NCAA

Can Villanova get back to the Final Four earlier than expected?

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Can Villanova get back to the Final Four earlier than expected?

Is Villanova ahead of schedule?

It's a question worth considering as this college basketball season careens towards what figures to be an especially wild and unpredictable month of March. 

With no scholarship seniors on the roster, a lot of people - myself included - figured the Wildcats were a year away from seriously contending for another national championship. I expected this year's group to improve as the season progressed, compete for a Big East championship and maybe win a couple NCAA Tournament games. Then, with everyone returning for the 2020-2021 season, they'd be a Top 5 team with a legit shot of winning the program's fourth national title and third since 2016.  

But several factors have me thinking these Wildcats could arrive at the Final Four a year early.

Villanova won its 20th game of the season Wednesday night at DePaul, a convincing 91-71 victory in which the Wildcats made 18 of their 26 three-point attempts. They are ranked 12th in the country, with an opportunity to climb higher with a win Saturday at Xavier. They are 20-6 overall and 9-4 in the Big East, and a three-game losing streak a few weeks ago is starting to feel like a distant memory.  

As is often the case with Jay Wright's teams, this group is picking up steam as February comes to a close. They are playing that familiar selfless brand of 'Villanova basketball' that has served Wright's previous teams so well in postseason play. 

And, maybe most importantly, there aren't any dominant teams in college basketball this season. No teams that would be an insurmountable obstacle to Villanova in the NCAA Tournament.

So does Villanova have a shot to win it all this year? Here are three reasons why it could happen, and three reasons why they could fall short.

3 reasons Villanova can win a National Championship

1. The Gillespie-Bey 1-2 Punch

Junior Collin Gillespie and sophomore Saddiq Bey are as good a duo as any in the country. Both guys are capable of carrying Villanova in March. Gillespie leads Villanova in scoring, assists and steals. He scored a season-high 29 points last Sunday at Temple and is averaging more than 18 points in his last 13 games. He's shooting 43 percent from three-point range over that span and is a strong candidate for First Team All-Big East honors.

Bey is in the midst of a breakout season that has put him squarely on the radar of NBA talent evaluators. He's averaging 15.6 points and 5.0 rebounds and leads Villanova with a 46 percent three-point accuracy. Like Gillespie, Bey has stepped up his production in recent weeks. He's averaging more than 17 points and is shooting 52 percent from three point range in his last 12 games. Of course, Bey is playing himself into becoming a potential first round draft pick, which would throw a wrench into the notion that everyone will be back for Villanova next season.

2. Three-Point Barrage

Villanova shoots a ton of three-point shots. It can be ugly when those shots aren't falling (more on that later). But when the shots are going down, they can beat anyone in the country, and we've seen the Wildcats at their best recently. Dating back to halftime of Sunday’s win at Temple and extending through Wednesday's win at DePaul, Villanova has made 31 of its last 46 three-point attempts, a staggering 67 percent.

It would be silly to expect that type of shooting to continue. But even if they can make close to 40 percent of their long range shots, they'll be a very tough out in March.

3. Freshmen Maturing

Villanova's two freshman starters are X-factors: the Wildcats are very difficult to deal with when Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore are playing well. Robinson-Earl was just named the Big East Freshman of the Week for the sixth time this season. He's averaging 10.9 points and 9.3 rebounds and has established himself as an elite rebounder on the collegiate level. He's also playing with more confidence on the offensive end, trusting his ability to knock down the perimeter jumper.

Moore was terrific against DePaul, scoring 17 points and making 4 of 5 three-point attempts. He's proven to be a very skilled guard capable of getting to the basket as well as scoring from the outside, and he plays a valuable role as a complementary scorer to Gillespie and Bey.

3 reasons Villanova could fall short

1. Trouble on the Boards

The Wildcats have been significantly out-rebounded on several occasions and are particularly vulnerable on the offensive glass. This problem is exacerbated when Robinson-Earl gets in foul trouble. They were out-rebounded by an average of nearly seven rebounds per game during a three-game losing streak in early February. Villanova currently ranks 129th in the country in rebounding margin, pretty average among 350 Division 1 schools. This is definitely something worth monitoring in March when each possession becomes more valuable.

2. Sleeping in the Streets

One of Wright's favorite mottos is 'Shoot 'em up and sleep in the streets'. It means, for better or for worse, Villanova is going to keep shooting. Wright doesn't want his players to hesitate when they have an open look. Shoot first and ask questions later. As mentioned earlier, when the Wildcats are making shots it's a thing of beauty. But when they're not, it can make for some agonizing offensive performances.

Villanova has its share of good shooters, but they also have several inconsistent shooters. In the one-and-done format of the NCAA Tournament, they're one cold-shooting night away from elimination.

3. Slow Starts

Villanova has struggled at the beginning of games quite a bit this season. It's not uncommon to look up at the scoreboard 10 minutes into the game and see them with 10 or 12 points. Sometimes they're able to overcome these sluggish starts, sometimes they're not. As the level of competition picks up in March, it becomes more difficult to climb out of a double-digit hole in the first half. Starting games with more energy will be a point of emphasis with postseason basketball right around the corner.

Jay Wright talks Saddiq Bey, missing March Madness, Phillies

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Jay Wright talks Saddiq Bey, missing March Madness, Phillies

It's been 12 days since Villanova's season ended abruptly due to the coronavirus crisis. Jay Wright held a video conference on Wednesday to discuss a number of topics. 

Here are the major takeaways from Wright's session with the media.  

This March is different

Villanova missed out on opportunities to win a fourth straight Big East Tournament and participate in the NCAA Tournament for the 15th time in the last 16 years. The Wildcats won eight of their final nine games to clinch a share of the Big East regular season title. Not having a chance to shine in the postseason stings. 

"Missing the NCAA Tournament is obviously tough for our guys," Wright said. "We felt like we were playing great basketball, coming on strong. I always say we want to play our best basketball at the end of the year, and I think we were doing that. It is what it is, our guys get it. 

"It's a great example of our mantra 'attitude'. We try to teach our guys that you don't have control over what happens in life. What you do have control of is your response to what happens to you. 

"I don't know if there's even been a March where I wasn't either in (the NCAA Tournament), watching it or recruiting during it. I'm testing myself on what else is there in me? Being a better father, being a better husband. Spending more time with the kids, watching more movies, reading more, trying to be more worldly. I'm not very good at it but I'm trying."

Will Saddiq Bey leave for the NBA? 

Arguably the biggest question concerning Wright's team heading into the offseason is will Saddiq Bey leave for the NBA or will he return for his junior season at Villanova? Wright mentioned that Bey was especially disappointed when this season was cut short. He realizes that he has a big decision to make on his future. Wright discussed Bey's future plans as well as freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who is also considered an NBA prospect. 

"The NBA is still on hold," Wright said. "They don't have a plan yet for what they're going to do with the pre-draft process or the draft yet. Saddiq and Jeremiah probably both will go through that process when we find out what it is. They're waiting on us for information, should they start working out? We're trying to get them as much information as possible. 

"If we were in a normal timeline, they would both go through the process. As we learn what the NBA is going to do there are so many possibilities. Just to take it to an extreme, there's a possibility they might not have a pre-draft process and just have the draft with no workouts, using the evaluations they had during the season. 

"We're communicating with both of them daily. Saddiq is having a tough time trying to find a place to work out in [his hometown] Washington D.C. He just got a gym to get into so he can shoot, he can't find a gym to get into to lift. Jeremiah is trying to find a place around here to get into to shoot."

2020 Summer Olympics postponed

Wright was supposed to spend a portion of his summer as an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team in Tokyo. But with this week's announcement that the Olympics are postponed, his plans have changed. 

"It's the right decision," Wright said. "I feel bad for all of those athletes that it's once in a lifetime experience. I really feel bad for them. For basketball guys it's not as difficult. I talked with [U.S. head coach Greg Popovich] yesterday. It's postponed, obviously not cancelled, postponed until some time next spring or summer. There's a lot of questions there. They could do it late spring, when you might not have NBA players. If they did it in the summer maybe you do have NBA players. We have to wait for the IOC to make those decisions. 

"For us personally (at Villanova), it's kind of crazy because we thought we came up with this great plan. I was going to have to leave our offseason program for the Olympics. We had a plan to work around that, and now it doesn't matter. We'll be here in June and July. Now we don't even know if the players will be here. We worked so hard to put this plan in place for me being away and now it doesn't even matter."

Phillies season on hold

A Bucks County native, Wright is a huge Philadelphia sports fan. He had Phillies season tickets as a kid and is a regular at Citizens Bank Park during the summer months. Like all Phillies fans, he's disappointed the baseball season isn't starting this week.

"The end of the basketball season was always sobering," Wright said. "But what always saved us was the start of the Phillies. Opening Day and the start of baseball season in our family is a big deal. 

"We watch the spring training games, we'll even joke, 'Who do the Phillies play tonight?' It's really surreal. Spring time without baseball, especially the Phillies, is bizarre. It's really the way myself and my family get ourselves out of basketball mode. We go to Opening Day, we go to the Phillies games, we love 'Bark in the Park', we always bring the dogs. We're really going to miss it."

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Florida Gulf Coast's massive NCAA Tournament upset in Philly was the Best Game I Ever Saw Live

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Florida Gulf Coast's massive NCAA Tournament upset in Philly was the Best Game I Ever Saw Live

I'll be honest. My North Philadelphia roots didn't make room for a lot of in-person sporting events. So as an adult, getting to the games was a must and the NCAA Tournament was always high on the list. Every March, I rooted for the Philly teams and the players I loved. So when the tournament came to Wells Fargo Center in March of 2013, I was all in. 

Thanks to Florida Gulf Coast University I got the complete and full embodiment of March Madness and then some.

The WFC has seen a ton of great basketball, from Allen Iverson's ear cupped encores to the frenzied success of Villanova's second home in South Philly. 

I guarantee you it was never wilder there than when this bracket-busting 15-seed had fans mobbing them in the hallway after an upset over Georgetown.

FGCU had all the swagger of James Brown in a fresh jumpsuit taking the court against the Hoyas. I had no idea what I was about to see.

They called themselves "Dunk City" and by the time the game was over, Georgetown was also calling them Daddy. I actually had Georgetown going to the Final Four in my personal tournament bracket, which as a 2-seed was a pretty mundane pick. That may also explain some of the bitter feelings I have thinking back on the cocktail of emotions I experienced as FGCU turned my "sheet of integrity" into liner for my cats' litter box. 

I'll never forget how those blue and green uniforms flew up and down the court, dunk after dunk. But it wasn't just the fact that they were dunking or hitting important shots, it was the way they were doing it. There were alley-oops, back-door slams, tip dunks, chin-ups on the rim. There were heat check three-pointers from Conshohocken, catch-and-shoot, in-your-face threes. The FGCU Eagles were talking trash and backing it up, the whole. nine. yards.

These kids absolutely knew they could beat Georgetown and then went out and did it with as much bravado and moxie as if destiny owed them a favor. When the weekend was over, I guess it did. They beat San Diego State to reach the Sweet 16. The only 15-seed to ever do it.

For a city that loves a good underdog, this was Vince Papale and Rudy with a little Bad News Bears on the side. Unbelievable. Happy to say I was in the building for a flat-out epic NCAA Tournament game which brought the captivating theater of the unexpected right into my lap.