BOSTON – With 35 seconds remaining on the clock and Villanova leading by 12 points, Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard held up his arms to concede the inevitable. He’d watched Villanova spend the East Regional final here on Sunday afternoon passing the ball with a kinetic joy, probing the lane with a deft opportunism and matching Texas Tech’s intensity with a defiant man-to-man defense. The top-seeded Wildcats beat the No. 3 Red Raiders, 71-59, despite scoring less field goals, shooting 16.7 percent from 3-point range and registering just seven assists. Somehow, Villanova turned an alley fight into a comfortable victory.
In an NCAA tournament defined by upsets, complete chaos and unexpected underdogs, the Wildcats have remained college basketball’s most reliable and predictable juggernaut. The style and tenor of their victories may vary, but they’ll head to San Antonio as the overwhelming favorite to win the national title. At this point, picking against Villanova would be as foolish as expecting a coach dressed better than Jay Wright at the Final Four.
Villanova has won all eight of its March basketball games by double-digits, and it has won them in varying ways. Villanova can pinball the scoreboard with small ball, exhaust your offensive energy with stifling defense and withstand the most garish of nights when stars Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson combine to shoot 0-for-9 from 3-point range.
“You think it’s their 3-point shooting, their small ball, their athleticism, but by far their identity is their toughness,” Beard said. “It’s one of the toughest teams we played this year.”
Villanova bullied its way through the final two games of the East Regional here, gnashing past West Virginia, the country’s most disruptive defense, by 12 points, and then holding Texas Tech to 33.3 percent shooting while grabbing a season-high 20 offensive rebounds.
Villanova heads back to Texas for the Final Four after winning it all in Houston in 2016, and it’ll arrive in San Antonio as the prohibitive favorite to win again. In this 2108 NCAA tournament, the Wildcats have developed the aura of a collegiate version of Jordan’s Bulls team, Jeter’s 1990s Yankees and the mid-1980s Bears. Even when they’re winning ugly, they’re winning comfortably, as they’ve won four NCAA tournament games by an average of 18 points.
“What we do, playing Villanova basketball, can get us to where we want to get,” said Bridges as he munched on popcorn at his locker after the game. “We take pride in it even more.”
Nova is the most complete team remaining in the NCAA tournament, boasting the ideal personnel to topple whomever it faces in San Antonio. The Wildcats face Kansas on Saturday, and Villanova is essentially a better version of the Jayhawks’ new small-ball identity.
In the title game on Monday night, Villanova would have exponentially better personnel than either No. 3 Michigan or No. 11 Loyola Chicago. Plus, their defensive strength – No. 33 nationally guarding the 3-point shot – would neutralize what those teams do best.
No team in the Final Four will play Villanova with the defensive edge it saw this weekend in Boston. West Virginia tried to bully Villanova and Texas Tech sent defenders at them in waves. Both were stoically brushed aside. Anyone who has seen the Wildcats’ balletic offense knows they can outscore you, as they are the country’s No. 1-ranked offensive outfit. But this weekend showed Villanova can out-grind you, something that impressed Beard.
“They can obviously beat anybody in the tournament with a 3-point shot,” Beard said. “They proved tonight that they can beat good teams without the 3 as well.”
Villanova’s errant shooting allowed Tech to hang around, as the Red Raiders cut the Wildcats’ lead to 59-53 with 2:14 remaining. The sequence that sealed the game for Villanova summed up the nuanced advantages that will serve them well in San Antonio.
Leading by six points, Eric Paschall fumbled the ball on the wing and saw himself enveloped in a double-team. Wright called a timeout to ensure Villanova didn’t lose possession, and his astuteness to settle things down paid off. Out of the time out, Brunson found himself isolated with Keenan Evans in the post and methodically hip-nudged his way into position to bank in a flip shot over him. “It was like watching Magic Johnson back down [a defender],” Beard said.
Brunson is the best college player remaining in the tournament. In an era obsessed with mock drafts, Brunson continues to mock defenses. He led the Wildcats with 15 points, four assists and six rebounds, leading Villanova’s balanced charge with five players in double figures.
Brunson’s back-down hoop provided Villanova’s only basket in the game’s final 2:57, but the timeout and veteran post move showed that Villanova’s two best assets – coach and star point guard – were ready to deliver when doubt could creep in. And if anyone doubted the Wildcats’ mettle, they hit 15 of 16 free throws in the second half.
“It’s the character of these guys,” Wright said. “They don’t judge themselves by whether their shots are going in or whether they look pretty. It’s how they play for each other.”
Villanova showcased its talent, mojo and experience to escape a pair of street fights in Boston this weekend. It’d be foolish to not expect them back atop the ladders and cutting down the nets next Monday night in San Antonio.
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