Can the Villanova Wildcats Win It All?
You weren’t tripping on acid this weekend: The Villanova Wildcats really did beat the Kansas Jayhawks to win the South Regional and make it to the Final Four. They’ll face Oklahoma on Saturday night with a trip to the national championship game on the line. North Carolina plays Syracuse in the other national semifinal.
It’s been a great run in March for Villanova. I noted in early December that the Wildcats were great again this year, but that they’d faltered in March the past few seasons. Even when Villanova hit No. 1 in the polls in February, people were still skeptical: Sure, but what about the next month? Now they’re assured of playing into April.
Villanova won its first three NCAA tournament games by doing something it hadn’t really done all season: Hit three pointers. The Wildcats torched the nets in the tournament’s opening weekend, then obliterated Miami in the Sweet 16 with another solid shooting performance.
But against Kansas on Saturday night, Villanova hit just 4-of-18 threes. Their magical shooting touch had disappeared at the worst time. But it didn’t matter: ’Nova held Kansas to just 6-of-22 from three-point range, forced 16 turnovers and eked out a 64-59 win. So if you wanted proof that the Wildcats can win even if they’re not hitting their threes, you got it on Saturday night.
The Wildcats play the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday. They’ve actually already played them once: It was a game that had a lot of people thinking the team didn’t have much of a shot to go far this season. Oklahoma routed Villanova, 78-55. Buddy Hield scored 37 in the Sooners’ rout of Oregon in their Elite 8 game. So Villanova’s run ends now, right?
Not exactly. First off, the Sooners hit 14 of 26 threes taken during that game. The Sooners are a great three-point shooting team, but they don’t usually hit hit 53 percent of their threes. (They’re shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc on the season.) And ’Nova hit just 4 of 32 three-point attempts — by far their worst three-point shooting performance of the year. Villanova has shot much better in the tournament; and, in the regional final, showed the can win even when it doesn’t shoot well from three.
But the game’s location may be the biggest reason why we can’t take that much from it: The Wildcats lost to Oklahoma in Hawaii. As college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy has written, “weird things happen on the islands.” The travel wears some teams down. The Inquirer’s stringer described the conditions inside Pearl Harbor’s Bloch Arena as “sweltering” during that game. ’Nova trailed by six at half and got blown out in the second half. It happens. Saturday will almost certainly not be a repeat of the December game.
Villanova actually matches up pretty well with Oklahoma: The Sooners aren’t particularly tall — the Wildcats, on average, play a taller lineup — and Villanova goes deeper: Its bench actually played more minutes than Oklahoma’s this year. The Sooners don’t force many turnovers, and Villanova almost never gives it up: The Wildcats should get a lot of chances to score on Saturday night.
The most interesting matchup will take place when Oklahoma has the ball. The Sooners shoot a ton of threes, but ’Nova usually doesn’t let its opponents take many. Obviously, ’Nova had issues with Oklahoma’s three-point shooting in their previous meeting. But with the way the Wildcats have been playing, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate a different result this time.
Then comes North Carolina or Syracuse. The Wildcats would be heavily favored over the upstart Orange, who were just a 10-seed in the tournament and beat the 7, 15 and 11 seeds before their wild comeback over top-seeded Virginia. UNC would be a tougher matchup: The Tar Heels are taller than Villanova, they play fast and they do most of their damage inside. It would likely take a big game from senior big man Daniel Ochefu — who was stellar against Kansas, especially defensively — for Villanova to beat North Carolina.
The Wildcats have played great in the tournament so far, though. They won their first three games in routs, and then knocked off the overall No. 1 seed in the regional final. They are two games away from their first title since 1985, and deservedly so. We could be seeing a parade down, um, Lancaster Avenue next month.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.