Villanova is a very good basketball team.
You wouldn’t know it from the way they came into the tournament, but the Wildcats are one of the 10 best teams in the country. No, literally: They are only one of three schools to be in the top-10 in every major college hoops rating system. And Villanova — who went 28-4, losing to Syracuse, Creighton twice and Seton Hall in the Big East tournament – won in just about every way this season: It blew out teams. It won close games. It went 4-0 in overtime games. Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency numbers give the Wildcats the 19th best offense and 12th best defense.
And yet, despite earning a No. 2 seed in the Midwest region of the NCAA tournament, only 9.6% of brackets have Villanova in the Final Four. The numbers say Villanova passes every test: They're good on both ends, they have wins over good teams, they won lots of games big — usually a sign of a great team. They are a legitimate National Championship contender. And yet, even in Philadelphia, I'm in a 159-player pool, and only one person took Villanova. (Uh, me. I like balanced, well-rounded college teams. Pomeroy gives them a 1-in-20 shot.)
It's because, I think, Villanova fails the eye test. Take Thursday's games: If you were to ask people which Philadelphia-area team looked better yesterday, I bet a lot of people would say Saint Joseph's. The 10th-seeded Hawks lost in overtime to Connecticut in a game they probably should have won; Villanova beat No. 15 seed Milwaukee by 20. But Villanova didn't look great: Milwaukee trailed by just four at halftime. The Wildcats don't shoot the three particularly well — 35 percent, 116th in the country — but shot 4-for-23 from behind the arc Thursday night in Buffalo.
"Tough fought game," Villanova coach Jay Wright said post-game. "That was not, as everyone here knows, a 20‑point game." His players concurred with the performance. "We want to win ugly," reserve guard Josh Hart told CSNPhilly.com. Hart scored 11 points in 30 minutes off the bench. Jay Wright talked about winning ugly, too — "we won a lot of games this year, we did not shoot the ball well every night," he said — and yet in reality Villanova was never, ever in danger of losing the game. They played incredibly ugly, missed most of their threes, and, despite what it looked like, cruised. Their recent cold shooting may catch up to them, but this is clearly a team that could do damage in the second weekend and beyond.
Their next opponent is UConn. Now here's a team that got outplayed. The Huskies — coached by former Sixer Kevin Ollie, a bench guy on the 2001 Finals team — probably shouldn't have won. Saint Joseph's led by 10 late in the first half and by three with under a minute left. But a three-point play on a follow layup by Amida Brimah tied it, Joe's mangled its final possession of regulation and the Hawks ran out of gas in overtime. Phil Martelli's team plays just seven guys, and once Halil Kanacevic fouled out it was basically over.
But, hey, at least Phil Martelli's grandson got to try to eat a microphone on live TV!
Also, there was this entertaining post-game exchange.
Q. Phil, when you're in the course of a game, you're not really thinking about how great the game is. Do you ever take a moment and realize, This is a great game? As the game is going on, I know it's tough now, but it was a great basketball game to watch.
COACH MARTELLI: Yeah, I appreciate that, and if I worked for the network and I could care about viewership, I'd be cool about that. But it wasn't so great.
Small victories, you know?
Villanova and UConn play Saturday with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden.
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