PITTSBURGH — The last two Villanova teams that went to the Final Four were veteran teams with exceptional senior leadership — Dante Cunningham, Shane Clark and Dwayne Anderson in 2009, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu in 2016.
In an attempt to return to that stage, the Wildcats of 2018 are trying to do so with a younger roster. They have no scholarship seniors, although cocaptains Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth are fourth-year juniors. Floor leader and cocaptain Jalen Brunson is a junior. Three members of their eight-man rotation are freshmen.
Villanova (32-4), the top seed in the East Regional, won its first two games by a combined 49 points over Radford and Alabama to make the eighth Sweet 16 in program history and the fifth under Jay Wright.
The Wildcats, who are the first Division I team to win at least 32 games in four consecutive seasons, await the winner of a second-round contest late Sunday night between No. 5 West Virginia and No. 13 Marshall for a matchup Friday night in Boston.
The freshmen in the rotation — Omari Spellman, Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree — have contributed to their team’s early success, and have provided, in Wright’s words, “a youthful exuberance that is exciting me.”
“The last few years, we’ve had veteran, veteran, very businesslike,” he said Saturday after the Cats’ 81-58 victory over the Crimson Tide at PPG Paints Arena. “These guys get so excited. This is a unique squad, it really is. It’s fun. That’s why I think we’re getting better every day, because they still have a lot of room to grow.”
Although he was limited to 24 minutes Saturday by foul trouble, Spellman leads the Wildcats in rebounding with 17 in the two NCAA games. Gillespie contributed some valuable minutes against Alabama in the first half after Brunson sat for 10 minutes with two personals, forcing a turnover off Crimson Tide guard Collin Sexton and playing well at the point.
Cosby-Roundtree has four blocked shots in two games and has made all five of his shots.
Wright is pleased with the performance of his entire team on defense. In two NCAA games, the Cats have held opponents to an average of 59.5 points and 14.0 turnovers, plus 37.4 percent shooting, including 12 of 40 (30 percent) from beyond the arc.
“We can control how well we play together defensively, how hard we play defensively,” he said. “It’s a challenge for this team because we’ve got a lot of young guys, and we’re getting better as the season goes on. What is exciting about this team, we’re playing the best defense and rebounding the best now than we have all year.”
Bridges leads the Wildcats in the postseason (three Big East tournament and two NCAA games) with a 20.8-point average, and Brunson is right behind him at 19.4. Bridges scored all but one of his 23 points in the second half against Alabama.
The Wildcats have shot 48.7 percent in their first two NCAA games and 45.6 percent from three-point range. Their 31 threes are the second-highest total for a team in its first two NCAA games, trailing only Loyola Marymount’s 32 in 1990. They are up to 419 made threes for the season, third in NCAA Division I behind VMI, which drained 442 in 2006-07, and 438 in 2008-09.