March Madness Preview: Villanova Is a Title Contender; Can Temple Reach Tourney, Too?

We look at which Philadelphia-area colleges teams could make noise at the NCAA tournament this year.

Villanova Wildcats guard Darrun Hilliard II (4) and guard Josh Hart (3) celebrate after defeating the Marquette Golden Eagles 70-52 during the second half at Wells Fargo Center.

Villanova Wildcats guard Darrun Hilliard II (4) and guard Josh Hart (3) celebrate after defeating the Marquette Golden Eagles 70-52 during the second half at Wells Fargo Center on February 4th.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Villanova is a national title contender this year.

Right: Villanova does not have the best recent NCAA tournament history. They’ve been to the tournament four times in the last five seasons, but haven’t reached the second weekend. Twice, they’ve been knocked out of the bracket in the Round of 32 when seeded No. 2. Last year, ’Nova lost to eventual national champion UConn in its second game.

The Wildcats had four memorable tournament runs to the second weekend between 2005 and 2009, and they had a good team last year that ran into a UConn buzzsaw. This year’s team — currently 21-2 — is better. It’s so deep that JayVaughn Pinkston, who got 28 and 25 percent of the team’s possessions the last two seasons, is getting the third-most possessions on the team. Ryan Arcidiacono and Dylan Ennis have cut down on turnovers, which weren’t a huge problem for Villanova last year anyway. The team’s playing a little more under control. Freshman Phil Booth looks like he could be a factor late in the season. The regular lineup contains just one player above 6-foot-7 — 6-foot-11 Daniel Ochefu — so the Wildcats sometimes get beaten on the glass. But that’s their only major weakness.

The primary factor keeping Villanova from being more of a national title contender? Well, it will be really hard to beat Kentucky. That’s about it.

Last season, Villanova was one of the best passing teams in the country. They spread the ball around even more this year. Six players average 9 or more points a game. They’re more efficient on offense as a result, and are averaging just three fewer points a game despite playing at a much slower pace this season.

And Villanova is far ahead the rest of their conference. The Wildcats score the most points per possession in Big East conference play, and also allow the fewest points per. There is an outside chance they win out. Villanova is ranked seventh in the popular KenPom ratings and fifth in RPI, which is what the NCAA uses. They’re going to get a very high seed.

The only other team in the area with a shot at making the tournament with an at-large bid this year is Temple, currently 17-7. The Owls have a chance to get into the tournament for one reason only: Defense. Temple’s adjusted defensive efficiency is eighth in the country per KenPom, and is in the top 50 in scoring defense despite playing a faster-than-average tempo. (Temple plays faster than Villanova, even.) Temple doesn’t score much, but has been in virtually every game because of its D.

Temple’s offense runs primarily through Will Cummings, who has stayed healthy recently and has even better assist and turnover rates than Villanova’s top distributors. The Owls have had a few close wins, so their RPI of 39 is probably a tad inflated — but RPI is what the selection committee uses to help pick the tournament teams. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently has Temple as a No. 12 seed. The Owls host Cincinnati tonight; a win would be their second against a top-50 RPI team, an important measure for the committee. It’s a chance for revenge: One of the few games Temple wasn’t in was a 31-point loss at Cincinnati in January. A win tonight goes a long way for Temple next month.

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