By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)
#2 Villanova vs. #3 Miami
Thanks in large part to their best 20 minutes of play this season in the first half of a dominating win against Iowa, the Wildcats have finally put to rest the questions of whether they can advance out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Like with all things in sports though, the yardstick for success is an ever-advancing target. So the question now becomes: does this Villanova squad have what it takes to join its 1985 brethren as National Champions?
The first step to determining that answer comes Thursday night. This contest is where the Wildcats will first feel the effect of that loss to Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament Final. Rather than being the #1 seed in the East, and playing this week at their home-away-from-home, the Wells Fargo Center, Villanova had to travel down to Louisville and the road is considerably tougher.
This year’s Sweet 16 also marks the round where all non-ACC teams are required to defeat an ACC opponent to prove their worth in the basketball landscape. That’s not quite true, but it is pretty remarkable that 6 of the remaining 16 teams in the field hail from the Atlantic Coast Conference, including Villanova’s opponent Thursday, Miami.
After moderately stress-free opening tournament win against Buffalo, Miami played a bizarre game in their second-round win over Wichita State. Miami jumped all over the Shockers early on, leading by as many as 21 points, but they let Wichita State come all the way back. The Shockers actually briefing took a 43-42 lead with 10 minutes remaining, before the Hurricanes reasserted control down the stretch.
Like the Wildcats, the Hurricanes rely heavily on their backcourt to carry the load. Also like the Wildcats, those guards are an experienced group, as both 5’11” point guard Angel Rodriguez and 6’5″ Sheldon McClellan are looking to extend their senior seasons with each additional victory.
The team’s second-leading scorer (12.6 ppg) and leading distributor (4.4 apg), Rodriguez is the heart and soul of the Miami team. He’s really shined in this tournament, recording 24 points and 7 rebounds in the win over Buffalo, before dropping 28 points on 9-11 shooting against Wichita State. Rodriguez nailed 3 of his 4 attempts from downtown, chipped in 5 assists and 4 steals, and really put the team on his back when the Shockers looked to have all the momentum in the world following the big comeback.
While Angel Rodriguez is the typical collegiate floor talent, Sheldon McClellan is the NBA-ready talent. The senior is projected to go in the second-round of this June’s draft, and has all the physical tools to slide into any lineup down the road as a 3-and-D wing. McClellan leads the Hurricanes at 16.0 ppg, while shooting 49.9% from the field and 38.9% from three. He has remained steady in tournament play, scoring 20 and 18 points for Miami in the two wins.
Aside from the starting backcourt, Miami features plenty of long, athletic bodies and has some legitimate size down low with 7’0″ center Tonye Jekiri, who leads the team with 8.7 rpg. Given the similarities between Miami and Villanova, it’s really going to come down to which group executes and avoiding costly mistakes.
Fortunately for Jay Wright and company, if last weekend was any indication, the Wildcats are locked in from the perimeter and playing their best ball of the season. As 4-4.5 point favorites, look for Villanova to deny the Hurricanes their first-ever trip to the Elite Eight, and for the Wildcats to go face the winner of Kansas-Maryland.