Sixers Fall in Home Finale to Pacers

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Indiana 120, Philadelphia 111 – Box Score

In the final home game of the season, in front of fans who have put up with an inordinate amount of losing the last few years, it initially looked as though the Sixers would go quietly with another listless effort. Having a huge last month of the season as he guns for an all-NBA spot and the associated eligibility for a super-max contract when he next hits free agency, Paul George nearly outscored Philadelphia by himself in the first quarter. The Pacers superstar scored 17 of his game-high 27 points in the opening stanza; Indiana would lead by as many as 21 points in the first half.

Instead, the game turned surprisingly competitive, even violent at times, led first by an 11-0 Sixers run in the second quarter to get back into the game. Richaun Holmes was at the center of that surge, scoring 10 of his 17 points in the frame, mostly via rim-rattling dunks. Myles Turner had a nice game with 18 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks, but as we already learned earlier this season, Holmes has absolutely no fear of challenging the young Pacers center at the cup.

In the second half, as the Sixers pulled within as close as 5 points, it was rookie Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot dominating for Philadelphia. TLC went off for a career-high 24 points, shooting 4-5 from three and looking increasingly comfortable as a shot creator. He canned a mid-range turnaround jumper at one point, something I’d never even seen him attempt before. These late-season reps as a starter have been great for Luwawu in expanding his game beyond a passive 3-and-D role on the court; it can only help him down the road.

Things got heated down the stretch, particularly between Gerald Henderson and Paul George. The pair got into it with each other earlier in the second half, tussling as Henderson attempted to body up George on the defensive end. The pair each picked up a technical. Then, with a few minutes remaining in the game, Henderson threw a nasty elbow to the George’s face while driving to the hole. Video later revealed it was a retaliation for George throwing an elbow to Henderson’s back as the two players were running up court. Henderson ended up with a flagrant-2 foul, while George also got a second technical. Both players were ejected. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time left for it to matter that the Pacers had lost their superstar for the rest of the game.

With only Wednesday night’s contest on the road against the Knicks remaining for the Sixers, they still sit tied with the Magic for the 4th-worst record in the league. Given that Orlando just lost by 47 points to Chicago, I’m not holding my breath that they will do much of anything against Detroit. The Sixers will need to reconcile one more loss to give themselves the best chance in next month’s lottery.

Other Game Notes:

  • Alex Poythress hit his first 5 three-point attempts for a career-high 15 points. The D-league call-up was 1-9 from behind the arc entering the game, so let’s not crown him the league’s next stretch-four, but certainly a nice game for Poythress.
  • Longtime Sixer Thad Young had a great game, accruing 20 points and 8 rebounds with his usual brand of hustle and scoring in the margins of the action. I’m glad it looks like Thad will get back to the playoffs after he bounced around with some very bad teams the last few years.

Sixers bulled over by Chicago, now tied with Orlando

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Chicago 102, Philadelphia 90 – Box Score

The Sixers are decimated by injuries and enduring the mental fatigue of playing out the string of meaningless games to end this season. Throw into that mix a 1-12 showing from behind the arc in the 1st quarter and you have a perfect recipe for a loss, which fortunately is exactly what the franchise needs right now. Philadelphia’s loss Thursday night against Chicago, combined with Orlando defeating Brooklyn, moves the Magic into a tie with the Sixers for the 4th-worst record in the league. Lottery ball chasers, rejoice!

Knowing the result was ultimately for the best didn’t make the game any easier to watch, however. Like leftover soup brought to room temperature, Philadelphia’s initially cold shooting improved to levels that were palatable, but still unsatisfying. The Sixers finished the game 36.3% from the field and 7-33 (21.2%) from three.

It wasn’t pretty basketball from either side, but the other sideline did have a couple standout stars on the night. Nikola Mirotic nearly hit as many threes as the entire Sixers team, going 6-8 from behind the arc for a game-high 22 points. Jimmy Butler quietly controlled the action the entire evening, finishing with a triple-double of 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists.

For the Sixers, Justin Anderson was just about the only guy in the home whites capable of putting the ball in the basket early on. He scored 14 first-half points, hitting 2 of his first 3 triples; Anderson ended the game with 17 points, and the dunk of the night:

In the third quarter, after the Sixers went 3 and a half minutes without scoring, it was a Richaun Holmes-fueled run that kept the game from getting too out of hand. Holmes had a steal and breakaway dunk to end the scoring drought, showed great activity on the glass, and hit his only three of the evening (1-4) as part of an 8-0 Philadelphia run. Holmes recorded a double-double on the game with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot led the team with 18 points. We’ve seen his outside shot develop in recent weeks, but it was attacking the paint where TLC shined against Chicago. He got to the line more than any other Sixer (going a perfect 5-5), and a couple very nice finishes around the rim.

As for young players whose careers aren’t looking quite as promising, former Sixers Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams was terrible for the Bulls, shooting 1-7 from the field and committing 4 personal fouls in 10 minutes. His “offensive game” was little more than wildly driving to the hoop and throwing up a shot that more often than not doesn’t even make contact with the rim. It’s hard to see him in the league much longer given his current career trajectory. Still, no need to boo him Sixers fans!

Next up for the Sixers is Milwaukee Saturday night. We’ll see if they can “improve” on their tied for 4th-worst standing.

Sixers man every tanking station against the Nets

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Brooklyn 141, Philadelphia 118 – Box Score

Markelle Fultz was in the Wells Fargo Center Tuesday night to watch the titanic battle between two of the bottom-five teams in the NBA (not exactly how I would bide my time when I’m months away from becoming a multi-millionaire, but hey, it’s your life, Markelle). The Sixers put their best tanking foot forward and showed the potential first overall pick that they are fully committed to doing everything in their power to obtain him.

Brooklyn has been playing decent ball since Jeremy Lin returned to stabilize the offense, and the Nets don’t control their own first-round pick thanks to the Boston pick swap, so there’s zero incentive to tank. With the Sixers basically picking up guys off the street to fill out the roster thanks to their injury situations, the result was, on paper, the most embarrassing loss of the season.

In practice, it was a much-needed defeat to remain 1 game ahead of Orlando in the standings. The Knicks also defeated the schizophrenic Bulls, pulling them 2 games ahead of the Sixers. With 4 games left in the season, it seems assured that the Sixers will have no worse than the 5th-worst odds at Fultz or whoever else they might aspire to take first overall.

As for the game itself, it was a bloodbath. Brett Brown said after the game, “None of us could guard them,” which is about as succinctly as you could describe whatever it was that went on for 48 minutes. The Nets scored 40 points in the first quarter, only to outdo themselves with 41 in the second. For those who were told there would be no math, that’s 81 points in the first half. To Brooklyn. At home.

As a team, the Nets shot 64.0% from the field and 51.6% from three, numbers which were even much higher before garbage time. Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez each scored 16 points to lead the team, while no Nets starter had to play more than 23 minutes.

A few bright nuggets emerged from the apocalyptic rubble of this game. Dario Saric reached 1,000 points on the season, becoming the 11th Sixers rookie ever to cross that threshold. The team also revealed before the game that his 24-minute guideline is related to plantar fasciitis, for which the only treatment is rest. The Sixers should reveal shut up down for the rest of the season, but he seems dead-set on playing 82 games, so I doubt we see it.

Richaun Holmes hit 2 of 3 threes on his way to 16 points. Holmes is now connecting on 34.4% of his threes for the season, just about the NBA average and very impressive for a center. His defense and rebounding has been slowly improving this season. Add his ability to space the floor and ferocious finishing around the rim and the Sixers have quite the young prospect on their hands.

Although the Sixers and Knicks results went how Philadelphia fans would hope, Nerlens Noel couldn’t help his old friends out as the Mavericks lost to the Kings. Sacramento has won two straight and remains a half game behind Minnesota and one game up on New York in the standings. The Sixers will continue to sort out all things lottery-related as the season continues to wind down tomorrow night against Chicago.

Sixers fall north of the border

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Toronto 113, Philadelphia 105 – Box Score

Poythress, Long, Anderson, these were not the names sold to Sixers fans at the beginning of the season as the start of a new era in Philadelphia basketball. But such is life in the dog days of April for a Sixers franchise more concerned with ensuring the Knicks don’t end up with more lottery balls than whether they finish on top of the scoreboard.

With the injury report reading like what Sixers fans hope Matt Cord calls out for the 2017-18 opening night starting lineup (Embiid, Simmons, Covington), the game itself went about how you might have anticipated under the circumstances. The remaining players acquitted themselves reasonably well, never letting the game get entirely out of hand. But a big second-quarter surge put the Raptors in front by double digits and the end result was never really in question. In particular, trade deadline acquisition Serge Ibaka had a big game against the thin Sixers front line, accruing 24 points and 6 blocks in just 28 minutes.

Battling a sore heel, Dario Saric finished with 16 points, playing right on the nose of his 24-minute guideline. How much of the guideline is actually due to the injury and how much is due to Saric’s play in recent months actually helping the team to unneeded wins seems irrelevant. Either way, it makes sense, and I understand him wanting to play a full season, both to bolster his Rookie of the Year case and to further silence the critics who said he would never come over.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was the Sixers star of the evening, recording a career-high for the second-straight game with 23 points. The shooting continues to improve, as TLC knocked down 3 of 7 shots from behind the arc. He also was as aggressive as I’ve seen him attacking the rim, hitting 6-6 from the charity stripe. The Sixers really look to have found a keeper at a much-needed wing position. I’m excited to watch him settle into a rotational role next year with a full complement of talent around him.

Signed from the D-league under the hardship exemption, Alex Poythress made his NBA debut, finishing with 10 points in 24 minutes. Hard to judge a guy when he basically met his teammates upon arriving to the arena, but I liked his energy out on the floor. A former McDonald’s All-American, Poythress was once a highly-regarded prospect before slipping as *gasp* a guy who actually hung around at Kentucky for a full college career. I don’t hate the idea of getting a look at him in these meaningless April contests.

The news of the night elsewhere was the Lakers getting a rare win against Memphis, moving them ahead of Phoenix in the standings by a half game. That flip-flop shifts the chance of the Sixers receive the LA pick this summer from 44.2% to 53.1%. Let’s hope the baby Lakers have one more win in them and the Suns’ 12-game losing streak keeps going. The Sixers sit between New York and Orlando with the 5th-worst record in the league; another big “tanking test” comes tomorrow night against Brooklyn.

Skeleton squad Sixers fall short to Hawks

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Atlanta 99, Philadelphia 92 – Box Score

One night after gutting out a close win with just 9 players against Brooklyn, the Sixers ratcheted up the difficulty meter even more in their return home. Hosting a playoff-bound Hawks team, Philadelphia had just 8 players available. Gerald Henderson returned to the court, but Robert Covington sat out with minor knee soreness after a fall against the Nets, and Tiago Splitter was unavailable on a back-to-back after not playing for 14 months.

The result against an Atlanta squad that’s pretty decent even without All-Star Paul Millsap (who?) was…not bad. The Sixers were clearly dog tired, as their 11-39 (28.2%) shooting performance from three would indicate. And they had no answer for Dwight Howard, who went off for 22 points and 20 rebounds (8 coming on the offensive glass), somehow also knocking down 6-7 from the free throw line. It’s a shame the Sixers don’t have a defensive-minded center on the roster to help neutralize opposing big men; someone like that young kid in Dallas would really help.

Still, the Sixers fought, headlined by Richaun Holmes, who scored a career-high 25 points to go along with 8 rebounds (5 offensive). As usual, Holmes was a never-ending whirl of energy whenever he was on the court. He clearly didn’t have the size (or veteran bag of tricks) to deal with Howard down low, but it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of effort. Remember prior to the trade deadline when teams were inquiring about Holmes, hoping to steal a useful player who was shelved on the back of the roster? Well, there’s no thought of stealing him now.

Shawn Long hit both of his three-point attempts, scoring 10 points in 16 minutes. I think he’s miscast as a 5, but has been pressed into the role given the current lack of depth on the team for healthy big men (imagine that?). He may eventually find his way into a role somewhere in the league as a outside-shooting power forward, a la Ersan Ilyasova, who started for Millsap in his “revenge game” against the Sixers, scoring an efficient 14 points.

I mentioned against Brooklyn how Nik Stauskas was being sloppy at times with the ball, but given the fact that these games are meaningless, there’s absolutely no reason not to give him these reps as a point guard. We saw the benefit against the Hawks with Sauce tying a career-high with 7 assists against just 2 turnovers.

Philadelphia kept things reasonably close throughout the game, pulling within the razor-thin margin of 83-81 halfway through the 4th quarter. Ultimately, the Sixers ran out of gas and the offense just wasn’t there to get them over the hump. No shame in that in a tough situation playing with a skeleton crew. They’ll be back at it Friday night against LeBron James and company.

While the Sixers loss helping them in the lottery battle, they missed out on a golden opportunity with Orlando losing in overtime to Oklahoma City after blowing a big lead. Meanwhile, the Knicks were blown out at home by Miami; New York has embraced tanking down the stretch of the season like a long-lost lover. Fortunately, the Kings were romped by the Jazz at home. Meaning, with 7 games left (for Philadelphia), we’re looking at the Sixers tied for 5th-worst with New York and Sacramento sitting alone with the 7th-worst record. A late surge from both the Magic and Knicks would be a godsend, but I’m not holding my breath.

Sixers cut down the Nets

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 106, Brooklyn 101 – Box Score

As the NBA season winds down and positioning toward the bottom of the NBA standings assumes more meaning with each passing game, Tuesday night’s game in Brooklyn loomed as an interesting inflection point for the Sixers. Sandwiched in between the Knicks and Magic at the 5th worst record in the league entering play, the result against the last place Nets could have major lottery implications with just weeks remaining in the regular season.

While the Nets sit comfortably with the worst record in the league, Brooklyn had actually won 3 of 4 and 5 of 9 coming into Tuesday night. Philadelphia was on its final game of a 5-game road trip. The Sixers were also only playing with 9 players, one of those being Tiago Splitter, who was only able to take the court for a few minutes in his first game since January 2016. If ever there was a chance to drop a game to the Nets, this was the situation.

But you know who was determined to make sure that didn’t happen? Joel Embiid’s Rookie of the Year pick and Tuesday night’s MVP, Dario Saric.

Saric bounced back from his first poor performance in quite some time against Indiana with a team-high 23 points and 7 rebounds. With the Sixers shorthanded, the Homie showed off his versatility, playing everything from point guard to center. Anytime Dario found himself matched up against a smaller Brooklyn defender, he took him down into the torture chamber.

https://twitter.com/sixers/status/846882637549592576

As usual, the other star for the road team was Robert Covington, who finished with 21 points, tied a career-high with 13 rebounds, and recorded 2 steals and 2 blocks. Covington’s putback off a TJ McConnell airball within the final 2 minutes proved to be the game-winning bucket. Not only has Rock ramped up his scoring in the second half of the season (16.0 ppg post-All Star break), but his ability to make game-changing plays on the defensive end is virtually unparalleled across the league.

Those two players were enough for the Sixers to overcome Brook Lopez, who scored a game-high 26 points, adding 9 rebounds and 6 assists. Lopez showed off his new range, knocked down a trio of threes, and got Richaun Holmes in early, first half foul trouble. The Sixers turned to Tiago Splitter for 7 minutes, but he looked visibly gassed at times after his long injury layoff; the former Spur and Hawk recorded 2 points, 3 rebounds, and a block.

The win moved the Sixers back into a tie with the Knicks and 1 game up on Orlando. Fortunately, the Timberwolves won in the final seconds on the road against Indiana to move ahead of Sacramento. We’ll continue to sort out the standings when the Sixers get right back at it Wednesday night at home against Atlanta.

Other Game Notes:

  • Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot continued to grow his game, hitting a career-high 4 threes on 10 attempts for 17 points and 9 rebounds. The rookie has been an additional bright spot down the stretch of the season, showing off his 3-and-D potential down the road.
  • Justin Anderson doesn’t always do the right things in a basketball sense, but man, he sure makes for some exciting plays. He blocked Rondae Hollis-Jefferson at the first half buzzer…

and finished a reverse dunk off of an alley-oop feed from TJ McConnell.

It only comes in flashes, but there are certainly times when Simba is King of the hardwood jungle.

Sixers outpaced in Indiana

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Indiana 107, Philadelphia 94 – Box Score

With Luke Maye and Malik Monk traded late haymakers in the thriller between UNC and Kentucky Sunday night, there wasn’t much drama to be had for Philadelphia in Game 4 of its 5-game road trip. Facing an Indiana squad needing every win it can grab to hang onto one of the lower rungs in the Eastern Conference playoff race, the Sixers came out flat, falling behind by 9 points after one quarter and never appearing to have the gas needed to spark a comeback.

After making a push for him at the trade deadline, the Sixers likely didn’t do much to impress Paul George, who scored a game-high 21 points to go along with 8 rebounds. Meanwhile, the guy who has been playing like a superstar lately for Philadelphia, Dario Saric, shot just 3-15 from the field for 9 points, breaking his 22-game streak of scoring in double figures.

In the battle of young big men, Richaun Holmes, one of the last remaining Sixers centers with working knees, double-doubled with 11 points and 12 rebounds. Holmes got the best of Myles Turner on this vicious throwdown in the paint.

However, that was about all that went wrong for Turner on the evening, as the young Pacers center finished with 17 points on 7-9 shooting, tying a career-high with 16 rebounds, and recording a pair of blocks.

The main bright spots for the Sixers came off the bench Sunday night. Sergio Rodriguez had a hot shooting night off the pine, hitting 4 of 6 threes for a team-high 16 points, including a buzzer-beater to end the third quarter.

https://twitter.com/sixers/status/846147874266210304

El Chacho has his deficiencies, particularly on the defensive end, but the outside shooting improvements he made in recent years have definitely carried back over stateside. His 36.5% shooting from behind the arc represents the best mark of his NBA career.

Alongside Rodriguez, Shawn Long picked up the second unit by recording his first career double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds. It was the third consecutive game in double figures for the rookie, who is shooting 62.0% from the field since being called up from the Sevens. I don’t know if Long has a long-term future in Philadelphia, but he’s certainly proving he can do much more on the court than break Ben Simmons’ foot.

With the loss, the Sixers remain in a three-way tie with the Knicks and Magic for the 4th-worst record in the NBA. Sacramento somehow came back from 18 down in the 4th quarter to beat the Clippers Sunday, so the fighting swap rights are back up to sitting with the 7th-worst record overall. Tomorrow night’s contest in Brooklyn will be a pivotal point in Philadelphia’s home stretch of tanking with less than 10 games remaining.

Sixers Win the Nerlens Noel Trade for One Night

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 116, Dallas 74 – Box Score

Nerlens Noel was back in Philadelphia, and all the stories in the world about him buying cheesesteaks for fans at Chickie and Pete’s or hanging out with Richaun Holmes in South Philly weren’t going to keep things from seeming weird when he took the Wells Fargo Center court in a Dallas uniform. With the Mavericks surging recently and having an outside shot at making the playoffs in the Western Conference, it was reasonable to expect a Dallas victory, buoyed by inspired play from Noel in a classic revenge game performance.

But you know who helped throw all these ideas out the window and remind folks that he was involved in that trade as well?

As Mark Cuban looked on unhappily from his courtside seat, Justin Anderson dropped a game-high 19 points and 8 rebounds, hitting 7 of 11 shots from the field and 2 of 5 from behind the arc. It was part of an unexpected, obliterating performance from the Sixers. The 42-point margin of victory was the largest for Philadelphia during the Brett Brown era and dating all the way back to 2009 when the Andre’s formed the starting backcourt.

While Noel played fairly well, tallying 9 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists in just 19 minutes, his friend Richaun Holmes was the best center on the court on the evening. Drawing the start to better match up with Dirk Nowitzki on the perimeter, Holmes brought his usual rim-wrecking savagery, slamming home many a lob pass or offensive rebound on his way to 17 points and 7 rebounds in just 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Sixers on the perimeter did an outstanding job stifling Yogi Ferrell, Seth Curry, and company; outside of Nowitzki, who scored 10 points, no Mavericks starter had more than 7 points on the game. Robert Covington and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot also combined to shoot 5-9 from three (TLC was a team-high +40 on the game, which is utterly ridiculous). TJ McConnell was so in control of the action that he could even afford to take a seat amongst the fans and watch Robert Covington finish off one of his assists.

https://twitter.com/Sixers/status/842899990183862272

With the Sixers win and the Kings having won 2 straight, it has not been a good week for lottery balls around Philadelphia. Still, a 42-point win is a heck of a lot of fun, and to do it against the team that had supposedly swindled the Sixers in a trade was I’m sure a nice extra boost for everybody. Hopefully, Justin Anderson builds on this performance and makes an impact on more of a consistent basis. He’s shown enough flashes to be hopeful about his future prospects. Regardless, you’ll always be in our hearts, Nerlens.

Villanova Overcomes Horrific Start to Advance

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Villanova 76, Mount St. Mary’s 56 – Box Score

Villanova’s first round game of the NCAA tournament tipped off at about 7:10 on the east coast, but communications must have become muddled in the wake of the snow storm that hit the region, because the Wildcats didn’t really start playing until about a quarter to 8. Villanova started out the game as poorly as you could possibly imagine, going scoreless for the first six minutes of the contest.

The usual studs for the Wildcats were MIA for much of the first half; Josh Hart picked up two early fouls and spent much of the opening frame shouting encouragement from the sidelines, while Kris Jenkins missed all 7 of his first half field goal attempts.

Mount St. Mary’s appeared to grow more confident with every Villanova shot that clanked off the iron, and even after the Wildcats finally got on the board, the Mountaineers were able to maintain the lead until there was less than a minute remaining in the first half.

Fortunately for Jay Wright and company, the 1 vs. 16 matchup provides a wide margin of error for the favored side. A better team would have really seized the opportunity presented by Villanova’s shooting struggles and built a big lead. Mount St. Mary’s simply doesn’t have the sort of playmakers needed to create open looks against a defense as disciplined as that of Villanova. The Mountaineers’ lead never grew larger than eight points.

In the second half, the Wildcats wasted no time putting the first half behind them and extinguishing any hope of the 16th seed making history. After Mount St. Mary’s scored on the opening possession of the half, Villanova went on a 13-0 run to take firm control of the game for good. As the lead grew, the Mountaineers began to press, forcing up bad shots and turning the ball over, which led to easy buckets for the Wildcats. My friends and I joked that we had to shift our concern from whether Villanova would even win (a thought which had never really wavered), to whether it would cover the second half spread (-14, which they covered easily), or even the full game spread (-27, not quite, although it was a sweat for Mount St. Mary’s backers).

Wildcats faithful can thank the often unheralded bench for allowing the team to avoid disaster. Donte DiVincenzo played the game of his life, getting a career-high 37 minutes with Hart in foul trouble. DiVincenzo scored 21 points on 9-15 shooting, and had his first career double-double with 13 rebounds. The only blemishes were two missed breakaway dunks, which I’m sure he’ll be hearing about from his teammates for the rest of his college career. Eric Paschall also chipped in with 10 points in 24 minutes on 4-5 shooting.

Villanova will have to do a much better job Saturday against Wisconsin. They need Kris Jenkins to actually hit some shots; 2-13 from the field and 0-6 from three won’t fly against a good team. They need Josh Hart to stay on the floor and set the tone on both ends, like the 1st-team All-American he is. Luckily, although there are technically no warm-up games in March Madness, a 1 vs. 16 game is as close as you’re going to find.

Operation Repeat: 1 win down, 5 to go.

Villanova Kicks Off NCAA Tournament Thursday Night

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

The Villanova Wildcats have done everything possible to prove this team is as potent a unit as the squad that won the school’s second national championship last spring. A 31-3 record, Big East regular season and tournament championships, and the top overall seed are Exhibits A-D of why this year’s team is poised to make another magical run. Now, six more wins stand in between them and becoming the first school since Florida a decade ago to win it all in back-to-back seasons.

But in order for one lucky senior to receive Jim Nantz’s tie (to be clear, it would be Josh Hart), Jay Wright’s squad will have first have to go through a hellacious East bracket that includes Duke, Baylor, Florida, Virginia, SMU, and Wisconsin, all teams rated among the top-22 in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced ratings. Before they enter that gauntlet though, the Wildcats have to take care of business Thursday night against 16-seed Mount St. Mary’s.

The Mountaineers won their First Four game Tuesday night against New Orleans by the slimmest of margins, 67-66. 5’5″ point guard Junior Robinson led Mount St. Mary’s with 23 points, including hitting the go-ahead jumper with a minute and a half remaining. Averaging 14.3 ppg, Robinson is 2nd on the team in scoring behind 6-foot sophomore guard Elijah Long. Long averages team-highs in points (15.1), assists (4.4), and steals (1.6), but was neutralized by New Orleans on Tuesday with only 6 points and 4 assists.

Famously, no 16-seed has ever defeated a 1-seed in the tournament and with Villanova sitting as 27-point favorites, I don’t believe there’s any chance that run will be broken here. The Mountaineers are one of the worst offensive teams in the nation, shooting only 44.6% from the field; for comparison, Villanova has shot 49.7% on the season. The Wildcats’ weakness, if you even want to consider them having one, is a lack of depth in the frontcourt. However, Mount St. Mary’s only has two rotation players taller than 6’6″ and is the 11th-worst team in the entire country in terms of rebounding margin. There are teams out there who could hurt Villanova on the boards, but the Mountaineers are not one of them.

You never want to overlook an opponent, but let’s be honest, Thursday’s night game is little more than a tune-up for Jay Wright and company. Barring a catastrophically poor shooting performance, Villanova should have no trouble winning, and winning big. Then, they’ll move on to face the winner of Wisconsin and Virginia Tech Saturday, and the madness will really get underway.