Villanova Wildcats

Villanova ready for pressure of trying to repeat in NCAA Tournament

Villanova ready for pressure of trying to repeat in NCAA Tournament

Printable bracket with game times

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The challenge has changed for the Villanova Wildcats.
No longer is the pressure of the NCAA Tournament focused on getting through opening weekend.
Now, as the No. 1 overall seed, it's on defending their championship -- something that hasn't been done since the Florida Gators in 2006-07.
"There was a big monkey on our back with the first weekend thing," senior guard Josh Hart said Wednesday before the Wildcats practiced inside KeyBank Center. "It was kind of weird this year not having to answer that question that I answered the last three years. But, you know, it is what it is. Both of them are challenging. We just know we've got to be focused and ready to play come tomorrow."
The quest to repeat begins in heavily-favored fashion against 16th-seeded Mount St. Mary's, the Northeast Conference champions, which defeated New Orleans on Tuesday in a First Four game.
As the No. 1 overall seed, anything less than a romp by Villanova would be a surprise. Of course, with that comes another form of, you guessed it, pressure.
"You're a 1-seed, and so you're supposed to win it if you're the 1-seed, right?" Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "It's all about how you handle that, and I think having that pressure last year and having pressure this year, I think makes it a little bit easier to handle."
Wright's aim has been to get his team to embrace that -- "allow it to make you better" -- he said Wednesday.
Should the unimaginable start to look possible Thursday and the Mountaineers start to threaten, Wright knows an entire arena full of basketball fans will become the biggest Mount St. Mary's supporters on the planet. Having never happened before, the 16-over-1 upset is eagerly anticipated.
"We played Monmouth in the Wells Fargo Center where we play our home games. They were a 16-seed and they made a run on us and the whole building turned on us. It was like a Monmouth home game in our arena," Wright recalled from 2006. "I was shocked. I had never experienced that. We were a No. 1 seed and everyone was going for the underdog. That's a crazy kind of pressure, especially when you're on your home court. You know those teams, they can get it going and they put game pressure on you when you're a 1-seed. You've got to be ready for it and got to overcome that, too."
Assuming they do, a matchup with either Wisconsin or Virginia Tech awaits in the second round Saturday. Win that, and the hype will only continue to build.
"That will be something surrounding us [that] will be a distraction, and we've just got to focus on each other," Hart said. "We've just got to focus on playing basketball for 40 minutes. If we do that, we'll take the outcome."
That strategy has worked to near perfection this season. A 31-3 record, Big East championship and No. 1 overall seed are the results.
"The blessing about Coach and this program is nothing ever really changes," Hart said. "I think that's the biggest thing. No matter if you're coming off a national championship year or we were coming off of that 13-19 year, nothing in this program ever changes. The core values are still the same. The commitment to our core values is still the same."
Hart gets plenty of credit for instilling those values in his younger teammates, as do fellow seniors Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds. Those three were asked Wednesday if they have been able to fully enjoy the run they've been on.
"I think it was harder last year to embrace it, just with … everything that came around with the first-round exit or the first-weekend exit, the last couple of years, so that was kind of hard to embrace," Hart said. "Because we knew, no matter how we played, that first game, we knew we were going to have to -- if we won that one, we knew we were going to have to answer that question and we knew that was going to be the big story and everything the next couple of days.
"And now, it's hard to do it now because we have questions about repeating. So, you know, you can't really embrace it too much. Obviously, it's a blessing being able to be here. … But that's why we've got to just rely on each other and focus on each other and don't focus on anything else. We have to embrace the time we have together at the end."
"Just take it one day at a time, one game at a time," Jenkins added. "We really enjoy being around each other, and we're looking forward to tomorrow."
"You can't look too far behind or too far forward because you end up tripping on what you're doing right now," Reynolds said. "Coach is trying to drive that home, just focusing on the present, focusing on the next game. We can think about repeating and completely overlook the next game, and you lose, and you don't even have a chance to make it to that point to be able to repeat. So it's just something we've been doing the last couple years, just making sure we're focused on the next game, focused on what we can control at the moment."

Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

AP Images

Villanova moves up to No. 1 in the nation

If you're looking for a sliver of good news on a depressing day in Philly sports, Villanova is now the No. 1 team in the nation.

The 10-0 Wildcats moved up to the top spot in Monday's AP poll, receiving 41 of 65 first-place votes.

Michigan State, Wichita State, Duke and Arizona State round out the top five, in that order (see Top 25).

Duke, the unanimous No. 1 team the last two Mondays, lost 89-84 on Saturday at Boston College.

Last week's No. 2 team, Kansas, moved down to No. 13 after losing twice last week to Washington and Arizona State.

Villanova plays twice this week — at Temple on Wednesday for a Big 5 showdown, then vs. Hofstra on Friday night. Those are the Wildcats' last two non-conference games before they begin Big East play on Dec. 27 at DePaul.

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare

AP Images

Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth help No. 4 Villanova survive La Salle scare


Duke's run at No. 1 ended with a court-storming loss at Boston College and No. 2 Kansas wilted in a rare home loss.

Undaunted and undefeated, Villanova is charging toward the top spot.

"We played the next No. 1 team in the country," La Salle coach John Giannini said Sunday.

The Explorers got a taste of how tough it can be to knock off the Wildcats. La Salle scored more baskets, sank more 3-pointers, had more steals and still was just another victim in Villanova's unbeaten season.

Phil Booth scored 18 points and Donte DiVincenzo had 18 points and 10 rebounds to help the fourth-ranked Wildcats avoid an upset in a 77-68 win over La Salle.

"They don't have bad games," Giannini said.

This was as close as one gets for the Wildcats (10-0). They were sloppy -- throwing the ball away several times on outlet passes -- slumped from the 3-point line and could not shake the pesky Explorers until the final minutes of the game to win their 21st straight Big 5 game.

The Wildcats had depth and a massive edge from the free-throw line to sink the Explorers. La Salle (5-6) was a two-man show in B.J Johnson and Amar Stukes, and that was enough to give them a 62-61 lead with 4:47 left.

But the Wildcats had Booth and DiVincenzo, and Jalen Brunson scored 17 and Mikal Bridges, quiet all game, came to life for crucial baskets late to seal the win. Throw in the whopping disparity from the line -- Villanova made 27 of 35, La Salle was 4 of 5 -- and the Wildcats made their case for why they should fight it out with No 3. Michigan State (9-1) to become the new No. 1 team in the AP Top 25.

"It's a great lesson for our guys. The score isn't always what the game is really about," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Booth put the Wildcats ahead with three free throws and followed with an assist on DiVincenzo's 3-pointer that made it 67-62 and finally gave them a bit of breathing room. Bridges, coming off a career-high 28 points against Gonzaga, went inside for a pair of tough buckets and a 71-64 lead that brought the Villanova fans to their feet.

"These guys have played in these games. They're not surprised," Wright said.

Johnson led the Explorers with 21 points and Stukes had 16 to help keep slim hopes alive of pulling off a stunner. The duo combined to hit seven 3-pointers and carried La Salle to the brink of victory.

"When we're out there and we started making plays, we felt like we could do that against anybody," Stukes said. "The shots started falling. We just had to play defense."

The Wildcats beat No. 12 Gonzaga by 16 points this week at Madison Square Garden and were expected to roll against the Explorers at the Wells Fargo Center. The foundation for their perfect record had come from the 3-point line; the Wildcats hit a school-record 19 against Saint Joseph's and buried 10 against the Zags. Against the Explorers, the 3s dried up in the first half. Villanova missed its first six attempts and missed eight of 10 overall in the half.

La Salle went the opposite direction in the first half. Shooting a miserable 29 percent from 3-point range this season, the Explorers went 6 of 12 to take a 38-37 lead. Stukes hit two straight 3s and his bucket a tick before the horn gave La Salle the lead at the break.

Villanova, La Salle, Saint Joseph's, Temple and Penn make up the city series field. The Wildcats have emerged as the class of the city and haven't been defeated by a Philadelphia-area team since Temple won on Dec. 5, 2012.

Big picture
La Salle: The Explorers lost for the 15th time in the last 16 games against Villanova. But a lot of teams lose all the time to `Nova. It's what the Explorers do from here that will define their season. They have two more nonconference games to shape up before they open the Atlantic 10 season Dec. 30 against St. Louis. The Explorers haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and will need more consistent performances like they had in the first half to get there again this season.

Villanova: The Wildcats win again. Even when the score is close, the outcome never seems in doubt against a city school. Los Angeles Lakers rookie Josh Hart, one of the stars of the 2016 national championship team, sat courtside and earned a standing ovation as the alum of the game. He trash-talked Johnson in the second half and laughed when the La Salle forward buried a bucket after their exchange.

Villanova played without G Collin Gillespie because of a left wrist injury suffered in practice.

Up next
La Salle: Hosts Mercer on Sunday.

Villanova: The Wildcats finish the Big 5 season Wednesday at Temple.