PITTSBURGH – Oh, it’s going to happen one of these years. In fact, it could still happen this year. Sooner or later, in the fullness of time, a 16-seed is going to beat a top seed in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
You can mark that down, and also mark down that the team losing that game will earn a special kind of infamy. It’s wonderful to have a team good enough to earn the top line in a region, but that first game brings a special kind of nervousness, too.
The Villanova Wildcats dodged that fate on Thursday night against Radford College in the PPG Paint Arena. It wasn’t like they just dodged it, either. The Cats took a double-digit lead on their ninth possession of the game and were never threatened by the champions of the Big South Conference. Could the game have gone differently? Probably not, but it was still a reason to exhale.
“I can’t say it doesn’t cross our mind at all,” guard Jalen Brunson said. “I think our guys do a good job … no matter who we’re playing, no matter what the situation is, no matter what the probability of us winning is, that we’re going to go out and play hard for each other. That’s all we’re going to worry about.”
The Wildcats can now move onto the next thing the players won’t worry about, even if their coach does. That is the task of getting to the second weekend of the tournament, a goal that has eluded Villanova, with one very notable exception, in six of its previous NCAA appearances.
It was a problem not worth considering Thursday night. When their 87-61 win over Radford ended, the Wildcats still didn’t know the identity of their next opponent, and it is difficult to conjure too many worries after shooting 59.6 percent from the field and raining home 14 three-point field goals.
Coach Jay Wright was happy with the effort and the execution, and also happy that his name wouldn’t be the one attached to the biggest upset ever – at least not this time.
“It’s out there. You hear it. You’re watching games … we were watching Penn, because my daughter goes to Penn, and my wife is rooting like crazy for Penn,” Wright said. “I said, ‘You’re rooting for Penn. If that happens, my boy [Kansas coach] Bill Self will be dying. But you think about it, and what you have to do when you’re the one[-seed] is do everything to fight off that distraction.
“You hear Jalen say that about percentages. They’re looking at the bottom of ESPN, talking about the percentages of winning. It’s out there. You’ve got to block that out of your head and concentrate on what you can control.”
Villanova controlled Radford with excellent defense, making every shot contested and tough for the Highlanders. Even so, Radford scrapped to the end. It pressed and trapped and took hard fouls and did the things that someday a 16-seed will do to win this game.
With the Wildcats’ win, No. 1 seeds are 114-0 since the tournament went to a 64-team main bracket. Two more will put themselves in the path of fate on Friday.
“It could happen tomorrow. Hopefully, it’s not Xavier from the Big East, but I think it’s going to happen soon” guard Donte DiVincenzo said. “Everybody is here for a reason. They won, and they won, and they won. You see these teams from small schools, they come here, and they’re ballplayers. You hear about it before the game but try not to pay attention to it until after the game. And you sure don’t want to hear about it after the game, being on the other end.”
Eight times in tournament history, a 15-seed has beaten a 2-seed. So, really, how much different would that be? It’s what Radford had to tell itself, and Penn, and what Texas Southern and University of Maryland-Baltimore County will be saying on Friday. Why not us?
Usually, there is a good answer to that question and it is, “Because you’re not good enough.” One of these days, however, it will be the wrong answer. Thursday was not that day, and Jay Wright wasn’t the coach having to explain the unexplainable.
“I know. It’s true. It’s really true,” he said, and then went back to the basketball court to watch Alabama play Virginia Tech, and to prepare for another upset that had to be avoided.