After winning the Big East regular season and tournament titles, No. 1 Villanova entered this week with hopes of building on their success with a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Jay Wright’s team got things going Thursday night, and the top seed in the East Region had little trouble with No. 16 Lafayette in Pittsburgh.
Dylan Ennis led six Wildcats in double figures with 16 points as the Wildcats won by the final score of 93-52. As a team Villanova shot better than 63 percent from the field and 11-for-22 from beyond the arc, and they never allowed the Patriot League champions to develop the confidence needed to hang around.
Defensively Villanova limited Lafayette, a good three-point shooting team, to 4-for-18 from beyond the arc. The Leopards needed a spectacular night from deep to have any chance of hanging around, and Villanova made sure that didn’t occur.
Dan Trist led the way for the Leopards, who won their conference tournament despite being the four-seed, with 18 points and six rebounds. The two schools share a connection to Fran O’Hanlon, as the Lafayette head coach is also a Villanova alum and a member of that school’s athletic hall of fame.
Next up for Villanova is a much tougher test in either No. 8 NC State or No. 9 LSU. Both teams have multiple interior options, which could be an issue for the Wildcats given their lack of depth in the post. But balance on both ends of the floor have led to Villanova winning 33 games this season, and that will be the key for them moving forward.
Finalists for Naismith Men’s College Coach of the Year award announced
Kentucky’s John Calipari, whose team has won all 34 of its games to date, is on the list as are Villanova’s Jay Wright, Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and Virginia’s Tony Bennett. Calipari, Wright and Ryan all coach teams that are one-seeds in the NCAA tournament, with Bennett’s Cavaliers being the two-seed in the East.
All four coaches finished atop their respective conferences during the regular season, with Bennett’s Cavaliers and Wright’s Wildcats doing so for a second consecutive season. In the case of Virginia, they became the first team located outside of the state of North Carolina to accomplish this feat in ACC history.
And three, Calipari, Wright and Ryan, followed up their regular season conference title with a conference tournament crown. The Atlanta Tipoff Club will announce the winner at its annual awards brunch April 5 in Indianapolis.
Selflessness, toughness among the attributes that make No. 3 Villanova a national title contender
One of the questions entering this weekend was who would earn the one-seeds alongside No. 1 Kentucky, and one team that merited serious discussion was No. 3 Villanova. Jay Wright’s Wildcats have been the class of the Big East all season and that was the case in New York, as they capped a three-game run through the Big East tournament with a 69-52 win over Xavier in the title game.
And as has been the case throughout the year, the list of contributors for Villanova wasn’t limited to a select few.
Each of the eight players who played 16 minutes or more managed to score at least four points, with Dylan Ennis leading the way with 16 points. Sixth man Josh Hart, who became the first reserve to win Most Outstanding Player honors in the history of the Big East tournament added 15 points and seven rebounds and Darrun Hilliard chipped in with 12 points.
The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field (60 percent inside of the arc) and assisted on nearly 63 percent of their made field goals. Jay Wright’s team is a selfless group, one that doesn’t particularly care about who gets the credit provided that they’re collectively successful.
That was most evident in how happy the team was when Hart received his individual honor, and his play of late is a key for Villanova as they look to make a long run in the NCAA tournament. In three games in New York the sophomore made 21 of his 29 shots from the field (9-for-14 from three), and he averaged 17.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game.
It’s been said on multiple occasions that Villanova doesn’t have a bonafide star, with none of their players being in the conversation for the national individual awards. But if this weekend displayed anything, it’s that Villanova is a team of players who are focused solely on being stars in their own roles.
Ryan Arcidiacono, Big East Co-Player of the Year with Providence’s Kris Dunn, scored just three points but still managed to be a steadying influence for the Wildcats. And with Arcidiacono not scoring as he can, freshman Phil Booth contributed eight points off the bench before fouling out. Daniel Ochefu, who’s been rock solid in the middle all year long, may have scored just four points against Xavier but he still matched Hart with a team-high seven rebounds.
Attributes such as selflessness and toughness are what have not only placed Villanova in a position where they can claim the program’s first one-seed since 2006, but they also make the Wildcats a serious threat to win the national title. Up 20 with 1:36 remaining Arcidiacono and Hilliard both left the court in an attempt to save the basketball, and no one would have blamed either player had they simply let the ball out of bounds go given the time and score.
But to take a play off isn’t them, and it isn’t Villanova either. While the question of whether or not that will result in the reward of a one-seed won’t be answered until Sunday evening, this much is clear: Villanova earned the designation and the respect that comes with it.