Conference: Big East
Record: 31-3 (15-3)
NCAA Tournament Seed: 1 (East)
How they got to the Big Dance
Jay Wright and the Wildcats have done just about everything right in their defense of last season’s incredible championship run. Nova has been Spurs-esque this year, pounding inferior competition with solid fundamental basketball with only the occasional hiccup — a fluke road loss to Marquette and a season sweep at the hands of the always pesky Butler Bulldogs. The Wildcats have the luxury of playing in a weaker conference than many other traditional powerhouses, but still managed to rattle off impressive nonconference wins against Virginia and Big Ten regular season champion Purdue. The Wildcats then ran through the Big East Tournament, surviving a scare against Seton Hall, and defeated Creighton to win the Big East title.
Why they’re a legitimate contender
Nothing matters more in March than coaching, and last season served as Jay Wright’s official initiation into the “Never Bet Against Us” club of courtside commanders. As long as Wright is rocking a double-breasted jacket on the Villanova sideline, the Wildcats will always have a shot come tourney time. On the court, Villanova boasts one of the most disciplined teams in the country; the Wildcats rank in the top 25 in both scoring defense and Three Point field goal defense while having committed the least amount of fouls in the nation. That kind of fundamental expertise will make Villanova a tough out for any team – especially any potential Cinderella.
Why they’re not a legitimate contender
It’s ridiculously hard to go back-to-back in any sport, ask the Gold(3)n State Warr(1)ors. The last team to do it in men’s college basketball had a now-NBA head coach and four NBA players, two of which have been all-stars. Whether or not Villanova has that sort of pro potential remains to be seen, but that’s what it takes at minimum to repeat as champions.
The Wildcats are exceptional at nearly every facet of the game, with the possible exception of interior defense. Villanova only records 3.0 blocks per game; they may be in a bit of trouble should they run into a paint-heavy offense (say, the team they beat in last year’s finale?) deeper in the tournament.
Player to Watch: G Jalen Brunson
All eyes will be on Wooden Award finalist and heart-and-soul senior Josh Hart, and last year’s championship hero Kris Jenkins could still be an x-factor, but the Wildcats will go only as far as floor general Jalen Brunson will take them. Point guard play is crucial in March (see: Walker, Kemba/Napier, Shabazz) and Brunson is one of the nation’s most efficient; he shot an eye-popping 54.1 percent from the floor this year including an impressive 39.6 percent from 3-point range. He leads the team in assists and shoots an excellent and very important 87.5 percent from the free throw line.