Defending national champion Villanova will come to Buffalo this week as the marquee team at the NCAA Tournament at KeyBank Center.
The Wildcats (31-3) are the top seed in the entire, 68-team tournament and will open defense of their crown at 7:10 p.m. Thursday against the winner of the play-in game between Mount St. Mary’s and New Orleans.
The other three first-round games in Buffalo:
No. 8 seed Wisconsin (25-9) vs. No. 9 seed Virginia Tech (22-1) about 9:40 p.m.
No. 5 seed Notre Dame (23-9) vs. No. 12 seed Princeton (23-6), 12:15 p.m.
No. 4 seed West Virginia (26-8) vs. No. 13 seed Bucknell (26-8) about 2:45 p.m.
Buffalo is one of eight first- and second-round NCAA sites for the sixth time in the past 18 years.
Besides Villanova, Buffalo fans get to see three other top-25 teams. West Virginia entered the week No. 11, Notre Dame stood No. 22 and Wisconsin was 24.
If the favorites win Thursday, Saturday’s matchups are juicy:
-- Villanova, the No. 2 most efficient offensive team in the nation, would play Wisconsin, the eighth-rated defensive team in the nation.
-- West Virginia, aka “Press Virginia,” is the No. 1 turnover-forcing team in the nation. Notre Dame is the least turnover-prone team in the nation.
Ticket demand should be high. Fans from West Virginia and Notre Dame, in particular, travel well. West Virginia had a big contingent of fans in Buffalo when the Mountaineers played here in the NCAAs in 2010.
And Villanova gets to stay relatively close to its Philadelphia home by virtue of being the top team in the East Region. Should Villanova win Thursday and then beat either Wisconsin or Virginia Tech Saturday, it will move onto the East Regional final in New York City.
Villanova’s dominance this season was no surprise. The Wildcats lost just two players from last year’s team and opened this season ranked No. 4. They won the Big East Conference regular-season title for a fourth straight year, as expected.
“This is a really good team,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas on a conference call this week. “Offensively they are excellent. They run. They are resolute to run their stuff. They’re a good screening team. They’re a very good passing team. And by passing team I don’t mean that they all pile up assists. But they move the ball. And when they catch it, they either pass, dribble or shoot. They don’t pass it, catch and hold. Then they’re strong defensively. They’ve got a lot of experience, and they have some good young players. I love that team.”
Villanova is led by Big East player of the year Josh Hart, a 6-foot-5 senior who averages 18.9 points a game. And the Wildcats return 6-6 forward Kris Jenkins who hit the winning three-point shot to beat North Carolina, 77-74, in last year’s thrilling national title game.
The one concern about Villanova is it’s a relatively small team.
“The only issue would be if they played North Carolina again, dealing with their size,” Bilas said. “I think they were a little better off dealing with size last year. They beat Purdue earlier this year at Purdue. They can handle size. But if Darrell Reynolds isn’t healthy, it makes it a little bit more difficult.”
Reynolds is Villanova’s 6-9 senior center. He missed five late-season games with a rib injury but has played the past four games.
Villanova, ranked No. 2 in the nation in last week’s AP poll, moved up to the No. 1 line for the NCAA Tournament after top-ranked Kansas lost to Texas Christian in the quarterfinal of the Big 12 Tournament on Thursday. Villanova beat Creighton in the Big East final Saturday night in Madison Square Garden.
Villanova’s first-round foe will be either Maryland’s Mount St. Mary’s (19-15) or New Orleans (20-11), who meet Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio.
The first-round games for West Virginia and Notre Dame are part of the West Region. The team that advances out of that half of the Buffalo field will go to San Jose, Calif., for the regional final. The Final Four will be held in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, Ariz., on April 1 and 3.
The last NCAA visit to Buffalo was 2014, and Villanova was part of that bracket, as well.