If Villanova has difficulty shooting from three-point land, will it make an early exit in the NCAA tournament? (Elsa/Getty)
NEW YORK -- Realignment robbed the Big East of six of its best basketball schools, but on Thursday, its conference tournament still found a way to seize the national spotlight. The first Big East quarterfinal delivered the best buzzer-beater of championship week, the first upset of a No. 1 seed in a major-conference tourne, and the first result to alter the race for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Thanks to Seton Hall point guard Sterling Gibbs, who hit a step-back jumper to burn top-seeded Villanova as time expired, 64-63, the new Big East had its first signature moment at Madison Square Garden.
It was a thrilling finish, but a result that makes the Big East's regular-season champs even harder to assess. Villanova's resume, from certain angles, looks fantastic: The Wildcats are 28-4 and hadn't lost to a non-NCAA tournament-caliber team prior to Seton Hall. They rank 14th in adjusted offensive efficiency on kenpom.com and 15th in adjusted defense. That's a Final Four-caliber efficiency profile, and only three other teams (Florida, Wichita State and Louisville) rank in the top 20 in both categories. Villanova has most likely removed itself from consideration for a No. 1 seed, but is on solid footing for a No. 2.
Watch Sterling Gibbs hit the step-back game-winner
And yet, is the Wildcats' offensive model too volatile to win four, five or six straight in the NCAA tournament? They're the most three-point reliant of any of the projected Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in SI.com's latest bracket, attempting 44.6 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc:
|Three-Point Reliance of Projected Top-Two Seeds|
While Gibbs' shot was the shining moment from Thursday's upset, the way the eighth-seeded, 17-16 Pirates defended Villanova was more interesting. They held 'Nova to 4-of-19 shooting from beyond the arc, choosing to play single coverage against big men JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu in the post while refusing to help off of the Wildcats' long range shooters, and running them off the line when they did catch the ball. "You have to pick your poison," Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said, "and we decided to let [the bigs] go to work and try to take away the other guys' threes."
Villanova coach Jay Wright saw it mostly the same way. "They just gave us the inside game," he said. "They were smart, they said we're going to give [the shooters] lanes to the basket, but we're not gonna give them threes."
The result was a game in which:
• Villanova didn't get to attempt its typical volume of threes, taking 19 out of 58 shots (32.8%) from deep.
• The Wildcats went cold on the threes they did take, making just 21.1%, partly due to SHU's defense, partly due to bad luck on open looks.
• They couldn't capitalize on the inside, where the Pirates were so physical in their single coverage that they sent Pinkston to the line for 10 free throws ... and he made just three.
The Wildcats do have ways to compensate for when they go cold from three. Wright says they've been balanced enough to turn to Pinkston when deep shots aren't available, and Pinkston has typically delivered from the free-throw line, making 75.3 percent of his attempts. They also hope, as point guard Ryan Arcidiacono said, "that our defense can keep us in games when the shots aren't falling." Villanova had the Big East's second-most efficient defense this season, after St. John's, and it kept the Wildcats in a one-possession game. But it couldn't keep them from getting sent home early from New York.
The question now is whether Villanova can weather a cold streak in the NCAAs. The recent performance of tourney teams that take more than 42 percent of their shots as threes is not exactly reassuring:
|Three-Point Reliant Teams in NCAAs, past five seasons (3PA% of 42 or higher) |
|Tourney/Team||Seed||3PA%||Nat'l Rk.||NCAA Rd.|
|2009 Arizona St.||6||45.3||11||32|
|2009 Portland St.||13||44.8||15||64|
|2013 Iowa St.||10||43.8||8||32|
|2010 Oklahoma St.||7||42.2||19||64|
Can they defy the track record of that three-point club and stay hot enough for three weeks? Their long-range reliance suggests they're a risky pick.