03/20 18:35 CDT Defending champ Villanova enters NCAAs from different angle
Defending champ Villanova enters NCAAs from different angle
By RALPH D. RUSSO
AP College Sports Writer
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) --- Villanova is coming into the NCAA Tournament this year
from an unfamiliar angle.
The defending national champions bring the cache that comes with two NCAA
titles in the last three seasons, along with a couple of key senior leaders who
have a wealth of postseason experience and, of course, their famously
Beyond that much has changed.
Villanova is a sixth seed in the West Region, facing 11th-seeded St. Mary's on
Thursday night in Hartford. Not too far away from their Philadelphia home, the
Wildcats will likely be well-supported in Connecticut. But for the first time
since the 2013 tournament, Villanova is not a No. 1 or 2 seed.
"It's different," Villanova coach Jay Wright said Wednesday. "I don't think
we'd be honest if we didn't admit to that, you know? But it's not bad, you
Villanova had four players drafted off of last year's team, which buzz-sawed
through the field to win the school's third title overall and second under
Wright. The rebuild this season was made more difficult because a couple of
last year's departures were unexpected. Donte DiVincenzo entered the draft
after he rocketed to stardom in the tournament. Omari Spellman, a big man with
range, also jumped into the draft earlier than most expected.
That left fifth-year senior guard Phil Booth and senior forward Eric Paschall
to lead the way on a team that otherwise had very little experience. There were
plenty of growing pains: A loss at Penn in December, followed by another loss
at Kansas. In February, Villanova had a string of three straight Big East
losses and four in five games. The Wildcats had not lost more than four
conference games in a season since 2012-13.
"So the journey for this team has been different this whole year," said Booth,
who leads the team at 18.6 points per game and 3.8 assists.
Villanova did win a third straight Big East Tournament title last week, getting
key contributions from some of the younger players such as sophomore Jermaine
Samuels and freshman Saddiq Bey who the seniors have tried to bring along.
"It's been a challenge, of course, but I definitely feel like we've embraced
it," said Paschall, who averages 16.5 points and 6.2 rebounds.
The Wildcats are still a team that leans heavily on the 3, though not with the
same efficiency they have in recent years.
St. Mary's, fresh off an upset of top-seeded Gonzaga in the West Coast
Conference championship game, has been playing stingy 3-point defense recently.
In winning seven of eight, the Gaels have allowed opponents to shoot 27 percent
from the 3-point line. The run started after a humbling 48-point loss to
Gonzaga in early February.
"We took it pretty bad after Gonzaga a few weeks back, and got in the film room
and on the court as well, and it was a real conscientious effort to just lift
intensity," Gaels center Jordan Hunter said.
St. Mary's coach Randy Bennett is in his 18th season leading the Gaels. They
haven't quite kept pace with Gonzaga in the WCC, but they have clearly been the
No. 2 team in that conference for a while.
The last time St. Mary's and Villanova met was in the 2010 NCAA Tournament and
the 10th-seeded Gaels upset the No. 2 seed Wildcats.
"That was probably the biggest win in St. Mary's program history," Bennett said
"It kind of came out of nowhere."
No. 3 seed Purdue is built around the playmaking and scoring of guard Carsen
Edwards, and lately he has been missing a lot more than he has been making.
Heading into the Boilermakers' first-round matchup with Old Dominion, the
champions of Conference USA, Edwards is 6 for his last 33 from 3-point range.
He has also been dealing with a back issue, but he again downplayed that
"I'm OK," the junior said. "Just taking it day by day, just trying to get
treatment and things like that. I don't want it to be a big deal or anything
Edwards averages 23 points. Ryan Cline is the team's second-leading scorer at
11.9. Edwards is not the most efficient scorer, but his shooting percentages
this season have dropped from 45.8 percent from the field to 38.6 and 40.6
percent from 3-point range to 33.5.
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