Inside Villanova’s matchup against Radford in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursady at 6:50 p.m.
The Wildcats have been an offensive machine during much of the season, and showing the same efficiency would serve them well during the tournament. But what makes Jay Wright smile going in is the way they played defense and rebounded in the Big East tournament. The Cats held their three opponents to 42.4 percent shooting and 69 points per game, and held a plus-28 advantage on the boards. Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall were particularly effective in the championship game win over Providence.
The Highlanders, who come into Thursday on an eight-game winning streak after their first-ever NCAA victory, are all about controlling the tempo. In their First Four win over LIU-Brooklyn, they held the Blackbirds to 61 points, 16 points fewer than their average. Radford ranks 14th nationally in points allowed at 64.3 per game. Offensively, the Highlanders shoot just 42.8 percent, but they go hard to the offensive glass, averaging 11.5 rebounds there. Carlik Jones, a 6-foot guard, had a double-double of 12 points and 11 boards vs. LIU.
The Villanova defense gradually has improved since the return of Phil Booth to the lineup from a broken hand on Feb. 21 gave the Cats a full roster for the first time in more than two months. In the seven games since then, they’ve held five opponents to 70 points or fewer, and five to 43.3 percent shooting or less. Radford ratcheted up its defense in the second half against LIU-Brooklyn, limiting its opponent to 30.4 percent shooting. The Highlanders force 13.0 turnovers per game and junior forward Ed Polite Jr. averages almost two steals per contest.
Villanova has enjoyed an outstanding offensive season with six players averaging in double figures and five having hit 50 or more three-point baskets. In the NCAA Division I statistics, the Wildcats are first in scoring (87.1 points per game), fifth in field-goal percentage (50.4), fourth in three-point baskets per game (11.4), 12th in turnovers (10.4), 19th in free-throw percentage (77.1) and 21st in three-point shooting (39.8 percent). The Highlanders average just 67.5 points per game, but they shot 47.5 percent and received 27 points from their bench, including 13 from 5-9 guard Travis Fields Jr., in the LIU-Brooklyn win.
In last year’s first-round game against Mount St. Mary’s, which had played the previous Tuesday, the Wildcats came in rested and struggled for much of the first half, so you know Wright would like his team to start with a little more pep on Thursday. A key component will be for their freshmen to come into their first NCAA game, get rid of the nerves and become accustomed to what may lie ahead. The Highlanders might be tired after having to play a First Four game, but they’ll be playing loose and trying to force the Wildcats to play at a slower tempo than they have during the Big East season. If they are successful, the game could be a little closer than anticipated.