Villanova junior guard Mikal Bridges drives to the basket against Creighton senior guard Marcus Foster in a Big East conference game.
(Nati Harnik/The Associated Press)
Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Michigan (33-7 overall, 13-5 conference)
Junior forward Moritz Wagner (14.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1 SPG, .528 FG%, .397 3P%)
Junior guard Charles Matthews (13.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 2.4 APG, .499 FG%)
Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (12.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.3 APG, .425 FG%, .378 3P%)
Senior guard/forward Duncan Robinson (9.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.1 APG, .445 FG%, .390 3P%, .891FT%)
Sophomore guard Zavier Simpson (7.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.3 SPG, .466 FG%)
Freshman guard Jordan Poole (6.1 PPG, 1.4 RPG, .435 FG%, .377 3P%, .824 FT%)
Summary of Season:
The Michigan Wolverines went 7-3 to start the season, only losing to LSU at the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, #13 North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and Ohio State on the road. The Wolverines then went on a seven-game winning streak, taking down UCLA in overtime and Texas in a single-digit victory. After a one-point loss versus #5 Purdue, Michigan rebounded to beat #4 Michigan State by 10 on the road. Michigan would win four of it’s next seven games, squeaking past Minnesota by three in a game that needed overtime. Following that stretch of games, the Wolverines closed out the regular season undefeated with a big win over #8 Ohio State. Michigan continued their winning streak in the Big Ten conference tournament, winning four straight games, which included a decisive championship final win against #8 Purdue, who had beaten them twice during the regular season. The Wolverines opened up NCAA tournament play with a double-digit victory against 14 seed Montana and then won on a buzzer-beater by freshman Jordan Poole against six seed Houston in the second round. Michigan easily took down seven seed Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, but had to battle for a four-point win versus 9 seed Florida State to reach the Final Four. Up against the Cinderella team of the tournament, the 11 seed Loyola (Chi) Ramblers, the Wolverines ended the Ramblers historic run with a double-digit win to advance on to the NCAA tournament championship game.
Villanova (35-4 overall, 14-4 conference)
Junior guard Jalen Brunson (19.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, .527 FG%, .413 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges (17.6 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.5 SPG, .512 FG%, .435 3P%, .848 FT%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (13 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, .473 FG%, .390 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth (10.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3 APG, .444 FG%, .387 3P%)
Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman (10.9 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.5 BPG, .479 FG%, .439 3P%)
Redshirt junior Eric Paschall (10.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.2 APG, .536 FG%, .357 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Villanova Wildcats began the season on a 13-game win streak, putting together a perfect non-conference record. After defeating DePaul in their first conference game of the year, the Wildcats lost on the road against Butler, who beat them twice last season. ‘Nova rebounded thereafter winning nine straight games, including a win versus #10 Xavier. However, in their next six games, ‘Nova would go 3-3, losing three games by single digits against St. John’s, Providence, and Creighton. Ahead of the Big East tournament, the Wildcats won in overtime against Seton Hall by one point and also defeated Georgetown. After getting through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the conference tournament, ‘Nova battled against Providence and punched their NCAA tournament ticket with an overtime victory. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats easily beat 16 seed Radford to advance on to the second round. Following their opening round win, the Wildcats handedly took down nine seed Alabama to move on to the Sweet 16. In the Sweet 16, ‘Nova was tested by five seed West Virginia but escaped with a dominant late second half effort to advance onto the Elite Eight. The Elite Eight saw Villanova and three seed Texas Tech shoot poorly from the field but the Wildcats were able to score enough from the foul line to return to the Final Four for the second time in three years. ’Nova cruised past one seed Kansas hitting 18 threes, a Final Four record, to move on to the National Championship.
What Villanova must do to win:
Villanova has done well throughout the NCAA tournament using the pick and roll on offense. With ‘Nova’s talented backcourt setting up the offensive play, the Wildcats have been able to efficiently convert on offense, as its .590 two-point field goal percentage ranks third in the country. The pick and roll has also allowed freshman big Omari Spellman to flourish in ‘Nova’s system. Spellman ranked 5th in the Big East in offense rating at 123 and 7th in the Big East in overall box plus/minus at 8.7. ‘Nova will need to play through Spellman on offense against Michigan as the big can knock down a faceup jumper, catch-and-shoot threes, and can finish around the basket. Spellman has consistently scored (12.2 ppg in NCAA tournament) and will need to do so again against Michigan. ‘Nova must watch out for Michigan forward Moritz Wagner. Wagner has been a dominant force for the Wolverines this season, especially during the NCAA tournament, where he has scored in double-figures in four out of five games. The Wildcats must limit the Germany native by keeping a defender on him at all times, as the big likes to hang around the paint for putbacks and alley-oops.
What Michigan must do to win:
The Michigan Wolverines will have to do what Villanova’s previous tournament opponents have been unable to do: slow down the Wildcats’ offense. ‘Nova is ranked first in the country in points per game, made field goals, and three-pointers. Michigan should be up for the challenge as it has held opponents to an average of 62.9 points per game, which is 8th in the country. Additionally, Michigan in the NCAA tournament alone has held opponents to less than 63 points in four out of five contests. If there was a team that could possibly slow down ‘Nova, it would be Michigan. The Wolverines must also convert from behind the arc if they want to defeat the Wildcats. Although Michigan only shot well from three in one tournament game (14-24 3PM-A) against Texas A&M in the Sweet 16, Michigan is shooting 36% from three on the year. Taking and making threes in the National Championship will be important for Michigan in keeping up with ‘Nova and staying in the game down the stretch. Moreover, forward Moritz Wagner will need to be at his best in the National Championship for Michigan to have a chance versus ‘Nova. Though Wagner will not be able to beat ‘Nova on his own, it will take a total team effort from the Wolverines to take down ‘Nova. Wagner’s length, size, and multifaceted offensive and defensive game makes him a scary matchup for the Wildcats.
Mikal Bridges vs. Charles Matthews
Mikal Bridges enters the NCAA tournament final as the most talented two-way player on either team. His versatility and ability to cover multiple different positions makes him a scary option against Michigan. His size and length matches perfectly with Charles Matthews, which bodes well for the Wildcats. Matthews has been on a tear throughout the NCAA tournament, averaging 16.6 points per game and making 5 or more field goals in each game. Bridges needs to slow down Matthews if the Wildcats’ want any chance at winning the game. Bridges has also seen his role decrease slightly amidst the Wildcats’ success throughout the NCAA tournament. After 13 straight games to end the regular season with 10 or more shot attempts, he has only taken 10 or more shot attempts in 3 out of the 5 tournament games. While the Wildcats have been winning, if Matthews can neutralize Bridges and have him struggle from three, the Wildcats will be missing a big part of their offensive gameplan.
Phil Booth and Zavier Simpson
Phil Booth and Zavier Simpson enter the x-factors list as a likely matchup. Booth, the junior guard, is a huge part of the Villanova gameplan on the offensive end, despite not always showing up in the statsheet. He provides Brunson with ball-handling help in the backcourt and can shoot the three at a 38% clip. Booth can also play in pick-and-roll situations, exploiting the defense and creating mismatches. Even though Michigan is a versatile defensive team, Booth has the potential to be a dynamic offensive playmaker while also containing the other x-factor on defense, Michigan’s Simpson. Simpson had his best scoring stretch of the season during the Big Ten tournament when he had four straight games with double-digit points. Simpson’s problem revolves around shooting. He only made 29% of his three-point attempts and 51% of his free throws during the season. With that said, he is head coach John Beilein’s favorite of the point guard options as he takes care of the ball, averaging only 1.45 turnovers per game, while creating opportunities for his teammates with 3.7 assists per game. Taking him out of the equation and making him uncomfortable would give the Wildcats a big advantage and would put pressure on the younger less experienced point guards of the Wolverine roster.
In a low scoring affair, both teams lock up on defense to slow each other down. The Wolverines have enough to keep up with a big man talented enough to check Spellman and length and experience across the roster. Their versatility gives them the opportunity to switch in ball screen situations with relative ease. The Wildcats will have trouble scoring, but in the end, they’re the more talented team. They’ll outlast Michigan in a physical battle between two of the most well-rounded teams in the country.
Villanova junior guard Jalen Brunson dribbles past West Virginia sophomore guard James Bolden in the Sweet 16 of the 2018 NCAA tournament.
(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Kansas (31-7 overall, 13-5 conference)
Senior guard Devonte’ Graham (17.2 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 7.3 APG, 1.6 SPG, .396 FG%, .403 3P%, .830 FT%)
Senior guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (14.7 PPG, 4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, .438 FG%, .447 3P%)
Sophomore center Udoka Azubuike (13.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.8 BPG, .772 FG%, 1.7 BPG)
Redshirt sophomore guard Malik Newman (14 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, .464 FG%, .415 3P%, .832 FT%)
Junior guard Lagerald Vick (12.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 2.2 APG, .487 FG%)
Summary of Season:
The Kansas Jayhawks competed in several early season showcases and got off to a fast start winning seven straight games to begin the season. The stretch included a defeat over #7 Kentucky during the State Farm Champions Classic in mid-November. Kansas then suffered back-to-back double-digit losses to Washington and #16 Arizona State before going 9-1 in their next 10 contests, only coming up short against #18 Texas Tech. During that stretch however, the Jayhawks defeated two ranked teams (#16 TCU and #6 West Virginia). Kansas would double their loss total to six over their next six games, losing to #12 Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor. Despite those losses, the Jayhawks had a 5-1 record over a six-game span to end the season. Entering this year’s Big 12 conference tournament as the #1 seed, Kansas got revenge against Oklahoma State, who beat them twice during the regular season, by defeating them in the quarterfinals. Kansas would go on to win the Big 12 tournament, taking down Kansas State in the semifinals and then West Virginia in the finals to earn an automatic NCAA tournament bid. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, Kansas took down 16 seed Penn to start their tournament run and then defeated eight seed Seton Hall in the second round. The Jayhawks followed up the first weekend with a defeat over five seed Clemson in the Sweet 16 before taking down two seed Duke in an overtime victory in the Elite Eight to clinch a berth in the Final Four.
Villanova (34-4 overall, 14-4 conference)
Junior guard Jalen Brunson (19.2 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.6 APG, .527 FG%, .414 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges (17.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.5 SPG, .512 FG%, .436 3P%, .848 FT%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (12.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, .470 FG%, .385 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth (10.3 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, .444 FG%, .390 3P%)
Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman (10.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.5 BPG, .482 FG%, .446 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Villanova Wildcats began the season on a 13-game win streak, putting together a perfect non-conference record. After defeating DePaul in their first conference game of the year, the Wildcats lost on the road against Butler, who beat them twice last season. ‘Nova rebounded thereafter winning nine straight games, including a win versus #10 Xavier. However, in their next six games, ‘Nova would go 3-3, losing three games by single digits against St. John’s, Providence, and Creighton. Ahead of the Big East tournament, the Wildcats won in overtime against Seton Hall by one point and also defeated Georgetown. After getting through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the conference tournament, ‘Nova battled against Providence and punched their NCAA tournament ticket with an overtime victory. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats easily beat 16 seed Radford to advance on to the second round. Following their opening round win, the Wildcats handedly took down nine seed Alabama to move on to the Sweet 16. In the Sweet 16, ‘Nova was tested by five seed West Virginia but escaped with a dominant late second half effort to advance onto the Elite Eight. The Elite Eight saw Villanova and three seed Texas Tech shoot poorly from the field but the Wildcats were able to score enough from the foul line to return to the Final Four for the second time in three years.
What Villanova must do to win:
33.3%. That was Villanova’s field goal percentage in a win against Texas Tech in the Elite Eight. 16.7%. That was ‘Nova’s three-point shooting percentage in the Elite Eight. Every team has an off day, it happens, but if ‘Nova wants to win against Kansas in the Final Four they cannot perform like they did against Texas Tech. Entering their contest against Kansas, the Wildcats are shooting 50% from field (sixth in the nation) and 40% from three (19th in the nation). The Wildcats have showed all year that they are one of the best shooting teams in the country and they must bounce back and prove that again versus the Jayhawks. ‘Nova also has to get to the foul line, where they are eighth in the country with a 78% free-throw percentage. Converting from the foul line saved the Wildcats in the Elite Eight and will be just as important in the Final Four as scoring opportunities will be at a premium.
What Kansas must do to win:
Kansas can’t turn the ball over. Granted, they usually don’t, but if they do, Villanova will eat up the Jayhawks. Bill Self’s squad dodged a bullet against a potent offensive Duke team, as they totaled 18 turnovers, their highest mark since the first game of the season. Even though the Jayhawks have rolled to the Final Four, they won’t be able to continue winning without taking care of the ball. Those turnover numbers have been on an upward trend. After only eight turnovers against Penn and 11 against Seton Hall, they’ve seen their turnover numbers jump up to 13 and 18 in the following two games against Clemson and Duke. They ranked first in the Big 12 after notching only 207 turnovers, 11.5 per game, during the conference season. Taking care of the ball has been an integral part of the team’s identity and they’ll have to do the same against Villanova, who averages nearly seven steals per game. More importantly, the Wildcats are the top scoring team in the country and the other team’s turnovers just give them more opportunities to score, something the Jayhawks don’t want.
Udoka Azubuike vs. Villanova defense
At 7-feet, 280 pounds, Kansas center Udoka Azubuike is a tough matchup for any opponent, let alone one defender. Azubuike’s size and strength make him a force to be reckoned with on offense and defense. When the big man is fully healthy, he is almost impossible to stop. While Villanova will likely give freshman forward Omari Spellman (6-foot-9, 245 pounds) the task of guarding Azubuike, it will be up to the entire Wildcat defense to slow down the center. Despite Azubuike’s size advantage over Spellman, the redshirt freshman should be able to disrupt the Kansas big man by forcing him off his spot in the paint and making him catch entry passes away from the low block. Spellman will not be alone in trying to stop Azubuike, as Villanova will need their entire team to limit the Nigeria native. ‘Nova will have to give Azubuike different looks on defense and double-team him if necessary to get the ball out of his hands.
Eric Paschall and Malik Newman
Eric Paschall has been Villanova’s swiss army knife this season as the forward has done a little bit of everything for the Wildcats. Paschall has scored, rebounded, and done the dirty work on defense for ‘Nova and that has been on full display during the NCAA tournament. Leading up to the Final Four, the 2014 Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year scored in double-digits in three out of four tournament games, grabbed five or more rebounds in three games, and has matched up against opponents’ 4s and 5s while limiting their offensive production. With ‘Nova set to face a Kansas team that has elite size, athleticism, and talent at almost every position, not only will it be important for Paschall to contribute on offense but it will be essential for him to slow down his defensive assignment and bang down in the paint for boards.
Malik Newman scored a career-high 32 points against Duke in the Elite Eight to help Kansas get to the Final Four. Coming into the NCAA tournament, Newman was on fire, as he exploded in the Big 12 tournament, leading the Jayhawks in scoring in all three conference tournament games. Newman has carried that over into the NCAA tournament averaging 21.8 points and leading Kansas in scoring in three out of four tournament games. While many thought it would be star Devonte’ Graham who would guide Kansas this postseason, it has been Newman who has stepped up. The Jackson, Mississippi native can score from all three levels, which makes him a nightmare for opposing defenders, and has superior athleticism that allows him to pick opponents’ pockets on defense. Newman has shown that he can take over under the brightest lights and in the biggest games, making the sophomore scary in San Antonio.
In a great game, the Wildcats tough out a close one. The much anticipated matchup between Jalen Brunson and Devonte’ Graham lives up to expectations, but the Wildcats are too versatile for the Jayhawks. Although Bill Self’s team is a solid defensive squad, they’re not nearly strong enough to slow down the Wildcats, the nation’s top offensive squad. Villanova gets out to an early lead, but Kansas claws their way back. In the end, Brunson wins the battle with Graham, Spellman gets the best of his matchup with Azubuike, and carries the Wildcats to the NCAA championship game again.
Villanova junior guard Jalen Brunson and redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges embrace during a regular season contest.
(USA Today Images)
Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Texas Tech (27-9 overall, 11-7 conference)
Senior guard Keenan Evans (17.7 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.2 APG, .480 FG%)
Freshman guard Zhaire Smith (11.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.1 BPG, 1.1 SPG, .561 FG%, .447 3P%)
Freshman guard Jarrett Culver (11.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.1 SPG, .461 FG%, .394 3P%)
Senior guard Niem Stevenson (7.5 PPG, 3 RPG, .393 FG%, .395 3P%)
Senior forward Zach Smith (6.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1 BPG, .592 FG%)
Summary of Season:
The Texas Tech Red Raiders started the 2017-18 season 14-1, defeating four nationally ranked teams (#20 Northwestern, #22 Nevada, #18 Baylor, and #10 Kansas) along the way. Texas Tech then ran into #9 Oklahoma and potential NBA lottery pick freshman guard Trae Young, who scored 27 points and dished out 10 assists, in a 10-point win. The Red Raiders did not stay down for long as they rebounded against #2 West Virginia in a one-point win. After back-to-back road losses against Texas and Iowa State, Texas Tech went on a seven-game winning streak, which included a revenge victory over #23 Oklahoma. Following that win streak, the Red Raiders lost four straight games with two losses coming against #8 Kansas and #20 West Virginia, before ending the regular season on a high note against TCU. Texas Tech got through the quarterfinals of the Big 12 conference tournament and beat Texas, but came up three points short in the semifinals contest versus West Virginia. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Red Raiders beat 14 seed Stephen F. Austin and then won by three points against six seed Florida in the second round. Texas Tech took down two seed Purdue in the Sweet 16 to clinch an Elite Eight berth.
Villanova (33-4 overall, 14-4 conference)
Junior guard Jalen Brunson (19.3 PPG, 3 RPG, 4.6 APG, .535 FG%, .423 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges (18 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.5 SPG, .517 FG%, .446 3P%, .848 FT%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (12.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.1 SPG, .474 FG%, .392 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth (10.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, .447 FG%, .391 3P%)
Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman (10.8 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.5 BPG, .480 FG%, .444 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Villanova Wildcats began the season on a 13-game win streak, putting together a perfect non-conference record. After defeating DePaul in their first conference game of the year, the Wildcats lost on the road against Butler, who beat them twice last season. ‘Nova rebounded thereafter winning nine straight games, including a win versus #10 Xavier. However, in their next six games, ‘Nova would go 3-3, losing three games by single digits against St. John’s, Providence, and Creighton. Ahead of the Big East tournament, the Wildcats won in overtime against Seton Hall by one point and also defeated Georgetown. After getting through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the conference tournament, ‘Nova battled against Providence and punched their NCAA tournament ticket with an overtime victory. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats easily beat 16 seed Radford to advance on to the second round. Following their opening round win, the Wildcats handedly took down nine seed Alabama to move on to the Sweet 16. In the Sweet 16, ‘Nova was tested by five seed West Virginia but escaped with a dominant late second half effort to advance onto the Elite Eight.
What Villanova must do to win:
Villanova has proved that their ranking as the nation’s leader in made three-point field goals is no coincidence. The Wildcats have made 44 three-pointers so far in this year’s tournament and they’re getting that production from multiple players. Five ‘Nova players have hit five or more threes in the tournament so far and those players have accounted for 88.6% of their made threes. Villanova must do what they’ve been able to do all season -- consistently hit threes. This will be especially important against Texas Tech, who holds their opponents to 32.8% from three (62nd in the country). At the same time, the Red Raiders are ranked 223rd for the number of total three-pointers they have allowed on the season. ‘Nova should be able to take advantage of that but will have to be careful they don’t get sucked into too many threes. At times, the Wildcats struggled to find the bottom of the basket and put together empty offensive possessions against West Virginia in the Sweet 16, which made them fall behind. If ‘Nova wants to return to the Final Four for the first time since they won the National Championship two years ago, the Wildcats must avoid long scoring droughts versus Texas Tech and make the most of every offensive possession. ‘Nova must also watch out for Texas Tech’s leading scorer Keenan Evans. Evans scored 20-plus points in Texas Tech’s first two NCAA tournament games and scored 16 points against two seed Purdue in the Sweet 16. Limiting Evans’ drives to the hoop and ability to get to the line (234 free throw attempts on the season, second best in Big 12), will be a major component of holding the All-Big 12 First Team selection.
What Texas Tech must do to win:
Keenan Evans must play well. There is no way that the Raiders can pull off the upset without Evans playing like a superstar. Evans, however, injured his toe during a mid-February game against Baylor, causing him to prematurely leave the game and hampering the latter part of his season. He struggled to play through it, resulting in a four-game skid that lasted until Evan’s 23-point performance right before postseason play in a win against TCU. Following his injury, the Red Raiders struggled to close out the regular season, but Evans hasn’t let that affect him or his teammates. He erupted for back-to-back 20-point games to open the NCAA tournament, leading Texas Tech to two close victories over SF Austin and Florida. If the Red Raiders want to continue their magic, they’re going to need Evans. Without him, as his injury results have shown, the team has faltered. Against one of the best teams in the country, Evans’ strong play is practically a necessity.
Villanova defense vs. Texas Tech offense
The obvious matchup is Villanova’s offense versus Texas Tech’s defense. However, what will be more interesting is how ‘Nova’s defense will be able to keep the Red Raiders’ offense from having success. If Villanova does that, they’ll win, as Texas Tech’s defense can only take them so far. At a certain point, the Red Raiders will need their offense to produce. ‘Nova’s counter: Mikal Bridges. The former Big East Defensive Player of the Year will need to bother Texas Tech’s star Keenan Evans with his length, athleticism, and IQ. Likewise, the Villanova team defense will have to key in on helping out on Evans and making sure that guards Zhaire Smith, Jarrett Culver, and Niem Stevenson, are disturbed in their supporting roles of Evans. Even more, three of Texas Tech’s top five scorers shoot above 39% from three. The Raiders are not a poor three-point shooting team, despite what the team averages may say, and they provide a strong complement to Evans’ strong slashing ability.
Phil Booth and Zach Smith
Villanova guard Phil Booth returned this season after sitting out most of last season due to a left knee injury. However, 20 games into this year’s campaign, he suffered a broken right hand, missing seven more games. Despite his various injuries, Booth has found a way to make an impact for Villanova as a scorer, distributor, and veteran presence. In the quarterfinals and semifinals of the Big East tournament, Booth scored in double-digits in both contests, stepping up when ‘Nova needed him most under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Booth’s leadership was evident in those two games and that was just the beginning, as he has helped Villanova in the NCAA tournament. In three NCAA tournament games, Booth is averaging 6.6 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. While his stat line does not jump off the page, Booth has provided the Wildcats with a veteran leader, who has shown that he can do it all, whether it is scoring, rebounding, or distributing. Texas Tech will probably focus a lot of their attention on star point guard Jalen Brunson or scoring wing Donte DiVincenzo, which will likely allow Booth opportunities to affect the game.
Zach Smith has been a major part of Texas Tech’s success throughout the NCAA tournament and did so most recently on the biggest stage. The Plano, Texas native had his best game since returning from injury when it mattered most, against two seed Purdue in the Sweet 16, as he scored 14 points (7-10 FGM-A) and grabbed 4 boards to help Texas Tech win. Like Villanova’s guard Phil Booth, Smith got hurt (broke his foot) midway through the season and missed a significant amount of time (11 games). Smith returned from his injury in late February and worked his way back into the rotation. Before Smith’s injury, he was a starter for the Red Raiders, but once he came back, he was moved to the bench, where he has provided a spark during the NCAA tournament. Smith is averaging 9.6 points, 4 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks, while shooting 76.4% from the field in the first three rounds of the tournament. Smith could cause Villanova some problems with his energy and production in the second unit since the Wildcats only rotate three to four players off the bench.
Texas Tech keeps this game game close, but, in the end, don’t have enough to keep up with the Wildcats. Villanova pulls away late, but Texas Tech’s tough defense gives the Wildcats some troubles to begin the game. But just like against West Virginia, the Wildcats are too versatile, too experienced, and too discipline to lose to a team dependent largely on its defense. The Wildcats’ defense will come alive as the game wears on and Mikal Bridges will make Keenan Evans earn every single point. Villanova escapes in an ugly win to advance to the Final Four.
Villanova redshirt junior forward Eric Paschall dunks the ball in a game at The Pavilion.
(USA Today Images)
Benjamin Simon and William Derry
West Virginia (26-10 overall, 11-7 conference)
Senior guard Jevon Carter (17.4 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 6.6 APG, 3 SPG, .426 FG%, .398 FG%, .857 FT%)
Senior Guard Daxter Miles Jr. (12.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.3 SPG, .446 FG%, .343 3P%)
Sophomore forward Sagaba Konate (10.8 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 3.2 BPG, .505 FG%)
Junior forward Esa Ahmad (10.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2 APG, .444 FG%)
Sophomore forward Lamont West 9.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG, .420 FG%, .348 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The West Virginia Mountaineers only lost one game in their first 16 contests to start the season. That loss came in their first outing of the year against #25 Texas A&M in the Armed Forces Classic at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. After the 15-1 start, the Mountaineers would then lose five of their next six games, which included back-to-back single-digit losses against #8 Texas Tech and #10 Kansas. In the heart of their Big 12 conference schedule, West Virginia went 3-2 with a two-point win against #17 Oklahoma despite potential NBA lottery pick Trae Young scoring 32 points. West Virginia went 3-1 in their last four games of the regular season and avenged their loss to #12 Texas Tech, who had beat them by one-point earlier in the season. The Mountaineers advanced to the Big 12 conference final to face #9 Kansas after defeating Baylor and #14 Texas Tech, but came up short. West Virginia received a 5 seed in the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday and beat 12 seed Murray State in the opening round. The Mountaineers then faced 13 seed Marshall in the second round, who had upset 4 seed Wichita State, and defeated the Thundering Herd by 23 points to advance to the Sweet 16.
Villanova (32-4 overall, 14-4 conference)
Junior guard Jalen Brunson (19.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, .535 FG%, .420 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges (18 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.6 SPG, .517 FG%, .442 3P%, .849 FT%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (13.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, .470 FG%, .391 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth (10.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.9 APG, .455 FG%, .394 3P%)
Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman (10.6 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.4 BPG, .478 FG%, .438 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Villanova Wildcats began the season on a 13-game win streak, putting together a perfect non-conference record. After defeating DePaul in their first conference game of the year, the Wildcats lost on the road against Butler, who beat them twice last season. ‘Nova rebounded thereafter winning nine straight games, including a win versus #10 Xavier. However, in their next six games, ‘Nova would go 3-3, losing three games by single digits against St. John’s, Providence, and Creighton. Ahead of the Big East tournament, the Wildcats won in overtime against Seton Hall by one point and also defeated Georgetown. After getting through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the conference tournament, ‘Nova battled against Providence and punched their NCAA tournament ticket with an overtime victory. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats easily beat 16 seed Radford to advance on to the second round. Following their opening round win, the Wildcats handedly took down 9 seed Alabama to move on to the Sweet 16.
What Villanova must do to win:
Villanova has made 31 three-pointers and shot about 46% from three so far in this year’s NCAA tournament. The Wildcats have often relied on their three-point shooting to help them win throughout the season and they will need to continue to convert from behind the arc if they want to advance on to the Elite Eight. With Villanova facing West Virginia, a team known for their full-court press, ‘Nova will also need to limit their turnovers bringing the ball up the court and be wary of the shot clock. Villanova and West Virginia both committed 20-plus fouls in their previous NCAA tournament games, so staying out of foul trouble and knocking down free throws will be another important factor for ‘Nova to win. ‘Nova will need to keep an eye on Jevon Carter, West Virginia’s leading scorer. Carter does it all for the Mountaineers on offense and defense, as he’s filled up the stat sheet averaging 24.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 5.5 steals in their two tournaments contests. ‘Nova has to slow down Carter by giving him different defensive looks and forcing him into tough contested shots.
What West Virginia must do to win:
West Virginia must do what most teams can’t do: faze Villanova. That’s going to start on the defensive end. From 2007 to 2012, the two teams had played each other six times. Villanova’s turnovers per game were only slightly higher than their average over the span (14.3 against WVU versus the 13.4 average) and they split the six games during that span. This season, the Mountaineers forced the third most turnovers in the entire country, but the Wildcats also led the Big East (54th in the nation as well) in lowest amount of offensive turnovers per game. Both teams are experienced and led by star point guards. The game will also be decided by who, Carter or Brunson, is able to dictate the tempo and flow of the contest. Additionally, the Mountaineers are only one of three teams to defeat the top ranked Virginia Cavaliers. The Cavaliers, who averaged a mere 8.5 turnovers per game and totaled the lowest amount of turnovers in the nation (290), were forced into 14 turnovers by the stingy West Virginia defense. If Villanova is affected like Virginia was by West Virginia’s aggressive defensive attack, the Mountaineers will be looking at an Elite Eight appearance.
Eric Paschall vs. West Virginia Frontcourt
The Mountaineers are big and the Wildcats’ frontcourt could have some trouble defending their larger offensive attack. West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins starts three players at 6-foot-8 with Esa Ahmad, Sagaba Konate, and Wesley Harris. Even more, one of the first people off the bench is 6-foot-8 Lamont West (who has also started 20 games). The Wildcats will have their hands full in that department. Eric Paschall will play an integral role in their ability to shut down the Mountaineers’ attack. Even though Omari Spellman will be the biggest player on the court, WVU’s height means that Paschall, at 6-foot-6, will have to play up. On offense, he will need to put the Mountaineer bigs into mismatches, while providing an extra ball handler against their press. Defensively, Paschall has to hold his own and help out the younger Spellman against Huggins’ talented frontcourt.
Donte DiVincenzo and Lamont West
Though Donte DiVincenzo has only started 10 games for the Wildcats this year, the Delaware native has played starter minutes and put up starter stats. DiVincenzo is averaging 29.4 minutes, 13.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.2 steals. The redshirt sophomore had a modest showing in ‘Nova’s opening round win against Radford, scoring 7 points, grabbing 4 boards, and dishing out 8 assists. In the Wildcats’ win against Alabama, Divincenzo showed what he can really do when he’s on his game, scoring 18 points (5-11 3PM-A) and notching 5 assists. With two different performances to start the NCAA tournament, look for DiVincenzo to find a balance in his game and have his best outing yet against West Virginia. He’s an instant offensive spark for Villanova head coach Jay Wright and his ability to score in bunches will be important against WVU’s stifling defense. The Wildcats will also need his athleticism against the big and long frontcourt of West Virginia.
When the Mountaineers were playing their best basketball of the year so was Lamont West. The 6-foot-8 forward from Cincinnati averaged 13.2 points per game and 5.5 rebounds over their 15-game win streak (sat out one game during the stretch however) at the beginning of the year. Since then, his averages have dipped to a total average of 9.5 points per game and 3.9 rebounds. West especially struggled in postseason play when he dropped three straight 0 point games against Texas Tech, Kansas, and Murray State. However, West returned to his earlier season form against Marshall, securing his first career double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. West can light it up and West Virginia will need him to play well if they want to win against one of the country’s most discipline teams.
In an exciting and high scoring affair, the Villanova Wildcats will outlast the West Virginia Mountaineers. After losing three of six games in February, the Wildcats have played some of their best basketball, winning all but one of their final seven games by 10 or more points. That will continue against West Virginia as the Wildcats are experienced enough to defeat West Virginia’s press and in the end, the Mountaineers will not have enough to keep up with the Big East champions.
Villanova freshman forward Omari Spellman and redshirt junior Mikal Bridges huddle after an intense play against Xavier.
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images North America)
Khaaliq Van-Otoo, Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Alabama (20-15 overall, 8-10 conference)
Freshman guard Collin Sexton (19.2 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.6 APG, .446FG%, .338 3P%)
Junior forward Donta Hall (10.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.1 BPG, .728 FG%)
Freshman guard John Petty (10.4 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, .396 FG%, .376 3P%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Dazon Ingram (9.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, .428 FG%, .284 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Crimson Tide started the season in dominating fashion, winning four of their first five games by double-digits. Over the next few weeks they fell into a web of inconsistency in which they dropped games to tough competition like Minnesota, Arizona, and Texas, failing to win consecutive games until early January. They went on a four-game win streak after that stretch, including a victory over #17 ranked Auburn, before trading wins and losses down the stretch. They would struggle heading into the SEC tournament, losing four straight games to finish out the regular season. However, tides would turn and the Crimson Tide caught fire during the SEC conference tournament, winning their first two games to advance to the semifinals, where they fell to Kentucky. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, Alabama defeated Virginia Tech in a wire-to-wire game.
Villanova (31-4 overall, 14-4 conference)
Junior guard Jalen Brunson (19.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, .536 FG%, .418 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges (17.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.6 SPG, .520 FG%, .435 3P%, .851 FT%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (13 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, .471 FG%, .387 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth (10.9 PPG, 3 RPG, 2.8 APG, .460 FG%, .403 3P%)
Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman (10.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.4 BPG, .481 FG%, .440 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Villanova Wildcats began the season on a 13-game win streak, putting together a perfect non-conference record. After defeating DePaul in their first conference game of the year, the Wildcats lost on the road against Butler, who beat them twice last season. ‘Nova rebounded thereafter winning nine straight games, including a win versus #10 Xavier. However, in their next six games, ‘Nova would go 3-3, losing three games by single digits against St. John’s, Providence, and Creighton. Ahead of the Big East tournament, the Wildcats won in overtime against Seton Hall by one point and also defeated Georgetown. After getting through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the conference tournament, ‘Nova battled against Providence and punched their NCAA tournament ticket with an overtime victory. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats easily beat No. 16 seed Radford to advance on to the second round.
What Villanova must do to win:
Villanova defeated Radford in the first round of the NCAA tournament doing what they do best: converting from beyond the arc. The Wildcats shot 51.9% (14-27 3PM-A) from three against the Highlanders and if they want to move on to the Sweet 16, they’ll need to continue to drill threes versus Alabama. Villanova also had six players in double-figures in their first round victory, including 10 points from freshman big Dhamir ‘DaDa’ Cosby-Roundtree, who only averages 3.3 points per game. The Wildcats have six players who average double digits, a huge part of their success, so if they can get some scoring from role players like Cosby-Roundtree against Alabama then they’ll be well on their way to making a Sweet 16 appearance. One player that the Wildcats must pay particular attention to is Alabama freshman guard Collin Sexton. Sexton scored a team-high 25 points (21 points in the second half) against Virginia Tech in the first round to help Alabama advance. Sexton is a potential NBA lottery pick if he declares for the 2018 draft so the Wildcats must contain him and make sure he isn’t able to dictate the tempo of the game. He has carried the Crimson Tide in many games in the past and the Wildcats will have to work hard to avoid that same treatment.
What Alabama must do to win:
Alabama won their first NCAA tournament game in 12 years against Virginia Tech in large part due to the play of their star guard Collin Sexton. Sexton scored 25 points (7-14 FGM-A, 10-14 FTM-A) against Virginia Tech to help Alabama win by three points. If Alabama wants to win against Villanova, they’ll need Sexton to be at his best. Sexton’s athletic ability and playmaking skills make him one of the most dynamic players in the country. In addition, the Crimson Tide will need junior forward Donta Hall (10.9 ppg) and freshman guard John Petty (scored 20 points against Virginia Tech) to step up against the Wildcats. On defense, Alabama will need to force Villanova off their spots from behind the arc and contest every shot they take. If Sexton can deliver a dominant performance, along with teammates Hall and Petty producing on offense, and Alabama forces ‘Nova into tough shots, then the Crimson Tide will have a good chance at beating the Wildcats.
Omari Spellman vs. Donta Hall
A lot of people will point to the potential matchup between star guards Jalen Brunson and Collin Sexton as the decider in this game. However, they will both score their points and be productive on Saturday, just like they’ve done in most games this year. That’s why the key of this game will be the battle of the big men. Omari Spellman has been a huge part of Villanova’s offensive success this year. The 6-foot-9, 245 pound freshman provides the Wildcats with a different dynamic than they have had in recent seasons. He has polished post moves, with a strong ability to face up and shoot the three at a 40% clip. Thanks to his skillset he is perfect in pick-and-roll situations with Brunson.
Alabama’s Donta Hall matches up relatively well with Spellman at 6-foot-9, 232 pounds. He holds a defensive rating of 95.5 (seventh in SEC), a defensive box plus-minus of 6.7 (fifth in SEC), and a block percentage of 9.4 (fourth in SEC). Hall’s ability to contain Spellman and make Brunson uncomfortable in his hedging of pick-and-roll situations will be vital for the Crimson Tide. On top of that, Hall needs to continue scoring around the rim. He is second in the entire NCAA in two point field goal percentage at 72.8%. They’re going to need that same efficiency around the rim, especially if Villanova decides to double and help heavy on Sexton.
Collin Gillespie and Dazon Ingram
Villanova freshman guard Collin Gillespie enters the Round of 32 having seen a sporadic amount of minutes since his return from a hand injury. The freshman has played as many as 30 minutes, but as few as 5. However, with that said, Gillespie has proved himself to be a strong back-up to star point guard Jalen Brunson. It will specifically be important for him to play well against Alabama because of Sexton’s skillset. Villanova cannot have a drop off in its second unit and if Gillespie can hold his own, that will be a huge part of the Wildcats’ victory. The Wildcats will need to maintain their defensive focus throughout the entire game against a lethal and athletic Alabama squad that can heat up at any moment.
Dazon Ingram is the “Mr. Do-It-All” type for Alabama. The 6-foot-5, 207 pound guard is fourth on the team in points per game, second in rebounds, and second in assists. His versatility and playmaking ability provides a nice complement to Sexton. He played a major role in their SEC tournament run, totaling 13 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists against Texas A&M and 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists against Auburn. Sexton will need help against the Wildcats’ stifling defense and that has to start with Ingram’s ability to create. Additionally, Ingram matches up well with Villanova star Mikal Bridges. He’ll need to match Bridge’s versatility with some of his own on both sides of the floor.
The contest between Alabama and Villanova is a great second round battle between two formidable and hot teams. There are various key matchups to look at in this game, including ones between their star guards, Brunson and Sexton, and their talented bigs, Spellman and Hall. Ultimately, Collin Sexton will probably be the best and most dynamic player on the floor, but Villanova certainly has the deeper and more talented overall team. That is why they will find a way to slow down Sexton and force the other players on Alabama to beat them. Alabama will have trouble keeping up and the Wildcats will pull away late to win this game and move on to the next round.
Villanova junior guard Jalen Brunson fights through a trap against St. John's.
Khaaliq Van-Otoo, Benjamin Simon and William Derry
Radford (23-12 overall, 12-6 conference)
Junior forward Ed Polite Jr. (13.5 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.9 SPG)
Redshirt freshman guard Carlik Jones (11.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.1 SPG, .418 FG%, .310 3P%)
Sophomore guard Donald Hicks (7.9 PPG, 3.3 RPG, .367 FG%, .403 3P%)
Sophomore guard Travis Fields Jr. (6.3 PPG, 2.2 APG, 1 SPG, .395 FG%, .361 3P%)
Summary of Season:
Radford started the season playing extremely mediocre basketball, alternating wins and loses on their way to a 5-5 record over their first 10 games. After losing their next game to drop to 5-6, they would go on a six-game win streak, including a 20-point defeat over the #1 team in their conference, UNC Asheville. They would trade wins and loses over the next couple of weeks before winning their last eight games of the season. This run would include three Big South tournament wins in route to a conference championship, where guard Carlik Jones hit a buzzer beater, and a 10-point win over LIU Brooklyn to get them into the round of 64. This is a strong defensive team that can win close, low scoring games and is 14-3 when putting up over 70 points.
Villanova (30-4 overall, 14-4 conference)
Junior guard Jalen Brunson (19.4 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.7 APG, .531 FG%, .413 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Mikal Bridges (18 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.6 SPG, .521 FG%, .433 3P%, .851 FT%)
Redshirt sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo (13.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.2 SPG, .470 FG%, .382 3P%)
Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth (10.9 PPG, 3 RPG, 2.8 APG, .455 FG%, .394 3P%)
Redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman (10.7 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 1.5 BPG, .480 FG%, .442 3P%)
Summary of Season:
The Villanova Wildcats began the season on a 13-game winning streak, putting together a perfect non-conference record in the 2017-18 regular season. After defeating DePaul in their first conference game of the year, the Wildcats lost on the road against Butler, who beat them twice last season. ‘Nova rebounded thereafter winning nine straight games, including a win versus #10 Xavier. In their next six games, ‘Nova would go 3-3, losing three games by single-digits against St. John’s, Providence, and Creighton. Ahead of the Big East tournament, the Wildcats won in overtime against Seton Hall by one point and also defeated Georgetown. After getting through the quarterfinals and semifinals of the conference tournament, ‘Nova battled against Providence and punched their NCAA tournament ticket with an overtime victory.
What Villanova will need to do to win:
The Wildcats are led by juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, who were both on the 2016 National Championship team. Brunson and Bridges will need to set the tone for ‘Nova early on by not coming out slow against #16 Radford. Nova’s strength this season has been their offense, as the Wildcats are first in the nation in points per game at 87.1. They will need to use that to their advantage to get ahead early on. Additionally, ‘Nova is second in the country in three-point field goals with 388 made threes. That will also be another crucial dimension of their offense. With six players averaging double-digits in scoring, the Wildcats will need to share the basketball, giving them a balanced scoring attack Radford won’t be able to match.
What Radford will need to do to win:
Radford will need to attack the glass and win the rebounding battle. Radford is not a great rebounding team and they do not have a favorable matchup in this game going up against the size of Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall for Villanova. Controlling the glass will also allow Radford to slow the game down, which they need to do. This game must be low scoring for Radford to have a chance. Additionally, if Radford wants to advance onto the next round, they must get to the line frequently. They made 16 and 21 free throws in the last two games of their conference tournament and they’ll need to do the same in this one. Radford’s shot at winning will come with controlling the glass, slowing down the pace, getting to the free throw line, and holding Villanova under 65 points.
Carlik Jones vs. Villanova backcourt
If Radford has any chance at staying in the game, they’re going to need Carlik Jones to get hot. The Big South Freshman of the Year can score consistently and he’s only getting better. He has notched double-digits points in each of his last 10 games, a stretch in which the Highlanders went 8-2. He’s not only a scorer, but a playmaker, as he posted 4 or more assists in five of the last six games. Radford will need his quick playmaking and finishing ability to wear out the ‘Nova defense.
On the other hand, if ‘Nova is able to shut down Jones, they will be well on their way to an easy victory. Especially as of late, Jones has been the main spark for the Highlanders and without him, they’re missing their top scoring guard.
Travis Fields and Donte DiVincenzo
Guard Travis Fields is a sneaky x-factor for Radford. The 5-foot-9 sophomore guard from Portsmouth, Virginia has been hot shooting the ball recently. Over the last five games, he has hit the three at a high rate, notching 11/13 his attempts for 85%. Fields, a transfer from Old Dominion, could provide a spark off the bench for Radford. If he can continue to shoot well and extend his double-digit scoring outings to four games in a row (the longest of his career), the Highlanders could catch the Wildcats off guard.
Guard Donte DiVincenzo checks in as an x-factor because of his ability to score. The Radford Highlanders allow just 64.3 points per game, 14th in the nation (a mark of 64.2 in conference play ranks them first in the Big South as well). In order for the Highlanders to win, they’re going to need to play their game and that starts on the defensive end. The perfect spark for ‘Nova: the “Michael Jordan of Delaware.” It wouldn’t be hard to see the Wildcats come out slow against the 16th seeded Highlanders (just check out last year’s game against Mt. St. Mary’s, where the Wildcats only had a one-point lead at half) and it will be DiVincenzo’s job to pick up the team’s production off the bench. Likewise, it would be good for DiVincenzo to find some rhythm after failing to score in double-digits during four of the past five games.
The Highlanders may keep the game close at the beginning, as they don’t match up terribly with the Wildcats and have kept a few games close with Power 5 schools this year (10-point loss at Ohio State and 12-point loss at Vanderbilt). While Radford could lock up defensively, Villanova will crack the code and blow the game open towards the end of the first half. Polite and Jones will score their points for the Highlanders, but they just won’t have enough experience or firepower to slow down the multifaceted offensive attack of Villanova.
Villanova redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman attempts a shot against Xavier senior forward Kerem Kanter.
(Corey Perrine/Getty Images)
During Villanova’s championship run in the 2015-16 season, senior Ryan Arcidiacono, along with juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins were all viewed as the Wildcats’ premier players. However, it was senior big man Daniel Ochefu who gave ‘Nova the edge over their opponents throughout the season and postseason play.
At 6-foot-11, 245 pounds Ochefu did it all for the Wildcats. In the paint, he tormented opposing players with his fluid post moves and rim shaking dunks. On defense he swatted opponents shots and locked up his defensive assignment while grabbing defensive rebound after defensive rebound. Ochefu’s ability to pass from the post should not be overlooked as he routinely found open teammates for high-percentage shots as well.
Ochefu has moved on from ‘Nova’s basketball program and currently plays for the Reno Bighorns in the NBA G-League but he laid the blueprint for future big men under head coach Jay Wright.
Following in Ochefu’s footsteps is redshirt freshman forward Omari Spellman.
Like Ochefu, Spellman is a force to be reckoned with on offense and defense but what the former highly touted prospect has that Ochefu didn’t is the ability to score from all three levels. At 6-foot-9, 245 pounds Spellman can post up his counterpart and score with a variety of post moves but that is just part of his offensive arsenal. Spellman can also consistently knock down a mid-range jumper and when given the time to set his feet behind the three-point line, he is as lethal as they come among college forwards.
Despite being on a ‘Nova team that has six players averaging double-figures in scoring, Spellman has found a way to consistently contribute. He has scored in double-digits in all but 10 games and also has 9 double-doubles this season. Since Spellman can score from all three levels, defenders are forced to follow him out to the perimeter which opens up lanes for his teammates. Spellman has an offensive rating of 122.4 and that is not by chance. His presence on offense is felt due to his ability to play inside and out and consistently hit shots.
Not only has his impact been felt on offense but it has also been felt on defense. Spellman is averaging 1.5 blocks per game, second in the Big East and has been ‘Nova’s anchor protecting the basket this season. With Spellman defending the rim, ‘Nova has been able to focus on their perimeter defense and force teams into tough contested shots, as Spellman has posted a block percentage of 5.5%.
His defensive production has been a lone bright spot for ‘Nova’s team defense as the Wildcats have struggled this season allowing 71.2 points per game, almost 9 points higher than last year. Even more, ‘Nova is giving up 77.1 points per game against Big East teams this season. While ‘Nova has given up more points this campaign, the Wildcats’ offense has stepped up and that is partly due to Spellman’s talent.
In past seasons ‘Nova relied on Ochefu and forward Darryl Reynolds to serve as lone bigs who primarily played near the basket but Spellman offers them something different.
In a Big 5 win against Temple earlier this season, Spellman showcased his ability to stretch the floor scoring a career-high 27 points on (11-14 FGM-A, 4-7 3PM-A). Spellman and junior guard Jalen Brunson used a pick and pop play repeatedly against the Owls to attack their defense. While Spellman’s defender was worried about switching onto Brunson after each pick, Spellman was left alone behind the arc and given time to spot up. The Ohio native made Temple pay for leaving him open throughout the game.
Spellman has made a lot of teams pay this season using the pick and pop. The offensive play is something that ‘Nova has used in previous seasons with their bigs but it’s been a while since they have had someone of Spellman’s skillset run it. In fact, the Wildcats have not had a big man with Spellman’s offensive talent since forwards Curtis Sumpter and Dante Cunningham played under coach Wright. That option of having an inside presence to complement their plethora of talented guards makes this ‘Nova team more versatile than any other in recent memory.
However, what separates Spellman from Sumpter, Cunningham, and the ‘Nova big men that have come before him is how quickly he has put it all together. If Spellman finishes this season averaging double-figures in scoring, he would be the first ‘Nova freshman big under under coach Wright to ever do it. Moreover, Spellman would join Randy Foye, Scottie Reynolds, and Arcidiacono as the only freshman in the Jay Wright era to ever accomplish that feat.
Before that can happen, Spellman and Villanova still have two regular season games remaining ahead of the Big East tournament and March Madness. Three of Villanova’s four losses have come in the last six games, so ‘Nova should use these next two games to make adjustments in preparation of postseason play.
While the Wildcats have only lost by 6 or less points in those three losses, ‘Nova must do a better job of limiting their team fouls. In all of their losses this season, the Wildcats have had more personal fouls than their opponent. As a result, opponents have had more opportunities from the foul line and at times that has been the difference in games. In the three most recent losses, they averaged 24.6 fouls, a significant increase from their season average of 15.9 fouls per game. Spellman will also have to be mindful of his fouls, as he averaged 2.7 fouls over the three games after only averaging 2.1 fouls during the entire season.
With the season winding down and tournament play looming, teams will start to use more small ball lineups, which Spellman will have to adjust to. Despite his listed height and weight, Spellman is a versatile forward who can faceup and finish around the rim. Spellman also has the ability to stick with the opposing team’s ‘4’ as well as the ‘5’. Spellman’s versatility in the frontcourt on both ends will be crucial during March Madness.
Looking beyond this season, Spellman should be a major factor for Wright and the Wildcats moving forward. Spellman will only get better over his collegiate career and will improve his overall game as time goes on. The Villanova basketball program will expect Spellman to be one of their core players in the years to come, providing the team with a versatile offensive and defensive option that not many Villanova teams have had.
Villanova guard Jalen Brunson attempts a shot against La Salle guard Pookie Powell at the Palestra.
Over the years, the Villanova Wildcats have been known for their collective team play whether that was a specific Wildcat stepping up on any given night or playing solid team defense against their opponent. Unlike in years past when Villanova’s defense was one of their main strengths, this season their offense has been their calling card as the Wildcats are averaging 87.8 points per game (fifth in country). However, when their offensive production has been matched this year, the Wildcats have been vulnerable and the Butler Bulldogs took advantage of that in late December.
Villanova trailed by 8 at the half against Butler on the road due to their inability to stop the Bulldogs from draining threes. Despite scoring more than their season average and guarding the Bulldogs tighter from behind the arc in the second half, the Wildcats were unable to complete the comeback and suffered their first loss of the season.
The Wildcats gave up 101 points against Butler, which they had not done since the 2013-14 season when Creighton matched that total and beat the Wildcats 101-80 behind a 39-point performance by Doug McDermott.
“This is the best offense we've played against so far and it showed," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright following the game against Butler. "We've really been outscoring teams to this point and we weren't going to outscore this team tonight."
While ‘Nova’s defense was one of the main reasons they lost to Butler, it was the first time all season that an opponent had scored that many points against the Wildcats. Butler shot 68.2% from three against Villanova compared to their current season average of 35%. Since then the Bulldogs haven't come close to matching that three-point effort so they may have just had the hot hand that night. Regardless, for the Wildcats to make a deep run this postseason they must improve on the defensive end.
“We have been talking that we have to get better defensively,” said Wright after Villanova’s victory over Marquette a week after the Butler loss. “You don’t just take four days of practice and say we gotta fix it. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
That improvement starts with the Wildcats defending the three-point line better. Every Wildcat that plays regular minutes for ‘Nova has the capability of creating havoc on defense by playing tight defense against their matchup and disrupting their rhythm from three. In four of their six games that have been decided by ten or less points, they’ve allowed their opponent to take 20-plus threes and shoot at least 36% from three.
Next, Villanova must protect the paint. While redshirt freshman Omari Spellman is averaging 1.5 blocks per game, the Wildcats are in need of another rim protector. Freshman forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree could be the answer as the Philadelphia native has the size and athletic ability to alter opponents’ shots. If Cosby-Roundtree can provide ‘Nova with a strong defensive presence, along with what Spellman has already shown he can do then the duo could make a really scary frontcourt.
This change will help ‘Nova continue to win games but when the Wildcats come across a team that matches their offense production, then they have to fall back on their #1 strength: scoring.
Villanova is averaging more than 80 points per game for the first time since the 2009-10 season when they put up 81.8 points a night. In the Jay Wright era, only two of his teams have averaged 80 or more points. Not only is Villanova scoring more than they have in previous seasons but they are doing it at an efficient rate. The Wildcats are sixth in the nation for FG% (50.2%) and seventh for 3P% (41.3%).
These top 10 rankings are a result of Villanova’s balanced offense attack, as six Wildcats average double-figures in scoring. That is a rare feat on any level of basketball and Villanova has accomplished that despite dealing with injuries to key players.
Juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges have led the Wildcats in scoring, but it is their willingness to get teammates involved and let them shine that allows the team to remain balanced on offense.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive,” said Brunson after ‘Nova took down #10 Xavier on January 10th. “At the same time, I’m trying to get guys open looks and try to create for others. There’s a balance to that and I think honestly I can get better at that.”
With Brunson and Bridges, along with juniors Eric Paschall and Phil Booth (who was recently sidelined with a hand injury), sophomore Donte DiVincenzo, and Spellman, the Wildcats have six players who can all score and have a breakout night when they have it going. Villanova has not had this many players who all score in double-digits on a nightly basis in a long time, if ever.
While the increase in scoring has led to a number of lopsided victories for the Wildcats this season, opponents have benefitted from ‘Nova’s sped up offense. ‘Nova is allowing opponents to score 69.1 points per game which is the most allowed since the 2011-12 season when they went 13-19. This most likely is a result from Villanova scoring at a faster pace and should not be viewed as a issue for them. If the points against ‘Nova continue to rise while their points per game stay the same then there may be a cause for concern but until then Wildcat fans shouldn't worry.
Two teams that could pose a threat to the Wildcats are the Bulldogs and the #8 Xavier Musketeers.
The Bulldogs showed earlier this season that they can compete with the Wildcats by handing them their only lost. Averaging 79.3 points per game, Butler has outscored opponents by about 8 points over the season. Senior forward Kelan Martin has led this charge scoring 19.6 ppg, along with teammates sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin (15.9 ppg) and junior guard Paul Jorgensen (11.5 ppg). This trio could cause problems for the Wildcats if they’re not careful.
Like Butler, Xavier has a potent offense (84.7 ppg) and three players who average double-figures. Senior guards Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura average 18.9 ppg and 13 ppg respectively for the Musketeers while senior forward Kerem Kanter averages 10 ppg. Villanova shouldn’t overlook the Musketeers since they have only lost three games this season.
Though Butler has beaten ‘Nova in their past three contests, the Bulldogs will enter their next matchup against them as the underdog as will the Musketeers but with Butler and Xavier both being high scoring teams, ‘Nova should not relax against them.
Villanova guard Phil Booth.
(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
A large part of Villanova’s success in recent years has been their x-factors. Whether it was Donte DiVincenzo in last year’s run or Darryl Reynolds and his heroic effort in Daniel Ochefu’s absence two years ago, Villanova head coach Jay Wright has thrived off having players step up when it wasn’t expected of them. This year that will be more important than ever, as Wright and company will look to find those new x-factors with the thick of tough conference play right ahead. In this article, we will take a look at two players who may not be on everyone’s radar, but will need to play a major role down the stretch for Villanova to bring home an NCAA Championship banner once again.
Phil Booth returns after sitting out the majority of last season due to injury. The hero from Villanova’s championship victory over North Carolina has certainly picked up where he left off. In 16 games, Booth has averaged 12.4 points per game, 3.2 rebounds, and 3 assists, while shooting 52% from the field and 44% from three. The guard has proved to be an integral part of the team’s success, scoring in double digits in 11 of the team’s 15 wins and in the one game Villanova lost, Booth scored a mere 4 points, his second lowest total on the year. For Villanova to win, they’re going to need Booth night in and night out.
At the same time, Booth has lacked the credit he deserves. Many look to Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Omari Spellman as the main sources of success for Villanova. But the bottom line is that Booth plays just as important of a role. Shifting more to off the ball, Booth has accepted the role perfectly, providing another ball handler in the backcourt to help out Brunson when necessary. He has showed he can hit the three consistently as well. During his freshman year, he did just that, shooting 48%. But he struggled during his sophomore campaign, knocking down only 31%. This year, he has gotten back to those freshman year numbers with the second highest clip on the team.
Jay Wright has made it clear just how important Booth is to the team off the court as well. He called the redshirt-junior “the most revered guy on the team, the most respected” in an interview with the Daily News’ John Smallwood. Coming off a season ending injury, Booth has certainly captured the heart of the team, especially considering the fact that he wasn’t 100% for much of non-conference play.
In early December, following their win at Saint Joseph’s, Wright added that, “You don’t take the year off and come back that easily, but he will get there.” Throughout the long process of working back to 100%, Booth has set an impression on his teammates, showing that he is going to keep fighting through the setbacks. Likewise, he has been one of the team’s most productive players all season, despite the fact that he hasn’t been totally healthy. He may finally be getting to that point of 100% health, as he has scored 15-plus points in three of the last five games, including a season-high 21 points in their last game against Xavier.
Even though Booth may not be Villanova’s biggest or most athletic player, his ability to affect the game both on and off the court cannot be overlooked. He also brings aggression, leadership, and a three-point threat to a team that thrives off those attributes. If Booth can keep up his strong play and continue to be healthy, he provides the perfect complement to the Villanova stars.
With injuries starting to affect the Villanova depth, Jay Wright needs more help from unlikely sources off the bench. After Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels both went down with a hand fracture a few weeks ago, the Wildcats were left with just DiVincenzo and Dhamir “DaDa” Cosby-Roundtree as the only regular bench pieces left from the beginning of the season. While DiVincenzo’s role won’t necessarily change, Cosby-Roundtree’s will have to, as Wright seems unwilling to try out additional options off the bench.
In their only loss against Butler, Wright was uncharacteristically pushed to play four of his five starters (in addition to DiVincenzo) for more than 30 minutes. With the exception of DiVincenzo, who regularly plays a large amount of minutes, the rest of the bench received a total of 8 minutes (6 for Cosby-Roundtree and 2 for Tim Delaney). That left Mikal Bridges as the team leader in minutes per game, averaging 31.7, with Brunson not far behind at 30.6.
They are the only two to average more than 30 minutes per game. Two years ago, when the Wildcats captured their second National Championship, Ryan Arcidiacono led the team in minutes per game with 32.1. Wright doesn’t want his starters to play the whole game and will aim to keep all of his starters’ minutes in the low 30’s or high 20’s as the season progresses. With that said, he will need to have productive players off the bench to spill the starters in conference play when games are closer together. That’s where we get to Cosby-Roundtree.
Cosby-Roundtree has largely been touted as a player with a high defensive ceiling. Listed at 6-foot-9, 220 pounds, the big man’s presence seems much more imposing on the court than his measurements may suggest. He owns the second highest total rebounding percentage of players receiving regular minutes. Cosby-Roundtree brings aspects to the floor that no other Villanova player brings. He represents the new shift of big men in basketball: he’s an athletic, instinctive defensive minded center who can run the floor and finish at a high level. While Spellman is bigger than Cosby-Roundtree, he is used more as a scoring threat for the Wildcats. Their skill sets complement each other and could provide the Wildcats with a scary frontcourt presence (including, possibly, Eric Paschall at the ‘3’) that they haven’t had in recent years.
If Villanova can receive help from Cosby-Roundtree, it could go a long way in maintaining the starters’ minutes and providing an interior defensive presence that would allow the Wildcats to defend the perimeter even harder. The Neumann-Goretti graduate still has work to do, but with the injuries to their bench, Jay Wright is going to need more out of Cosby-Roundtree. His potential as an x-factor will go a long way in another NCAA championship run.
Saint Joseph's guard Shavar Newkirk dribbles against Toledo at Hagan Arena.
(Saint Joseph's athletics)
There’s some kind of mystical fascination when it comes to the number three. The number three is featured in adages like ‘third time’s the charm’ and in fairy tales where characters have three wishes. The number three has even found itself into commercial America in the form of the iconic trios: the Three Musketeers, the Three Stooges and DC comics’ three greatest super heroes, Superman, Batman and Superwoman.
Last Saturday’s battle between two epochal Philadelphia college basketball teams--the Saint Joseph’s Hawks and the Villanova Wildcats--was all about essential pieces of the game that had to do with the number 3: ‘Nova’s press and the 3-pointer.
For much of the game, Villanova ran a 1-2-2 press late in the first half that completely dismantled St. Joe’s offense. The top three guys of the press were responsible for aggressively trapping, which ultimately tired out the St. Joe’s starters, especially Hawks’ star guard Shavar Newkirk.
Newkirk shot just 37% from the field and just 33% from 3-point range. Of the six 3’s he took in the first half, three bounced off the front of the rim. A large reason why he struggled from deep was due to the pressure put on Newkirk, offensively and defensively, causing him to lose energy.
‘Nova’s press forced Newkirk to bring the ball up the court in an average of 6.35 seconds when the press was on. This would cause the guard to constantly scramble just to advance the ball up the floor. Newkirk is also just 6-foot and needs to use his legs twice as much as his taller counterparts to be able to shoot over a defender.
Although the Hawks went zone for much of the beginning portion of the game, covering ‘Nova’s star guard Jalen Brunson up top (who would go on to drop 11 points and four assists in the half) was just as draining for St. Joe’s star.
After Hawks’ forward James Demery sunk an and-1 after being fouled by fellow forward Eric Paschall, the Wildcats went on a rampage. In under two-and-a-half minutes, ‘Nova would drop four 3-pointers in a row, effectively silencing the once roaring student section. At the end of the half, Nova was up 41-27 and showed no sign of slowing down.
St. Joe’s, on the other hand, had just one player who scored in double digits in the first half. Instead, they had three guys who played double digit minutes, but scored 0 points.
In the second half, the Hawks tried to remedy Brunson’s play by covering him with different defenders, including Chris Clover and James Demery. But this didn’t work so well and Hawks’ head coach Phil Martelli alternated the defense so that as soon as Brunson drove into the lane, the bigs would converge like hungry sharks to try and stop Brunson. However, Villanova forward Mikal Bridges knew this wouldn’t work.
“Jalen can really score the ball so when he’s looking to score, everybody’s looking at him,” Bridges explained. “And [Brunson] is a really good point guard so he finds us. As soon as he feels that pressure, with the defense stepping up or if [the defense] is ball watching him, he just finds us for wide open 3’s.”
Brunson would contribute with assists and shots as he led the Wildcats to a school record of ten 3’s in one half. However, Brunson wasn’t the only part of ‘Nova’s sudden surge of scoring.
In the second half, Bridges, Collin Gillespie, and Phil Booth would all score three 3-point baskets and combine for four assists and five rebounds in the half.
St. Joes’ performance would slowly deteriorate as the game went on. Newkirk scored just two more points in 12 minutes of second half play. Demery also added just 4 points and 1 rebound, after scoring 10 points and grabbing 4 rebounds in the first half. However, two players for Saint Joe’s would improve in the second half.
Philadelphia native Chris Clover, scored just four points, and two rebounds in the first half but found his second wind and competed at a much higher level. Clover doubled his first half points (finishing with 12 on the night), collected two more boards, and dished out an assist to fellow Pennsylvania native, Taylor Funk.
Finally, it was freshman forward Taylor Funk, who wears number 33, who hit three 3’s to end the night. He tallied an admiral 13 points, 2 assists, and 3 boards.
Despite the fact that Villanova Wildcats’ head coach Jay Wright won the game by over 40 points, the decorated head coach sung nothing but praises of his opponent.
“When [the Hawks] get their guys back” Wright said, touching on the injuries to sophomore Charlie Brown and junior Lamarr Kimble, “and they have these young guys for the next couple years, they’re gonna be good.”
While Villanova will travel to Creighton on Tuesday night, St. Joe’s can take this loss and figure out how to gain the upper hand in their next game against Temple, who is also a staple of the Philadelphia college basketball stratosphere. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to steal a little from Villanova and utilize the number 3 in a win against Temple.
-(1) Villanova defeats (3) Michigan in the National Championship