1-Villanova vs. 16-Mount St. Mary's
7:10 p.m. Thursday at KeyBank Center
Not since the Florida Gators of 2006-07 under Billy Donovan has the NCAA Tournament seen a repeat champion. If the Villanova Wildcats under Jay Wright are to end that drought, their championship march will begin here.
The Wildcats, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, begin their title defense in heavily favored fashion. A No. 1 seed has never lost to a 16 seed in tournament history. Villanova hasn’t been ranked lower than fourth in the country at any point this season, and spent five weeks at No. 1. The Big East regular-season and tournament champions are balanced, and carry themselves with supreme confidence.
Villanova's opponent was Tuesday night's First Four when Mount St. Mary's beat New Orleans, 67-66.
Mount St. Mary’s put together one of the more amazing in-season turnarounds in college basketball, starting the year 1-11, but closing 17-4 and winning the Northeast Conference Tournament. The Mountaineers are battled tested, having played West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota, Michigan and Arkansas early in the season.
Four of Villanova’s five starters average in double figures, and shoot better than 35 percent from three-point range. That relentless offensive attack, which ranks No. 3 in the country in efficiency, is led by Big East Player of the Year Josh Hart. The 6-foot-6 senior, who is a finalist for the Wooden Award that goes to college basketball’s best player, does it all.
Forward Mikal Bridges won the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and is the Wildcats’ Swiss Army knife. Kris Jenkins, who hit the championship-winning three-pointer to beat North Carolina last year, is also back.
Two potential weaknesses are depth and an interior presence. The Wildcats haven’t been able to replace big man Daniel Ochefu from last year’s title team. Physical teams could give Villanova some trouble.
Coach Jamion Christian is a former assistant of Texas coach Shaka Smart, who employed the “Havoc” defense at VCU to tremendous success. Christian’s version is called “Mount Mayhem,” and has produced a turnover percentage that ranks 23rd in the country.
That defense sets up opportunities for Elijah Long and Junior Robinson to get out and run. Long, a first-team All-NEC selection, is a 40-percent three-point shooter who increased his scoring average this year by 10 points. Robinson, at 5-foot-5, is the smallest player in Division I basketball – just the type of Cinderella story fans love to latch onto in March.
Mount St. Mary’s is at a massive height disadvantage, ranking 345th nationally, so it’s not a big surprise they struggle mightily in rebounding, ranking 327th on the offensive glass and 336th on defense.
The Wildcats have just three losses – remarkable consistency for a team that could have gotten comfortable at some point. Don’t expect No. 4 here. This should be a warmup act for a team poised to make a deep tournament run.
Prediction: Villanova 85, Mount St. Mary's 63