The Villanova Wildcats were one of the most electrifying teams to watch this season, running the table in the Big East and showing a rabid will to win, regardless of opponent. However, to make them a lock for either a Final Four or even an Elite Eight is tough.
More often than not, Villanova has entered the tournament with a strong overall record only to stumble and suffer an early elimination. This year’s team is certainly better than the Wildcats’ squads of the last five seasons, but history speaks for itself. When push comes to shove, Villanova hasn’t exactly been a heavyweight in the big dance as of late.
Just the same, a No. 1 seed is a No. 1 seed, and Villanova certainly earned theirs this year. But, will they use it to their advantage and get over the hump that has dogged the program since 2010?
Let’s analyze them further and find out.
As was mentioned before, Villanova was un-freaking-believable this year. Using head coach Jay Wright’s guard-oriented offense, the Wildcats wrapped up the regular season with an overall record of 32-2 (16-2 Big East) and won their first Big East Tournament under Wright’s watch. Given that, plus the fact that the team was undefeated out of conference, it’s hard to justify not believing this team can go far in the tournament.
But we’re going to do that right now. Outside of conference play, the only big wins that Villanova had were against Virginia Commonwealth on November 24, and Michigan the following day, part of the Legends Classic Tournament that took place at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Given how the Wolverines didn’t even make the big dance this year, that really only leaves Villanova with one signature win.
Granted, when Villanova did win, their average margin of victory was just over 17 points per game, but it’s not like they were facing major competition in their own conference. As much a Big East fan that I am, the conference hasn’t exactly been a competition hotbed since Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh defected to the ACC, and the Catholic Seven broke away from what is now the American Athletic Conference to form the “new” Big East.
In fact, both of Villanova’s losses this year occurred in conference. One was an overtime stunner to the Seton Hall Pirates (16-15, 6-12 Big East) on January 3, which could be called a fluke if not for the fact that the Wildcats shot just 31 percent from the field and committed 15 turnovers. Sure, the Pirates shot just 35.5 percent, but the fact is that the game should have been a walk in the park for a superior program like Villanova.
The second loss was a 20-point blowout on January 19 at the hands of the Georgetown Hoyas (22-10, 12-6 Big East), a team that defined inconsistency all season long.
That all being said, while Villanova’s record certainly earned them a No. 1 seed this year, looking at them in the same way one would Kentucky or Wisconsin is hard due to their lack of true competition faced.
To give a better idea, undefeated Kentucky beat top programs like North Carolina, Louisville and Kansas before continuing to run the table in conference play. Wisconsin beat Georgetown and Oklahoma early in the season. Duke beat Wisconsin and Michigan State. Save for Villanova, every other No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament defeated an elite program with a long storied tournament history. As impressive as the Wildcats’ victory over VCU is, the Rams have really only been tournament regulars for a small handful of seasons under head coach Shaka Smart.
Thus, based on their season alone, Villanova has an uphill battle when it comes to going far in the tourney in 2015.
Head Coach Spotlight: Jay Wright
Since taking over at Villanova in 2001, Jay Wright has done a fine job of revamping the school’s basketball program. He has a record of 318-151 with the Wildcats, and his guard-oriented approach makes the team a perennial contender in both the Big East and the big dance.
Yet, the past five tournaments haven’t exactly been bright for Villanova. Despite an impressive overall regular season record of 140-60 in the years since making the Final Four in 2009, the Wildcats have only gotten as far as the Round of 32 when qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
I hate to say it, but this speaks to Wright’s recruiting ability. He is certainly good at it, as his 2006 squad featured two future NBA standouts in lights-out shooter Randy Foye and dynamic point guard Kyle Lowry, and that team probably would have advanced past the Elite Eight were it not for a red hot Florida Gators team that eventually went on to win it all.
But save for those two, Wright isn’t exactly known for coaching prime NBA talent, at least compared to coaches like John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski. Maybe it’s because he tends to focus his recruiting on the Eastern Seaboard instead of spreading himself nationwide as other college coaches do.
Moreover, the fact that his approach tends to focus on guards that can shoot (which we’ll get into later) and less on guards or forwards that can do it all makes for individuals that are good COLLEGE players, but lack the overall talent to make it on the professional level, with Lowry and Foye being exceptions and not the rule.
Don’t get me wrong. This year’s Villanova team certainly has the passion and drive to advance far into the tournament, but the program’s recent history makes it tough to pick them as a squad that does just that.
Team Leader: Darrun Hilliard II
To gain momentum on the court, a team needs plenty of it off the court. That’s where senior guard Darrun Hilliard II comes in.
Blessed with great size for a guard at 6’6″, 215 pounds, the young man from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania posted 14 points per game on 43 percent shooting, making 38 percent of his attempts from long range as well. His being a left-hander makes him hard to defend, and he shows a subdued passion on the court in a calm and collected attack. Together with sophomore Josh Hart (10.4 PPG, 51.5 FG%, 47 3P%), he is one half of the Wildcats’ two-headed monster on offense.
And Hilliard’s quality of leadership this tournament is going to be all about smart shot selection. He attempts 10.9 shots per game, 5.8 of which come from long range. Now that every game is win or go home, he and Hart (6.9 attempts per game, 3.2 from long range) would be wise to lead a more balanced attack rather than just put up a bunch of three-point attempts and hope for the best.
That isn’t at all a knock against Hilliard’s abilities. He is fantastic at what he does, and three-point shooting is one of his greatest strengths. But this is the tournament, and relying on quality long-range shooting won’t get you past a team that plays lockdown defense.
Hilliard needs to rally his teammates by playing the game they have played all season long, but knowing when to step back and slow down the action. If he can do that, then the Wildcats have a bright future in this year’s big dance.
X-Factor: Daniel Ochefu
As great as their offense was this season, ranking 23rd in the nation in scoring, rebounding is going to be the name of the game for Villanova if a successful tourney run is in the cards. It will be a tough task, as the team ranked 174th in the nation in rebounding and assuming they beat No. 16 Lafayette (which they almost definitely will), a matchup with either the North Carolina State Wolfpack or LSU Tigers could prove to be tough, as both teams ranked 31st and 12th in the country in rebounding, respectively.
Enter Daniel Ochefu, Villanova’s junior big man who checks in at 6’11”, 245 pounds. This season, he posted career bests in all major categories: 9.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game to go with a phenomenal field goal percentage of 65.
Granted, like most men his size, Ochefu is a bit slow on his feet. If matched up against a team that has more athletic and explosive big men, he’ll definitely struggle.
But one thing that Ochefu has that so many college big men lack is a strong low post game. He moves in that area excellently and with amazing poise, as though it’s just like riding a bicycle for him. He reads his opponents in the paint well and has an accurate eye for the basket, as his field goal percentage indicates.
Long story short, Villanova’s tournament life past the round of 64 depends on Ochefu’s effectiveness. Rebounding is this team’s weakest point, and his being its strongest rebounder means that he has to be twice as good as he was during the regular season as well as against the opposition’s big man, maybe even more.
Villanova certainly can run and score, and if the team can get its interior game together on the back of Ochefu, it will be just as electrifying during the tournament as it was during the regular season.
I bet that after reading this, you all probably think that I’m an anti-Villanova fan and thus one of their harshest critics. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In fact, I want this team to advance far in the tournament. I watched most of their games during the regular season, and watching them on the offensive attack is like ballet. Everything moves so fluidly, and it’s clear that Wright wants to get far in the tournament probably more than his players do.
And Wright certainly has the coaching ability to get this team back to a Final Four. Considering how he did just that in 2009 with Dante Cunningham, now an NBA role-player, as the best man on his squad, the man is beyond capable of turning a team that is average on paper into tournament gold.
But that all starts with the team’s defensive effort. They’ve shown that they can score, but won’t get far unless they can keep opposing team’s from doing so.
Hopefully, they can rally together and give the school some cause for celebration.
*Section Photo credit to Mitchell Leff, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports.