Villanova hasn't made the Sweet 16 since 2009, but statistics suggest they could make it back this season
NEW YORK — The past three seasons, Villanova has accumulated a 91–13 record, captured three consecutive regular-season Big East titles and earned two No. 2 seeds and a No. 1 in the NCAA tournament. By nearly any conventional standard, the Wildcats would be amid the best run in school history and be considered among the dominant programs in the sport.
But as No. 2 Villanova (29–5) prepares for its game against No. 15 UNC Asheville on Friday, the perception following the Wildcats is one of perennial disappointment. Villanova flopped hard the past two tournaments, losing to No. 7 Connecticut in 2014 and No. 8 North Carolina State last year. Both of those losses came during the Round of 32, the failures stigmatizing the program. "We get it," Wright told SI.com last week. "We all know college basketball. That's how your program gets defined."
Villanova enters this NCAA tournament cast as the quintessential boom-or-bust team. They are talented enough for a Final Four run, yet flawed enough to meet the same fate of the past two seasons. Choosing wisely on the Wildcats may hold the key to thousands of bracket.
Which Villanova team will show up? Will it be the one that dominated the Big East and whose worst loss was in overtime to Providence, another tournament team? Or will it be the one that has consistently underachieved when the lights shined brightest?
The case for Villanova flopping again became easier to make after Seton Hall edged the Wildcats in the Big East tournament final in New York on Saturday. A victory there could have clinched a No. 1 seed in the East and given the Wildcats home-court advantage in the Sweet 16. (Assuming, of course, they got that far). Philadelphia is the East Regional host site, and Wright said Villanova officials decided to avoid playing more than three home games in the Wells Fargo Center this year, where they typically play a handful of marquee games, in order to be eligible for that site in the postseason. Instead, Seton Hall sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead hit a leaning layup to give the Pirates a 69–67 win, ship Villanova to the south as a No. 2 seed and re-sow the seeds of doubt for the Wildcats.
Villanova hasn't reached the Sweet 16 since its Final Four run in 2009 and also got throttled by No. 10 St. Mary's, 75–68, as a No. 2 seed in the Round of 32 in 2010. (Villanova struggled against No. 15 Robert Morris that year as well.) Despite the March hiccups, the Wildcats have been among the country's most dominant programs. "Anyone who doesn't recognize what they've accomplished, you don't deserve to follow basketball," said Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli. "We judge everything on three weekends in March and that's not fair."
Much of Villanova's fate hangs on the health of senior forward Daniel Ochefu, a 6'10" post pillar. He grimaced and labored through three games in the Big East tournament, coming off the bench because of a sprained right ankle. Ochefu did not to make excuses, but he played like a shell of himself, struggling to move on the interior on post defense and looked rattled doing simple things like catching the ball. Wright sounded pessimistic when asked how Ochefu will respond to a few days of rest. "I really don't know," Wright said. "It's a nagging injury that he's had for, I don't know, man. He hasn't dunked a basketball in three or four games. It's something that every time he gets out there he tweaks it again."
There are certainly similarities to this Villanova team and its predecessors. The Wildcats are reliant on the three-point shot, as nearly 44% of their attempts come outside the arc. That percentage of three-pointers attempted ranks No. 24 nationally and leaves the Wildcats susceptible to poor shooting nights. In the two most recent upset tournament losses, the Wildcats shot just 33%, 20-of-59, from three-point range.
But this Villanova team flashes a new wrinkle. They play burly yet versatile 6'6" junior forward Kris Jenkins at power forward alongside three high-end guards—senior stalwart Ryan Arcidiacono (11.9), freshman talent Jalen Brunson (9.9) and All Big East first-team guard Josh Hart (15.5). Jenkins's versatility makes the Wildcats different because he gives them four true perimeter threats. Last year, Villanova played the more interior-oriented JayVaughn Pinkston at power forward, which allowed teams to sag to the middle on defense. Jenkins's outside threat (he's a 37.1% three-point shooter) creates enough space to allow Villanova to become one of the most efficient two-point shooting teams in the country. The Wildcats hit 56.4% of their two-point attempts, the sixth-best clip in the country and more than three percent higher than last season. (They are also No. 3 in free-throw percentage, always a key in March). "I think we have a little better balance in terms of inside-outside game," Wright said. "It's just better balance. Last year, we were more perimeter-oriented."
The most important thing Villanova has going for it may be a favorable draw. If the Wildcats get past Asheville, they'll face the winner of No. 10 Temple and No. 7 Iowa. The Wildcats blew out Temple, 83–67, in mid-February, and the Hawkeyes are sputtering into the NCAAs having lost five of six.
But the best case for Villanova making a deep run this year may be the hardest to quantify. Villanova carries with it the scars from those two early exits, as two-year dark cloud that's hovered over the program and served as a caveat to all their regular season success. The collective resiliency built from those painful losses may serve Villanova better than any scheme or set play. "I believe what they've gone through the last several years has made them a team with great resolve and grit," said Penn coach Steve Donahue. "They are a great defensive team that doesn't have to rely on outscoring opponents. They are a veteran team that I believe will be in the Final Four."
History says to be wary of the Wildcats, who have dominated water-down leagues only to flinch under the bright lights. Empirical evidence from this season indicates Villanova's fate could change. "Because of what happened," Martelli said, "I think the mindset of this team is fierce. In a game, if they get a hiccup, they just keep going. If they get a hiccup in the second game, they're going to keep going."