By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
Villanova has already secured the winningest season in program history. Still,to really be considered among the greatest Wildcats groups ever, they’re going to have to do some damage in the Big Dance. For better or worse, that’s how people remember a team. Fortunately, Jay Wright have a chance to do just that.
In addition to earning a #1 seed, Villanova has to be happy with how the bracket shook out on Selection Sunday. First, they were awarded the spot in the East Regional, so they get to stay in state for the first two games. I’m sure plenty of Nova Nation has made the trip to Pittsburgh for this weekend’s contests. Then, the #4 seed they would potentially face, Louisville, had one of its more productive players, Chris Jones, recently dismissed from the program due to some off-the-court accusations. Finally, although Virginia is undoubtedly a good team, Villanova has to be glad to have avoided their Wildcats brethren Arizona as a #2 seed. That potential Wisconsin-Arizona Elite Eight matchup would be a bloodbath.
So the road to the Final Four could definitely have come with more roadblocks than the one Villanova will face. The Wildcats were given the second-best chance of winning the title using the scientific methods of FiveThirtyEight , while they were also projected to reach the final using the less-than-scientific Barackatology.
Still, Villanova has to take care of business on the court, starting Thursday against #16 seed Lafayette. The Wildcats played the Leopards as recently as last season, defeating Lafayette 75-59 in the 2013-14 opener, despite shooting just 5-30 from three. Granted, that game was a full 16 months ago, but the only player of the 10 starters from that game no longer with the team is Villanova’s James Bell. The Wildcats have to be confident knowing they so easily handled Lafayette even on a night their vaunted perimeter shooting was off.
This year, the Leopards struggled to a .500 record in the Patriot League before ripping off a tournament run to earn the automatic bid. One area Lafayette excels is shooting the basketball, as their 48.8% field goal and 41.3% three-point shooting marks rank 8th and 2nd in the nation, respectively. Hoisting a ton of long range bombs is the prototypical, high variance strategy underdogs will often employ in this tournament and the Leopards are perfectly suited for it. 4 of their 5 starters shoot 39% or better from three, with 6’9″ senior Dan Trist the lone exception (and he leads the team at 17.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per game).
As you might expect, the other end of the floor is where the Leopards struggle. They are among the worst teams in the nation in both rebounding and opposing field goal percentage, allowing foes to shoot 45.6% from the field. Daniel Ochefu and JayVaughn Pinkston should meet with little resistance on the interior and come away with huge games, while someone like Josh Hart should have all the offensive rebounding opportunities his heart desires.
Ultimately, a #1 seed has never lost to a #16 seed and there’s no reason to think that will change today. Lafayette is a great shooting team, but Villanova has a full stable of great perimeter defenders to swarm shooters on the outside. The Wildcats should also clean up on the glass on both ends of the floor and be able to score at will (they’ve been known to have some big games shooting the long ball themselves). Look for Jay Wright’s squad to switch partners and continue dancing on Saturday against the winner of NC State and LSU.