By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
Selection Sunday whets the appetite, and the First Four serves as an adequate appetizer, but beginning at noon on Thursday, we’ll finally receive the main course with the tip-off of the 2018 NCAA tournament. While watching any game in the tournament field can make for an exciting viewing experience, college basketball fans in the Philadelphia area have the added bonus of not one, but two teams in the field of 64.
Villanova finds itself in the tournament for the sixth straight season, a run obviously highlighted by the school’s 2016 National Championship. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Penn returns to the postseason for the first time since 2007. Fortunately, we won’t have to wait until day two to see these two Big Five schools in action, with both schools set to take the floor Thursday.
#16 Penn vs. #1 Kansas – 2:00pm
Steve Donahue’s club exceeded all expectations this season, both winning the Ivy League regular season title and prevailing over Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament final to earn the conference’s automatic bid to the tournament. Popular consensus appears to be that the Quakers were jobbed in receiving a 16-seed, and the data backs it up. According to 538’s Elo Rating, the Quakers are the best 16th seed of all time.
As a result, a groundswell has bubbled up that if ever a 16-seed is going to beat a 1-seed (they’re 0-132 thus far), this might be the time it happens. The first thing helping Penn’s cause is Kansas’ 7’0″ center Udoka Azubuike potentially being hampered by a knee injury that caused him to miss the Big 12 tournament. If he’s not at full strength, that would be a huge boon for a Penn roster that will be undersized to the Jayhawks, particularly for the scoring prospects of Quakers star big man AJ Brodeur.
Also, a lot has been made about how Penn has the second-best three-point field goal defense in the country. If the Quakers’ ability to defend on the perimeter proves to be more of an inherent ability than random variance, they could neutralize a Kansas team that shot 40.3% from behind the arc (12th-best nationally) and made the 10th-most threes in the country this season. Turn this game into a three-point shootout and force the Jayhawks to miss more than usual and you have a chance. Or so the story goes.
Yet, then there’s senior Devonte’ Graham, who earned Big 12 Player of the Year honors, leading the Jayhawks in scoring (17.3 ppg) and assists (7.5 apg). He’s the type of impactful guard that can put a team on his back in this tournament. Meanwhile, fellow senior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, knocking down 45.3% of his triples on close to 7 attempts per game. It’s one thing to defend well in the Ivy League and against the soft non-conference schedule the Quakers played this season. These Jayhawks are in a different class.
Undeniably, there’s a huge talent disparity between the two teams, and just making the tournament is a terrific accomplishment for a Penn program that had its first above-.500 season since 2011-12. Still, they call it March Madness for a reason and a 1-seed has to lose eventually. Why not now? Maybe?
#1 Villanova vs. #16 Radford – 6:50pm
Later in the day, Jay Wright’s squad will begin their tournament run coming off last weekend’s exciting overtime victory over Providence to win the Big East Tournament. Near the top of the polls all season, with quite a few weeks as the #1 team in the nation, Villanova enters the tournament field as the second 1-seed behind Virginia. Most importantly for the Wildcats, Jay Wright has his 8-man rotation back to full health, after missing guards Phil Booth and Collin Gillespie for prolonged stretches this season.
The wonderfully-named Radford Highlanders enter the field of 64 having won eight straight games, most recently defeating LIU-Brooklyn 71-61 in Tuesday night’s First Four contest. Radford is led in both scoring and rebounding by 6’5″ junior Ed Polite, Jr., who recorded a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds against LIU-Brooklyn. As is the case for many mid-majors, the Big South champions lack size; no one on the roster for the Highlanders stands taller than 6’8″.
Really though, there’s no need to overthink this game. Remember that 0-132 thing about 16-seeds against 1-seeds? While people are trying to talk up Penn, no one gives Radford much of a chance. Villanova has a projected lottery pick in Mikal Bridges and one of the four Naismith finalists in Jalen Brunson. That level of talent should simply overwhelm the Highlanders. The Wildcats should safely advance and take on the winner of Virginia Tech and Alabama on Saturday.