Heading into the NCAA Tournament, we’re taking a look at the No. 1 seeds. Villanova won the national title last year, but could be even better this time around. Here’s a closer look at the Big East champions as they prepare for The Big Dance.
Coach: Jay Wright | Current record: 31-3 | NCAA Tournament record: 57-35
Best finish: National champion (2x) | Last year’s finish: Beat UNC to win national title
Starting lineup: G Jalen Brunson, G Josh Hart, G Mikal Bridges, F Kris Jenkins, F Darryl Reynolds | (Top reserve: G Donte DiVincenzo)
Leading scorer: Hart (18.9) | Leading rebounder: Hart (6.5)
National championships: 1985, 2016 | Last Final Four: 2016
Why Villanova might win it all: The Wildcats were college basketball’s steadiest team all season. They opened with 14 straight wins, finished with 12 top-50 RPI wins, only lost once to an unranked team, never lost to a school that’s not in this NCAA Tournament -- and they won the Big East regular-season title and the Big East Tournament title. That’s why they’re the No. 1 overall seed. And, don’t ever forget, the most important pieces on this roster were also important pieces on last year’s national championship team. So it’s not like anybody is asking these players to do anything they haven’t already done.
Why Villanova might not win it all: Jay Wright has made it clear the Wildcats’ lack of size and depth is a concern. Villanova lost Daniel Ochefu from last season’s team and his replacement, five-star recruit Omari Spellman, was ruled ineligible in the preseason. So the Wildcats are not what they should be up front. And, in terms of depth, Phil Booth, who scored 20 points in last year’s title win over North Carolina, is presumed out for the season. Consequently, Villanova only has seven players averaging at least six minutes per game. That’s not a death sentence, obviously. But it’s also not ideal -- especially for times when foul trouble exists.
Player to watch: Josh Hart is the reigning Big East Player of the Year, the reigning Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player and a true National Player of the Year candidate. He leads the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding and has used his senior year to enhance his stock with NBA scouts by being a consistently dominant player who can take over games in a variety of ways -- among them from the 3-point line, where he’s shooting 40.7 percent. Simply put, Hart is terrific. He’s been the best player on a great team for two straight years.
One guy soaring: Hart is the star, undeniably. But Jalen Brunson has made a huge jump from last season to this season and, at times, has looked like Villanova’s best player. The sophomore point guard is averaging 14.8 points, 4.2 assists and 2.5 rebounds while shooting 54.1 percent from the field, 39.6 percent from 3-point range and 87.5 percent from the free throw line. He finished with 17 points on seven shots in Saturday’s win over Creighton. The ball is in good hands when the ball is in his hands.
Notable stat: The Wildcats have 11 top-50 RPI wins, which is a big number. But the most impressive thing about that statistic is that seven of the 11 came away from home. They beat Big Ten champion Purdue at Purdue. They won at Creighton, at Xavier and at Seton Hall. And they beat Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Seton Hall (again) on neutral courts. In other words, Villanova didn’t just stack quality wins at home. Villanova stacked quality wins all over this country. What it suggests is that the Wildcats are comfortable away from home. That’s a good thing to be in the NCAA Tournament.
Final thought: Villanova returned more pieces from last year’s national championship team than any national champion returned since Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah led Florida to the 2006 title and then decided to do one more year of school -- and they repeated as champions. So the Wildcats being in this position shouldn’t be too surprising. They weren’t the preseason No. 1, but they started in the top five and have remained there all season.
Is Villanova the nation’s most talented team?
It’s also not the deepest. Or the biggest. But the Wildcats weren’t any of those things last year, either, and that worked out fine. Bottom line -- Villanova has, over 34 games, proven itself as a serious back-to-back candidate. You’re not required to pick them to cut nets again on the first Monday in April. But it wouldn’t be dumb if you did.