Playing some of their best basketball, Villanova has its eyes set on much more than a berth in the Sweet 16.
In 2009, a Villanova team led by Scottie Reynolds cut down the nets as they reached the Final Four, the first and only time under head coach Jay Wright. For players like Ryan Arcidiacano, Josh Hart and Daniel Ochefu, seniors whose legacy to this point had been marked by defeat and early tournament exits as either one or two seeds, that Final Four team was and continues to be the benchmark.
So when Villanova made the Sweet 16, it was symbolic of the proverbial monkey being lifted off the back but it was also just one box checked off on what appears to be a lofty list. At the top of that list is of course winning a national championship, something the Wildcats haven’t done since upsetting Georgetown in 1985 and becoming the lowest seed (#8) to win a title.
Villanova’s road to this point began with a 30-point walk-over of its first round opponent, UNC-Wilmington. This was the biggest win for a two-seed and second biggest win of the entire first round. In round two, against an Iowa team that had defeated Temple, the pressure was at its highest. Another year couldn’t go by where a top-ranked Wildcats team lost in the second round. It wouldn’t have been good for the program and its quite possible Jay Wright’s job security.
But it never got to that point as offensively, Villanova looked crisp and clean. They continued doing what they had in the first round, making shot after shot and driving to the basket with a sense of efficiency and confidence. Most importantly however, for a team that lives by the three and dies by the three, Villanova sank 10-of-19 attempts from beyond the arc.
In all, the Wildcats have made 23 three pointers, more than any other team in the tournament. Their margin of victory, 49, is also more than any other team.
Beyond the three-point shooting and talented guard play that has defined this team for years, Villanova boasts a real, bonafide, perhaps NBA-caliber “big” in Ochefu, who has fully come into his own. In the past, Nova lacked this kind of rim and paint presence. In fact, in the team’s five postseason appearances since 2009, the Wildcats have been woefully out-rebounded, especially in their losses. This year though, such has been the opposite as thanks to Ochefu’s 21 rebounds, Villanova has been dominant on the glass.
Against Miami, Villanova faces a tough match-up. Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan have garnered praise as two of the best guards in the game. Even Wright, during a press conference, touted how impressive the duo has been and how difficult they are to stop.
Villanova has benefited thus far from being able to pace the game according to their style. They haven’t faced a team like Miami though, one with a unique combination of size and athleticism that would give anybody trouble.
But these Wildcats, this team with so much promise, isn’t just anybody. They have shown throughout the year that they can be the best team in the nation, that they can be the ones capable of beating almost anyone. They’ve already proven the doubters wrong and as this year’s tournament has shown, teams playing angry have done quite well with that chip on their shoulder.
Miami is a challenge but Villanova is up for it.
A berth in the Elite 8 is on the line and all Nova has to do is, in the words of the late Jim Valvano: survive and advance.