After finishing 21-10 and 10-8 in the Big East, Villanova was invited to the NCAA tournament as the No. 9 seed in the West region. The Wildcats will play their first two games (if necessary) at the United Center in Chicago, Ill.
The regular season was eventful for the Wildcats, who were sitting on the bubble for most of the year. The key games that fueled the ‘Cats to the promised land were wins at Georgetown and against non-conference opponent Texas in January. Villanova’s worst defeat came at the hands of DePaul at home; however, the Wildcats avenged this loss by beating the Blue Demons in the first round of the Big East tournament.
The unveiling of the brackets marked a tough year for the Big East conference. After gaining eight bids and two No. 1 seeds (Villanova and Connecticut) in 2006, the conference only received six bids this year, with No. 2 Georgetown being the highest seed. Perhaps one of the biggest exclusions from the tournament was Syracuse; the Orange were omitted despite an 11-7 (including the conference tournament) Big East record.
This marks the third straight year that the Monsters of the Main Line will make an appearance in the prized postseason tournament. The 2005 and 2006 campaigns were successful for the Wildcats before they were knocked off by the eventual National Champions in both years.
In 2005, No. 5 Villanova lost an epic battle to No. 1 North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen, 67-66. The game included a highly controversial traveling call on guard Allan Ray that prevented ‘Nova from advancing. In 2006, No. 1 Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight before being knocked off by No. 3 Florida, 75-63. The previous round included a last-second, overtime thriller that saw the ‘Cats defeat No. 4 Boston College by one point.
Battle of the ‘Cats
For the second straight year, Villanova will have a tournament matchup that will feature similar mascots, as ‘Nova battles the University of Kentucky Wildcats (21-11, 9-7 SEC). In 2006, Villanova defeated the Arizona Wildcats 82-78, as Jay Wright’s ‘Cats advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
Friday night’s matchup will be no easy task for Villanova. The Wildcats from the Bluegrass State are perhaps the most battle-tested team in this year’s tournament. Among their out-of-conference opponents were UCLA, Memphis, North Carolina, Indiana and Louisville, not to mention that they played Southern Eastern Conference rivals Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt twice each.
A positive sign for Villanova is that Kentucky enters the contest having won only six of its last 14 games. Prior to that cold streak, UK rallied off 11 straight victories.
The key to Kentucky’s success is unquestionably the play of its 6-foot-11-inch junior center Randolph Morris. Morris, an NBA prospect, was scheduled to enter the 2006 draft before backing out and regaining college eligibility. The Kentucky big man averaged 15.8 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on the season.
Expect center/forward Will Sheridan to get the defensive assignment against Morris. Sheridan held Georgetown’s 7-foot-plus Roy Hibbert to just six combined points in two regular season games, despite being outsized by 6 inches.
After feeding the ball to its center, Kentucky looks to expose teams on the perimeter with a pair of junior swingmen: Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley. Crawford and Bradley are well-rounded guards that have combined to average almost 30 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game.
Crawford is generally UK’s main one-on-one threat. He is a physical, athletic guard who is capable of driving to the hole. Bradley, on the other hand, is more of a shooter who also doubles as Kentucky’s best perimeter defender.
Other players for the No. 8 seed who figure to play a factor are Bobby Perry, an undersized senior forward, and freshman guard Jodie Meeks, UK’s sixth man.
For Villanova to win this game, it needs to dominate the front line. Besides Morris, Kentucky simply does not have an interior presence that can compete with Curtis Sumpter. Expect Sumpter to be a matchup problem all game.
Villanova will almost certainly face the No. 1-seeded Kansas Jayhawks in the second round on Sunday night if they are victorious over Kentucky. The Jayhawks play Niagara, the winner of the MAAC tournament. Since a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed in tournament history, it is likely that the potential second-round foe would be Kansas.
The last time these two teams squared off was quite eventful for Villanova. In 2005, the unranked Wildcats defeated the No. 2 Jayhawks at the Wachovia Center, 83-62. The students stormed the court in celebration after the upset. Ray led with 27 points; current senior Sumpter tallied 25 for the ‘Cats.
Kansas (30-4, 14-2 Big 12) is deserving of its No. 1 seed. It enters the tournament on a roll, having won 11 straight, including the Big 12 tournament. The Jayhawks only loss to a non-tourney bound team was DePaul at home, something with which the Wildcats are familiar.
The Jayhawks feature one of the most athletic and balanced teams in the country. The biggest matchup problem is 6-foot-6-inch swingman Brandon Rush, a player who has the ability to beat teams with his jump shots or drives. Averaging almost 14 points and six rebounds per game, Rush is a phenomenal athlete that must be contained.
Julian Wright is a 6-foot-8-inch forward that figures to give Villanova headaches, should the teams meet. Wright is a long and athletic forward that can dominate on defense. He enters the tournament averaging 12 points and eight rebounds per contest.
If matchups weren’t already a problem for the Wildcats, the backcourt duo of Mario Chalmers and Sherron Collins are capable of breaking down defenses and scoring. Chalmers in particular is a scoring threat, averaging over 12 points per game over the season and almost 17 points per contest in the Jayhawks’ last seven games.
Forwards Sasha Kaun and Darrell Arthur provide a strong interior game for Kansas; both are capable of scoring and rebounding. In order for the Wildcats to be successful and pull off the upset in this second-round showdown, these big men must be neutralized. Since Kansas is so star-studded, ‘Nova’s front-line can not afford to allow the Jayhawks inside men to have good games.