- Can the Villanova Wildcats emerge from a challenging East region to keep alive their hopes of repeating as national champions?
State of the No. 1 seed
At least internally, Villanova should be feeling pretty good about itself. The Wildcats enter the tournament playing elite basketball, having just about barnstormed through the Big East yet again. Josh Hart is having his expected All-America season (18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists per game), Kris Jenkins is still a confident bomber (37.2% from three), and Jalen Brunson has emerged as a steady, difference-making point guard in his sophomore season (14.8 points, 4.5 assists per game, and 39.6% from three). No reigning champion has entered the NCAA tournament looking like such a threat to repeat since Florida in 2007, which pulled off the feat (and was also the No. 1 seed overall). That’s good, because considering the road ahead, the Wildcats will need every cylinder firing fully.
Upset watch: UNC Wilmington vs. Virginia
Eyes always beeline to the 5-12 game when eyeing potential upsets, and in the East that attention is warranted. Yes, Virginia enters the tournament with the nation’s most efficient defense and a top-10 overall ranking on Kenpom. But the Cavaliers can struggle offensively, and as Notre Dame showed in the ACC quarterfinals, a team that moves the ball well can find gaps in this iteration of the Pack Line. In UNC Wilmington, the Hoos have drawn a stylistically opposed opponent: the Seahawks push tempo where Virginia plods, and their defense often relies on full-court pressure. If Kevin Keatts’s squad can control the game’s flow and force turnovers to score before Virginia’s defense is fully set, the East may deliver the 5-12 not-quite-shocker we’ve all come to expect.
Toughest draw: Villanova
This is all relative, but considering Villanova was the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the committee sure set it up for a particularly hard path to Phoenix. Should the Wildcats get past either New Orleans or Mount St. Mary’s, they could then face a Wisconsin team ranked 23rd in overall efficiency on Kenpom, with an All-America caliber big man in Ethan Happ who could team with Nigel Hayes to give Villanova headaches inside. Awaiting the next weekend could be the region’s No. 4 seed, Florida, which ranks ninth nationally in the same efficiency metrics and boasts the country’s fourth-stingiest per-possession defense. And in the Elite Eight, the Wildcats would likely draw either Baylor, whose rugged frontline would present obvious matchup problems, or a loaded and hot Duke team that many thought may have played its way to a No. 1 seed of its own after beating Louisville (an eventual No. 2 seed), North Carolina (a No. 1), and Notre Dame (a No. 5) in consecutive days to win the ACC tournament. Villanova has coolly cruised through much of its post-championship season, but every step through the East will be arduous.
Player to watch: Johnathan Motley, Baylor
The Bears’ surprise rise to the top of the polls in January was made possible by the transformation of 6’ 10” junior forward Johnathan Motley from quality supporting player to capable leading man. Motley is a long, skilled big with the nation’s 23rd-best offensive rebounding rate who narrowly missed averaging a double-double (17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds per game) while playing in what many believe to be the best conference in the country. If Baylor is again to make a somewhat unexpected ascension from a region where much of the talk will center on Villanova and Duke, Motley will be a major reason why.
Most intriguing matchup: SMU vs. Baylor
We’re getting ahead of ourselves (but not too far ahead of ourselves; that’s for a few spots later), but should the Bears and Mustangs meet in the second round, it could be as rugged and bruising a battle as the mascots’ names suggest. The Lone Star State’s two best teams both play at a deliberate pace and dominate the offensive glass, but SMU does a better job rebounding defensively and is a much more dangerous team from outside, shooting a collective 40.6% from three, and play a position-less style (every starter is between 6’ 6” and 6’ 8”) that can flummox opponents. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Motley go against Semi Ojeleye?
Wild card: Virginia
At the risk of redundancy, the Cavaliers are a very difficult team to pin down. Their defense is stifling and frustrating and full of wrinkles and discipline that can give team fits, but when it slacks at all or their offense sputters, they can be extremely vulnerable. As understandable as it would be to see Virginia fall in its opener, one can also imagine Tony Bennett’s team smothering UNC-Wilmington into a halfcourt slog and then miring Florida in the same. And since this is a team that beat Louisville twice and just two weeks ago held North Carolina to its worst per-possession offensive performance of the season, Villanova would not be safe in that scenario either. If the Cavaliers survive the first round, they could stick around for a while.
Getting ahead of ourselves...
Bracket pool motivations aside, no one much likes rooting for chalk. But if the seeds hold in the East, we could get an absolute treat of a regional final between Villanova and Duke. Last season’s champion and this season’s preseason No. 1, meeting at Madison Square Garden with a trip to the Final Four on the line, just as both teams seem to be peaking into top form? Sign us up.
And the winner is...
Villanova. Again, this region sets up as a minefield. Should the Wildcats even make it to the Elite Eight, they may have to face an absolutely stacked Duke squad that is finally healthy and approaching its versatile, virtually limitless potential. But Jay Wright’s team will not be daunted. Last year it dispatched No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the South Region final, after being dogged by pre-tourney speculation whether, after a series of early exits, it would even be playing on the second weekend. The Wildcats have been there before and know how to do it. And they’ll do it again.