wing doesn’t necessarily have individual traits that really jump out; he’s good at everything, an excellent defender who averages 18.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range and 50.8 percent from the field. Villanova has always relied heavily on outside shooting, and Hart can get it done from the perimeter. But when shots aren’t falling, Hart is adept at getting to the basket as a physical player who can score and facilitate from anywhere, which helps open up space for teammates on the outside.
2. Defense. There have been times that defense has been a liability for Villanova under Jay Wright, particularly with a lineup that has skewed small, toward guard play. But after a lull, the Wildcats have picked things up defensively the past few years, and that hasn’t slowed down. They aren’t quite as good as they were last year, but they’re 19th in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency, and they defend the perimeter well. There’s no doubt that the lack of size underneath hurts after the departure of Daniel Ochefu, so Villanova’s success — like anyone’s tournament success — depends on matchups, but few teams can match the play of Villanova’s wings. Nova doesn’t give up easy 3-pointers, and it also doesn’t let teams beat it at the free-throw line. Lack of size or not, Villanova doesn’t give away easy points.
3. Efficient shooting. The Wildcats typically rely heavily on guard play and 3-point shooting. This season is no different. According to KenPom.com, 44.3 percent of their field goal attempts come from long range, the 21st highest nationally. However, even without Ochefu, they’re efficient from everywhere, ranking third in 2-point field goal percentage and second in free throw percentage. Hart, Brunson, Bridges and Darryl Reynolds all shoot over 50 percent from the field, and Hart and Bridges are over 40 percent from 3-point range. Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono may be gone from last year’s team, but this is still an experienced, tournament-ready squad that avoided any type of complacency after last year’s title. Brunson in particular has taken his game to another level to help fill the void left by Arcidiacono, shooting 54 percent from the field as a point guard. He’s coming off a perfect 7-for-7 day against Seton Hall. The Wildcats lost twice in tricky Big East road games, and that’s it, as they’ve played at a consistently high level all season, even if 3-point shooting can be streaky.
Why Villanova Won’t Repeat
1. Depth. It hasn’t been a big issue yet. In the blowout at Seton Hall on Saturday, Villanova played without Reynolds underneath in addition to the absence of guard Phil Booth, who hasn’t played since Nov. 17 . Without Booth, the rotation has been thin, as Wright essentially plays with a seven-man rotation: Hart, Brunson, Jenkins and Bridges play over 30 minutes per game, supported by Donte DiVincenzo in the backcourt and Reynolds and Eric Paschall in the frontcourt. Booth’s status remains up in the air, and Villanova has played the entire season without five-star center recruit Omari Spellman, who was ruled ineligible before the season. Plenty of top teams have depth issues, but Villanova’s depth in particular could potentially become a liability at any moment, particularly during tournament play on short rest.
2. The ever-present threat of a cold shooting night. Any team that shoots a high percentage of its shots from 3-point range is vulnerable to an off night from deep. It’s familiar for Villanova: In the loss to Butler, it went 6-for-26 on 3-pointers. In the loss to Marquette, it went 6-for-34. The Wildcats are 65th in 3-point shooting percentage, and Jenkins — often the 3-point ace — has had some dry spells, at least before hitting 5 of 6 on Saturday. On any given night, Villanova could hit a shooting wall and an opponent can catch fire. This, of course, can be true for any team, but Villanova’s style cracks the door open a bit more for a cold night that a strong NCAA Tournament opponent can capitalize on.
3. History. Since the end of the UCLA dynasty — 10 of 12 national titles from 1964-75 — only two teams have pulled off championship repeats: Duke in 1991-92 and Florida in 2006-07. In fact, four of the past nine champions have not even made the NCAA Tournament the next season, partly a product of the increased number of underclassmen entering the NBA Draft early in the one-and-done era. No national champion has even made it to the Elite Eight since that successful Florida title defense 10 years ago, making it appear that it has become much harder to even threaten to put together back-to-back championship runs.
Villanova faces many familiar challenges. It has played exceptional basketball again this season, looking just as good on offense as it did a year ago, when it dominated a tough tournament schedule before beating North Carolina for the title on Jenkins’ game-winning 3-pointer. But putting together a near-flawless six games in a row in March Madness is nearly impossible to do once, let alone twice in a row.
Still, nobody in college basketball has established itself as a clear favorite over the course of this season. So why not Villanova? That first loss to Butler was one of only two games Villanova has dropped since last year’s Big East tournament.
With key players like Hart, Brunson and Jenkins back and playing at a high level, Villanova should get the benefit of the doubt: The Wildcats are still the team to beat until proven otherwise.