Mikal Bridges

Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

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Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

VILLANOVA, Pa. — There were many reasons why Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And many more for why it's one of just two top seeds still standing.

The Wildcats do a lot of things well. They have depth, they can shoot from three, they defend, they are well-coached and they play hard. But perhaps their greatest attribute isn’t physical or psychological.

It’s experience. 

Of 'Nova’s core six, five were on the national championship team two seasons ago. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth played key roles on that squad. Donte DiVincenzo (injured) and Eric Paschall (transfer) were on the team but did not play. Having players that talented and that seasoned can’t be quantified. Not to mention a coaching staff still in tact from that title team. 

Between that run in 2015-16 and playing one of the toughest schedules in the country in a battle-tested Big East conference, there is nothing this group has not seen.

“Obviously the playing experience is most important but having coaches who have been in it," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said Monday. "Having guys like Donte, Eric, who were sitting out, be a part of that '16 run — that’s important, too. They learned a lot, they picked up a lot. To be able to share that experience with the young guys, I think that helps this team a lot.”

DiVincenzo agreed with his coach's sentiment.

“We’ve seen the biggest stage," the redshirt sophomore guard said. "Although myself and Eric were not playing, we were there and witnessed it and we know what it takes not only to win it but to get there.”

Next up for Villanova is the Sweet 16 and fifth-seeded West Virginia on Friday night in Boston. The Mountaineers begin guarding you in the parking lot. It is a 90-foot torture test of relentless pressure, end to end. A brutal matchup for any team.

But rest assured, Villanova will be prepared and won’t be overwhelmed. 

“No matter what the stage is, we don’t care," Bridges said. "You can put us anywhere, we’re going to play the same game. We tell the young guys, 'Don’t think of it as the Sweet 16, think of it as the next game.'"

It may be more than just the next game.

But the moment won’t be too big for this bunch that’s seen it all.

How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama

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How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama


PITTSBURGH — Mikal Bridges hit five 3s, scored 23 points and helped No. 1 seed Villanova put the field on notice that it's the team to beat with an 81-58 win over ninth-seeded Alabama on Saturday.

The Wildcats (32-4) are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since they won the 2016 national championship. Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth -- and yes, The Big Ragu -- look every bit the favorite to make it two in three years.

Villanova plays Friday in Boston against the Marshall-West Virginia winner.

The sport is still buzzing from top-seeded Virginia's 20-point loss to 16th-seeded UMBC on Friday night.

Alabama (20-16) failed to make it two No. 1s KO'd in less than 24 hours.

After a tense first half in a round that has given the program fits, the Wildcats hit their first six 3s in the second and put on a thrashing up there among the most dominant under coach Jay Wright.

Bridges, who averaged 17.9 points and played his way into a likely NBA draft lottery pick, scored 1 point and missed all five shots in the first half. He found his groove once the second half tipped. Bridges scored the first 5 points of the half and then finished a thunderous alley-oop on a pass from Booth that made it 41-27 and sent the Wildcats wildly waving their arms in celebration headed into a timeout.

Bridges hit his first three 3s in succession to cap an 18-1 run and a Sweet 16 berth was in sight.

Brunson added a 3 to make it 56-31 and the rest of the half was simply a countdown to Boston. Villanova made 17 of 41 3s.

The Wildcats lost in the first weekend as a 1 or 2 seed in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Villanova got a brief scare that it might add `18 to the list against Alabama.

The Wildcats live-and-die by the 3-pointer -- they say, "shoot em' up and sleep in the streets" -- and when it's on, look out. The Wildcats are as dangerous as any team in the nation.

When it's off, well, that's how they're so upset-prone in March. They missed eight of their first 11 3s in the first half and Alabama briefly grabbed the lead.

Donte DiVincenzo steadied Villanova with three straight 3s that brought a gasp from the crowd and gave the Wildcats a 22-15 lead. He threw in a fastbreak layup off his own steal and hit his fifth 3 of the half to make it 32-27.

DiVincenzo -- the redheaded guard nicknamed "The Big Ragu" -- scored all 18 of his points in the half. Villanova attempted 20 3s (made seven) out of 27 shots.

Why Villanova will cut down the nets at MSG

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Why Villanova will cut down the nets at MSG

The Big East Tournament tipped off Wednesday and runs through Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. If recent history is any indication, Villanova will be there for the duration. The Wildcats have played in the Big East championship game in each of the last three seasons. 

Villanova's story
Villanova has won the Big East Tournament two of the last three years, with the exception coming in 2016 when it lost to Seton Hall in the final seconds of the title game. The Wildcats moved past that setback and won their next six games in the NCAA Tournament on the way to a national championship.

Jay Wright's team arrives in Manhattan in an unfamiliar position this year — as the No. 2 seed. Villanova was the top seed in the Big East Tournament in each of the previous four seasons but Xavier carries that distinction this week. 

Despite not winning the Big East regular-season championship, the Wildcats are still in good shape to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament thanks to their 27-4 record. Just getting to the Big East title game should be enough to keep Villanova on the top line come Selection Sunday. 

Villanova's path
The Wildcats will play Marquette on Thursday night in the quarterfinals. Villanova swept the Golden Eagles in the regular season, winning, 100-90, in early January at the Wells Fargo Center before escaping with a 85-82 win at Marquette three weeks later. 

Marquette has no trouble scoring — it averages 82 points per game. The Golden Eagles are led by their sharpshooting backcourt duo of Markus Howard and Andrew Rowsey, two guys capable of scoring 30 points on any given night. Expect the tempo to be fast and furious when Villanova and Marquette hook up in the quarterfinals.

If the Wildcats get past Marquette, they'll face either Seton Hall or Butler in the semifinals. Xavier looms as their most likely opponent in the championship game.

Player to watch
I could take the easy way out and go with the newly-minted Big East Player of the Year Jalen Brunson or the red-hot Mikal Bridges, but keep an eye on Donte DiVincenzo. The reason is simple — he loves Madison Square Garden. DiVincenzo made six three-pointers and scored 25 points in Villanova's win over St. John's back in January. Last year as a freshman, he scored 19 points at St. John's in the regular season and 25 points against the Red Storm in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament.      

Villanova will cut down the nets for the third time in the last four years. The Wildcats will use a little extra motivation from not winning the Big East regular-season championship to get it done. Villanova-Xavier is the title game everyone wants to see and I think we'll get it. Look for the Wildcats to record a third win over the Musketeers this season and enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 seed in the East Region.