Villanova defeated Marquette, 73-56, on Sunday for its 26th win of the season (a school regular season record!) – and it’s time to seriously consider the Wildcats for a 1-seed come tourney time.
Following Oklahoma State’s victory over Kansas on Saturday night, Joe Lunardi (@ESPNLunardi) tweeted “Keeping Kansas on the top line despite latest loss. Two reasons: (1) overall body of work; (2) rules still require four No. 1 seeds”.
Well, Jay Wright and his team should take offense at that statement. Since Thursday, sixteen ranked teams have lost (and fourteen of those losses were to unranked opponents), but Villanova dominated a Marquette squad desperate for a marquee win from start to finish.
Obviously, strong cases can be made for Arizona, Florida, and Wichita State to receive 1-seeds. For argument’s sake, let’s assume those three teams are locks to earn the top three spots. Anything can still happen, but in this post, only one spot is left open on the top line, and I think Villanova deserves strong consideration.
First, let’s consider some of the other candidates:
Kansas has sixteen wins against KenPom Top 100 teams – but the Jayhawks also have seven losses in that same category. 2012 Michigan State was the last team (and only team since 2003) with seven regular season losses to receive a 1-seed. 2007 North Carolina and 2003 Oklahoma both had six regular season losses. In each of those seasons, the 2-seed line was relatively weak, but this year there are a number of worthy teams with five or fewer losses.
Duke’s only loss outside the KenPom top 50 was at Notre Dame (97th) on January 4, and the Blue Devils are 5-3 against the KenPom top 20. Coach Krzyzewski has his team in position to earn a 1-seed with a strong performance at the ACC Tournament, but a loss in Greensboro will likely keep them on the 2-line.
Virginia can also make a case to join Arizona, Florida, and Wichita State. The Cavaliers won the ACC regular season title outright with a 75-56 win over Syracuse on Saturday, but Tony Bennett’s team has garnered some skepticism for its favorable conference schedule. Virginia’s best road wins were at Florida State, at Clemson, and at Pittsburgh – with a loss at Duke. They did not have to play Syracuse at the Carrier Dome or North Carolina at the Dean Smith Center, but they beat both teams on their home floor. If the Cavaliers don’t win the ACC Tournament, it is unlikely they could end up on the tournament’s top line.
Syracuse was nearly a sure thing to be a 1-seed just three weeks ago. The Orange escaped with wins due to a Tyler Ennis half court prayer at Pittsburgh and an “on-the-floor” foul call versus NC State that should have sent Mark Gottfried into a Jim Boeheim-like frenzy. But Syracuse survived those games. And then they lost at home to Boston College. And at Duke. And at Virginia. Syracuse can certainly redeem itself with a strong finish versus Georgia Tech and at Florida State before the ACC Tournament, but the Orange are on an uphill climb to earn a 1-seed.
Wisconsin is another candidate to move into the tournament’s top four spots. The Badgers started the year 16-0 and have not lost since February 1 – but Bo Ryan’s team still trails Michigan by two games for the Big Ten regular season title. A 1-5 stretch from January 14 to February 1 will most likely keep Wisconsin down to a 2- or 3-seed depending on how it plays in the conference tournament.
So, what has Villanova done to deserve top line consideration?
Captained by senior James Bell and sophomore Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova has at least two fewer losses than every team mentioned above, except Syracuse. The Wildcats’ three losses have come at Syracuse (where they actually led by 20 points in the first half) and to Creighton twice, while playing in the country’s third toughest conference according to Ken Pomeroy’s metrics.
Jay Wright’s team is 13-3 against the KenPom Top 100 and has the 10th most efficient offense and 20th most efficient defense in the country. However, its defense has been most notable of late. In their recent games, Villanova has held both St. John’s and Butler to season-low effective Field Goal Percentages – and dominated the defensive glass against a formidable Marquette frontcourt on Sunday, keeping the Golden Eagles to their lowest Offensive Rebounding Percentage since their first game against Southern on November 8.
The problem with Villanova? They aren’t sexy enough. In fact, it’s difficult to even pinpoint Villanova’s best player.
For much of the season, James Bell would be the logical choice. The senior is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 15.7 points and 6.1 rebounds. Bell has been ol’ reliable for the Wildcats, scoring above 15 points on 17 different occasions.
But what about JayVaughn Pinkston? The Brooklyn native is Villanova’s best player according to Ken Pomeroy and his all-Big East projections. Pinkston averages 14.5 points and 6 rebounds, acting as a matchup nightmare for opponents.
Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono would like to have their cases heard, as well. Hilliard fills up the stat sheet with 13.6 points, 2.8 assists, and 3.8 rebounds. Referred to as “Bethlehem Steel” by Gus Johnson, Hilliard had 26 points to lead his team by Marquette on Sunday. Arcidiacono, on the other hand, only averages 10 points, but his leadership and poise have helped keep Villanova focused all season. “Arch” has been the go-to guy in close games for Jay Wright, notably hitting game-winners against Kansas and Providence this season.
Another issue is that Villanova’s three losses (but more specifically, the two to Creighton) have been ugly. The Cats were up big at Syracuse before falling victim to the Tyler Ennis-Trevor Cooney show on national television. Then, on a cold night in January, Villanova was absolutely destroyed by Creighton’s historic shooting display. The rematch didn’t help, either, as Doug McDermott & Co. continued to prove they had figured out the Wildcats.
No one else has been able to “figure out” Jay Wright’s squad, though. Creighton seems to simply be Villanova’s kryptonite.
A lack of sexiness may be able to keep Villanova off the top line – but it cannot keep them from advancing deep into the bracket.
The NCAA Tournament is all about matchups, but if Villanova can avoid Creighton (and teams like Creighton), there is no reason the Wildcats will not dance deep into March (and even early April).
So what if Villanova isn’t sexy? Why have only one best player when you can have four?
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