Villanova's quest for its second national championship in the last three years begins Thursday. 'Nova, the No. 1 seed in the East Region for the third time in four years, takes on Radford in the first round.
Villanova is the favorite to win its region. In fact, Vegas bookmakers have installed the Wildcats as the overall favorite to win the national championship. There are several reasons for that vote of confidence. First and foremost, Villanova is really good. The Wildcats have two of the best players in the country in Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. Factor in Donte DiVincenzo, Phil Booth, Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall, and Villanova has as much talent as anyone. This is the best offensive team Jay Wright has had at Villanova. This season the Wildcats averaged over 87 points and shot 50.4 percent from the field. They improved significantly defensively toward the end of the season, holding their last five opponents to an average of 69 points.
The Wildcats are also healthy for the first time since early December. Booth and Paschall both missed significant time in February, resulting in a 3-3 stretch for Villanova. But 'Nova won its last five games as Wright settled on an eight-man rotation featuring a heavy reliance on his starters and DiVincenzo. Barring foul trouble, freshmen Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree should see limited minutes in the tournament.
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This distinction goes to Alabama freshman Collin Sexton, who Villanova could face in the second round Saturday. Sexton will be a lottery pick in the 2018 NBA draft. He's an explosive lead guard tailor-made for the NBA. Sexton averages 19 points and took it up a notch last weekend, averaging 26.3 points the SEC Tournament. The second round has been a stumbling block for Villanova in recent years. Sexton has the ability to put a serious scare into the Wildcats if Alabama can get past Virginia Tech.
NCAA Tournament-tested coaches go a long way toward success. There are several such coaches in 'Nova's region. Wright has won 21 NCAA Tournament games, leading the Wildcats to five Sweet 16 appearances, two Final Fours and a national championship in 2016. This will be West Virginia coach Bob Huggins' 24th NCAA Tournament. Like Wright, Huggins has coached in two Final Fours — one each with WVU and Cincinnati. Then there's Wichita State's Gregg Marshall, who will be coaching in his 14th NCAA Tournament. Marshall led Wichita State to the Final Four in 2013 and the Sweet 16 in 2015.
If seeding holds, Villanova would play No. 2 seed Purdue in the regional final. A lot of people expected this matchup to take place back in November at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, but Purdue was upset by Tennessee in the first round. Villanova and Purdue did meet in November 2016, with the Wildcats winning 79-76 on the Boilermakers' home court. If these two teams meet in the Elite Eight, Villanova will have to contend with Purdue's 1-2 punch of sharp-shooting guard Carsen Edwards and 7-2 big man Isaac Haas.
Villanova takes advantage of a favorable draw and advances to its second Final Four in the last three years. The Wildcats will handle Radford and contain Sexton and Alabama in the second round. They'll survive a tough test from WVU in the Sweet 16 before beating Purdue in the Elite Eight. From there it's on to the Final Four, where a whole new set of challenges will await.