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.
-(1) Villanova defeats (3) Michigan in the National Championship