In 2009, Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats made their first trip to the Final Four since winning the National Championship in 1985, riding a red hot point guard named Scotty Reynolds. Villanova has been one of the best programs in the nation in subsequent years, but they have been marred by postseason struggles.
Entering the 2016 Tournament, Villanova had failed to reach the second weekend of the Big Dance since that Final Four trip in ’09. Despite a very impressive season, many were writing off the Wildcats, citing their inability to win when it counts. Well, those people are eating their words now, as Villanova has silenced its critics, reaching the 2016 Final Four as the South Region Champions. Here is a look at how they got here, and why they might be the ones cutting down the nets on April 4.
Def. 15-seed UNC Asheville 86-56
Villanova has been a slow-starting team for much of this season, and they allowed UNC Asheville to stay in this one for a little while. But the Wildcats were able to pull away big time in the second half en route to a 30-point opening game victory. It was a very balanced effort from Nova, but they were led by senior big man Daniel Ochefu, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks.
Def. 7-seed Iowa 87-68
Many were looking forward to a Villanova-Temple match-up here in the Second Round, but when Iowa knocked off the Owls at the buzzer, they moved on instead. As a Temple fan, I am glad they lost, because Iowa ran into a juggernaut in this game. Villanova went ahead early, and never looked back. They led 56-29 at halftime, putting it on cruise control in the second half, winning by 19 and finally getting back to the second weekend of the Tournament. They shot just under 60 percent from the field, including going 10-19 from 3-point range, and were led by 19 points from junior guard Josh Hart.
Def. 3-seed Miami 92-69
While the Wildcats had cruised to this point, many expected them to at least have some difficulties with a very good Miami team. That was not the case, as this was the moment that Villanova cemented itself as a legitimate National Championship contender. Nova was the better team from the tip-off, and they dominated from start to finish, winning by 23. If you thought their 59 percent from the field against Iowa was good, wait til you hear what they did in this game. Villanova shot over 62.5 percent (!!!!!) from the field, including an astounding 10-15 from behind the arc (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Miami didn’t stand a chance in this one.
Def. 1-seed Kansas 64-59
Villanova had been shooting the lights out to this point, but there were doubts about whether or not they could win a game in which they weren’t shooting well, especially against the #1 overall team in the field and the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing, the Kansas Jayhawks. The people doubting Villanova forgot just how tenacious they are on defense, as they held senior star Perry Ellis to just four points in a 64-59 victory, sending Nova back to the Final Four. Villanova shot just over 40 percent from the field in this one, and just 4-18 from 3-point range, but they got it done on the defensive end. Freshman Mikal Bridges had 5 steals, including a crucial one near the end of the game with Kansas looking to tie it up.
How They Got Here: Balance
In their first three games in this tournament, it was the offense and the impeccable shooting that was in the spotlight for the Wildcats. In the Elite Eight against Kansas, it was their smothering defense that got them the victory. You can look at a number of reasons why Villanova has made it this far, but it comes down to this: if they need to make shots to win, they can, and if they need to lock you down defensively to win, they still can. There aren’t many teams in college basketball this year that are capable of performing really well on both ends of the floor like Villanova can. KenPom has Villanova rated in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, one of only two teams that can boast that right now (Virginia is the other). This team is among the best in the nation on both ends of the floor, and they’ve showcased that during the first two weekends of this tournament.
Why They’ll be National Champions:
Top to bottom, I’d say the eye test would favor North Carolina as the favorite to win the National Championship, but if you look at all the factors, including (and most importantly in this case) the teams they’ve played so far, it’s hard not to choose Villanova as the favorite to cut down the nets in NRG Stadium. Not only have the Wildcats looked mighty impressive, but look at who they’ve beaten to get here. An Iowa team that was once ranked in the top-5 this season, a Miami team that was at the top of the ACC all year (a conference with two teams in the Final Four), and the undisputed Big 12 Champions, Kansas, who also entered their game with Nova riding a 17-game winning streak. They’ve proven that they belong here, and I have a hard time not pegging them the favorites. If they shoot the ball well, it’s hard to outscore them, and if they aren’t hitting their shots, a lot of times their defense is good enough to make sure you don’t hit yours either. They’ll cut down the nets because I believe that they are the best team in the Final Four.
Why They Won’t Win the Title:
Despite everything that I just said in that last blurb, I’d imagine that the last team Villanova fans wanted to see in the National Semifinals was Oklahoma. These two teams played a non-conference game back on December 7 at Pearl Harbor, with Oklahoma absolutely dominating the game, winning by 23 points (and it wasn’t that close). The Sooners made everything and the Wildcats made nothing. Now, this Villanova team is vastly different from the one that played in that game on December 7, and they won’t have to travel quite as far for this one, but if Oklahoma has another thing going for them, it’s Buddy Hield. Hield is proving why he should be the Player of the Year, and there might not be anything Villanova can do to keep him from willing Oklahoma to victory on Saturday.