Villanova Wildcats

Villanova leaves early for NCAA Tournament repeat bid to avoid snowstorm

Villanova leaves early for NCAA Tournament repeat bid to avoid snowstorm

Printable bracket with game times

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VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Jay Wright's squad is already feeling the madness.
 
Just over 24 hours after returning from Madison Square Garden with the Big East title in hand, Villanova is back on the road, heading to Buffalo for the NCAA Tournament.
 
It's a quick turnaround for a team coming off of three wins in three days. But now, with an impending snowstorm making its way to the area, Villanova scrambled to depart for Buffalo earlier than anticipated for Thursday's game.
 
"It changes a lot because we just got home," Wright said Monday before departing for Buffalo. "We just got home yesterday, and I'm not really looking forward to leaving right away, but it hits you with reality. You're in it. We're going to be in Buffalo tonight and that's where we're playing and it's on.
 
"Even after we won (the Big East championship) Saturday night, our staff was already saying, 'Hey, we're probably going to Buffalo, we're expecting snow,' so we started planning then. Our original plan was to leave at 7 o'clock at night, let the guys go to class all day, and then the NCAA, last night, said because of the weather in Buffalo, they had to get us up there earlier."
 
With barely a day between trips, Wright didn't have time to prep his squad for the upcoming biggest game of the year. No meetings, no talks, just one abbreviated practice.
 
"Honestly, I didn't even give them any message here because we're trying to get out of here real fast," Wright said. "I wanted to make sure that we got a little practice in. We had planned on practicing later, but as you guys know, we had Coaches vs. Cancer this morning, so I had to go back. So we didn't have any meetings today or any talks. We just got on the floor and practiced basketball. And we'll have time up there in Buffalo to talk."
 
As if that were not enough, the Wildcats, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, don't even know which team they'll be facing in the first round. They await the winner of Tuesday's First Four game between Mount St. Mary's (19-15) and New Orleans (20-11). Villanova will meet the winner Thursday at 7:10 p.m.
 
So, with no down time to scout, prepare or let alone practice, how do you prepare for two teams?
 
"You're a 1-seed playing a 16-seed, so there's nothing to complain about," Wright said. "It is a different challenge. You've got two assistants working on the first game and you still have to prepare possibly for a second game. It's just different."
 
A 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed, and with Villanova's experience and skill, the Wildcats should have no problem advancing to the second round. 

But, of course, don't tell them that.
 
"This starts a new season," Wright said. "Whatever our seed is, whatever we did in the regular season doesn't matter. We're one of 68 teams. That's it. And we get beat in the first round, we're done. Let's enjoy the finality of this, the pressure, let's enjoy this, let's embrace it."
 
The chances of Villanova losing in the first round to either team are -- to put it lightly -- a long shot, but Wright doesn't have fond memories of Buffalo.
 
Last time 'Nova played in Buffalo in the Big Dance, the second-seeded Wildcats were stunned by eventual national champion and seventh-seeded UConn in 2014.
 
"Great disappointment," Wright said. "But not just in losing, but we didn't really play Villanova basketball, either."
 
As the head coach of Hofstra in 2000, Wright's team was blasted by Oklahoma State in the first round in Buffalo.
 
"My first NCAA Tournament game ever, when we were at Hofstra, was at Buffalo, same place," Wright said. "And it was St. Paddy's Day and there was a blizzard. I was thinking, 'My whole life, I waited to coach and make the NCAA Tournament and it was miserable.' And we played Oklahoma State ... and got hammered. ... It was a horrible first experience as a coach, and it was in Buffalo."
 
While in Buffalo yet again, this year is different for Wright. His 'Cats ran the table in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, edging out UNC on Kris Jenkins' miraculous game-winner to become national champions.
 
It's a play that stalks Wright and the reigning champs everywhere they go. On TV, on video boards. It's inescapable, endlessly intensifying the pressure with every view for Villanova to match expectations and make a deep run this year.
 
"It's there," Wright said. "It's always a reminder that everybody expects you to do it again. But, that's part of the challenge. When people say it's hard to repeat, that's part of why it's hard to repeat. Because you have to deal with those expectations all the time and constant reminders of last year."
 
Ready or not, Villanova's path to a repeat begins Thursday. The team has two full days of meetings and practice to prepare. In the formidable East Region, with No. 2 Duke and others standing in their way, the Wildcats won't be caught looking ahead (see story).
 
"The teams that scare me the most right now are New Orleans and Mount St. Mary's, definitely," Wright said. "Because none of [the other teams in the bracket] matter. If you don't get past those guys, there's no reason. Why waste being scared if you can't get past the first game? I'm scared enough."

Villanova still sitting pretty in the AP poll

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USA Today Images

Villanova still sitting pretty in the AP poll

Villanova is getting pretty accustomed to this whole No. 1 thing.

For the fifth time in the last six weeks, head coach Jay Wright's Wildcats are No. 1 in the AP poll, receiving 63 of 65 first-place votes this time around. This week's spot on college basketball's top perch came after a successful week that saw the 'Cats smother then-No.10 Xavier, 89-65, on Wednesday evening at the Wells Fargo Center. The Musketeers fell to No. 11 after the defeat. Villanova followed that up by holding off a feisty St. John's squad, 78-71, at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.

The Wildcats sport this No. 1 ranking heading into their own rivalry week this week. They head to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to battle historic Big East rival Georgetown, led by first-year head coach and Hoya great Patrick Ewing. The Hoyas are 12-5 on the season, but just 2-4 in conference play. They most recently fell to No. 19 Seton Hall this past Saturday. After that, it's on to Connecticut for an old-school Big East matchup with the Huskies. The teams last met in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, a game UConn won on its way to the national championship. Villanova, though, holds a 33-31 all-time advantage.

As for the rest of this week's top five, Virginia moved up a spot to No. 2, Purdue jumped up to No. 3, Oklahoma shot up five spots to No. 4. and Duke crept up to No. 5.

Click here to view this week's top 25 poll in its entirety.

No. 1 Villanova holds off St. John's

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AP Images

No. 1 Villanova holds off St. John's

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK — Donte DiVincenzo hit six 3-pointers and scored 25 points to help No. 1 Villanova silence a rowdy New York crowd and hold off upset-minded St. John's 78-71 on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.

Shammorie Ponds came close to leading the Red Storm (10-8, 0-6 Big East) to their first win over a No. 1 team in 33 years. Ponds scored a career-high 37 points in front of 17,123 fans at the Garden.

Ponds punished his body as he crashed the lane for tough buckets -- going up-and-under and seemingly straight through defenders -- over the final 10 minutes that cut it to 69-65 with 1:18 left. He sank a rare jumper (all his field goals were 2-pointers) that pulled St. John's within 71-67, and suddenly the chants of "Let's Go Nova!" were drowned out by cheers for the Red Storm.

The Wildcats (16-1, 4-1) were flawless from the free-throw line over the final minute to avoid the startling upset.

Ponds, a 6-foot-1 guard who scored 31 points against Missouri in November, took just about every shot for the Red Storm down the stretch.

Once called the Michael Jordan of Delaware by coach Jay Wright, DiVincenzo simply wouldn't let the Red Storm get too close. Each time St. John's seemed set to start a game-changing run over the final 7 minutes, DiVincenzo buried 3s, hitting three that gave the Wildcats leads of nine, 10 and 11.

Mikal Bridges had 15 points and 11 rebounds for Villanova. The Wildcats went 13-for-30 on 3-point range.

Ponds was a one-man band for St. John's. No other player scored in double figures and his 15 baskets were two more than the rest of the team.

Jalen Brunson and Bridges hit 3s early in the second half to start to build a cushion and DiVincenzo added another 3 for a 10-point lead. That completed a torrid stretch of eight 3s on Villanova's last eight attempts.

St. John's hit one 3 the entire game -- one! -- and that snuffed any chance at a win. St. John's hung around for most of the first half and put checks in the boxes of things needed to do to beat Villanova.

Tariq Owens had a big block on Bridges under the basket that brought a packed MSG crowd to its feet. Bryan Trimble Jr. buried a 3 for a 20-17 lead and Brunson, one of the top players in the nation, fumbled the ball on the next possession. The Wildcats, who have seemingly fixed the defensive troubles that plagued them the last month, lost their 3-point stroke, missing 8 of their first 10 attempts.

The Wildcats pulled themselves together and showed why they're again the elite team in the Big East. DiVincenzo hit two 3s and scored eight straight points to give them the lead for good and Omari Spellman hit a 3 to send Villanova into halftime with a 34-27 lead.

BIG PICTURE
St. John's: Yes, the Red Storm were actually 10-2 on Dec. 20 and off to one of their best starts in two decades before this tailspin started. The Red Storm lost all three games on this homestand and there's little sign there will be an immediate turnaround. St. John's hasn't defeated a No. 1 team since Chris Mullin was in uniform, not the coach. St. John's beat No. 1 Georgetown 66-65 on Jan. 26, 1985.

Villanova: The Wildcats won their 13th straight game in the series. Villanova, the 2016 national champions, is rolling toward its fifth straight Big East regular season championship.

UP NEXT
Villanova puts its No. 1 ranking on the line Wednesday at Georgetown.

The Red Storm play another Top 25 team when they visit No. 10 Xavier on Wednesday.