By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
Thus far in the NCAA tournament, Villanova has been carving up opponents as easily as they do their yearly Big 5 schedule. As the brackets condense though, the level of competition ramps up, and the Wildcats will face their toughest challenge of the season Saturday night.
The 33-4 Kansas Jayhawks have spent a large chunk of the season as the #1 team in the country, winning both the regular season title and conference tournament in the difficult Big 12 conference. They enter play Saturday having won a nation-best 17 straight games and like the Wildcats, the Jayhawks have won all of their tournament games by double digits, rolling through Austin Peay, Connecticut, and Maryland.
Bill Self’s squad is led by senior Perry Ellis, who is averaging 17.2 ppg on 53.5% shooting, and 5.9 rpg on the season. The 6’8″ forward can operate down low or in the mid-range with a jumper that has continued to improve as his collegiate career has progressed. While Ellis doesn’t do it too often, he can also stretch the defense behind the arc, hitting 43.8% of his threes on just under 2 attempts per game. Ellis has stepped up his game in the postseason, scoring at least 21 points in every one of Kansas’ tournament wins, topped by 27 points Thursday night against the Terrapins.
Between his senior status and his receding hairline, many people (myself included) feel like Ellis has been at Kansas for the better part of a decade. In actuality, he is just 22 years old, but that doesn’t stop Twitter from constantly digging in on his age. Here was one of my favorites:
It was nice of Perry Ellis to let Paul Pierce wear his number at Kansas.
— RUSS BENGT$ON (@russbengtson) March 25, 2016
Aside from Ellis, Kansas is also dangerous on the perimeter. As a team, the Jayhawks have shot 42.2% from three on the season. Wayne Selden, Jr., Frank Mason III, and Devonte’ Graham all average double digits on the year and shoot 39% or better from behind the arc.
The junior Selden is the top pro prospect on Kansas. Standing 6’5″ with a 6’10” wingspan, he profiles as the prototypical NBA wing given his size and shooting ability. Still, he’s only projected as a mid-second round pick, and the lack of lottery-level talent on this current Jayhawks roster is a big reason why a lot of people feel this season has been Bill Self’s best coaching job.
For the Wildcats, they’ve shot 59.9% from the floor and 53.2% from three in their trio of tournament games. If they do that again Saturday night, they’ll win no problem. Still, even if they regress to more “normal” shooting levels, there’s no reason Villanova can’t hang with Kansas. The Jayhawks aren’t a team that’s going to overwhelm Jay Wright’s squad with size, athleticism, or blue-chip talent. The teams are very similar in that they’re just two groups who work hard defensively, move the ball around for the best looks, and knock down open shots when they’re available.
It’s cliche, but it really will come down to which side just avoids dumb decisions and executes the game plan on both ends. Villanova has been doing that as well as any team in this tournament. Why shouldn’t they do it one more time and advance to Houston?