How far can 'Nova go?

So what's on your bracket?

Ninth-seeded Villanova has an interesting first-round matchup against No. 8 George Mason in its initial game of the NCAA tournament on Friday afternoon (2:10 p.m., TNT) in Cleveland.

In prior years, you would look up to the first line on the bracket, see the top seed sitting there -- in this case, Ohio State -- and rub your hands together in anticipation.

But this is a different year for the Wildcats. They enter the NCAA tournament on a five-game losing streak, which reportedly is the first time that's ever happened. They have only a few precious days until Friday to regain their mid-season form and, more importantly, their confidence.

George Mason is no pushover. In fact, the Patriots gave the Wildcats a pair of battles in the last four years, and that's when the Cats were playing much better than they are now.

In 2007, at the Old Spice Classic during Thanksgiving weekend, George Mason held its own until the final three minutes and 'Nova captured an 84-76 win. Two years later, in Puerto Rico, then-freshman Isaiah Armwood took the first three-pointer of his career, and hit it, for the winning baskets in the Cats' 69-68 victory.

The Patriots (26-6) won 16 straight games during the season and captured the regular season title in the Colonial Athletic Association before losing in the CAA semifinals. They reached the Final Four in 2006 and last played in the NCAAs in 2008.

Say what you want about the CAA, which also claims Drexel as a member. George Mason had only five games, out of its 18 in the conference, in which the final margin was fewer than 10 points. The Patriots shot 47.4 percent from the field and 39.7 percent from behind the three-point arc.

So Villanova will have its hands full. The question is: Will the Wildcat team that shows up at Quicken Loans Arena the one that played the first half against South Florida, taking a 49-33 lead, or the one that struggled to score 20 points in the second half while coughing up that lead?

Coach Jay Wright said that by Friday, the Wildcats should be completely healthy barring anything unforeseen happening in practice. Corey Stokes said Sunday he is 100 percent. Corey Fisher will take it easy Monday, but the tendinitis in his right knee is not expected to be an issue Friday.

Even 6-foot-11 center Mouphtaou Yarou, who bruised his ribs, shoulder and wrist in a horrendous fall on Tuesday night, practiced at close to full-speed on Sunday and Wright expects him to be fine by Friday.

You can bet the house and the car there will be no looking ahead to Ohio State.

If you consider Villanova's poor play over the last six weeks, and what Wright said to reporters on Sunday about things looking up, the pick is by no means an easy one.

We're not going to make one at this moment, but whoever wins this matchup should be ready to pack up after the next game, when Ohio State flexes its muscle.

We'll be in touch later.

--Joe Juliano