The NCAA tournament has been full of surprises, except if you’ve been following solely the East Region.
The South Region is without its top four seeds, including overall No. 1 Virginia, and you don’t hear John Calipari, the coach of fifth-seeded Kentucky, complaining anymore about how tough the draw was. Xavier and North Carolina, the first and second seeds, have been eliminated in the West. The Midwest has an interloper in No. 11 Syracuse and its lovable coach, Jim Boeheim.
In fact, if you look at the Sweet 16, there are as many 11-seeds still playing – Syracuse and Loyola Chicago – as top seeds, Villanova and Kansas.
But it’s business as usual in the East, where the Wildcats (32-4) will gather in Boston with No. 2 Purdue, No. 3 Texas Tech and No. 5 West Virginia starting Friday night. The Cats will take on the Mountaineers (26-10) in the first game of the regional semifinal doubleheader at TD Garden.
Villanova coach Jay Wright has followed some of the upsets, including UMBC’s historic 20-point win over Virginia, that have him shaking his head.
“I think we’ve been through it enough,” he said. “Our guys know that it can happen to anybody. The 1-16 game, we have been in that position — you knew it was going to happen because we were close a couple of times. So I think players in general now on both sides know anybody can win any game.”
Being the No. 2 overall seed, Villanova has its share of outside expectations to deal with, especially considering that the Wildcats now are the favorites in Las Vegas to win the national championship. But their players say they don’t feel the expectations.
“There’s no pressure,” said forward Mikal Bridges, coming off a terrific 22-point second half in Saturday’s second-round win over Alabama.
“We knew before the tournament started that anybody could be beaten, and we could be beaten, too. We never take anybody lightly, and we always play for 40 minutes no matter what the situation is. It’s one game and you’re out, so it’s being dialed in and locked in.”
Villanova drew the lowest surviving seed in the East, which just happens to be a physical and tenacious West Virginia team.
“Yeah, we always get guys that are better than their seeding,” Wright said. “I think they’re a capable Final Four team, as capable as anybody. But once you get this far in the tournament, you’re not going to get anybody soft.”
The coach recalled some past brackets involving his team, such as the Cats’ rather unexpected march into the Sweet 16 in 2008 as a 12th seed, and their road to the Final Four as a third seed in 2009.
“It always seems to go that way,” he said. “I remember in ’09, we looked at our brackets and it was UCLA, Duke, Pitt, and we were like, ‘Oh my God!’ You’ve been in it long enough, it’s the NCAA tournament, anything can happen. You could be the one to go down.
“We got an upset in ’08 when we got Siena [No. 13 seed]. We upset Clemson, and Siena upset Vanderbilt. We beat Siena to go to the Sweet 16, which was a good team but it wasn’t Vandy.
“So if you’re in it long enough, it evens out. The thing is, for these kids, it hasn’t evened out. For Villanova, it has.”