HARTFORD, Conn. – Now that Villanova’s young players have passed their first postseason test, they get an opportunity to climb an even larger stage in the NCAA Tournament and the added attention that is fixed on the defending national champion.

The question is how well the seven freshmen and sophomores on the Wildcats (25-9) will handle the next level, the added media attention, the long bus ride from their hotel in suburban Glastonbury and the atmosphere inside the XL Center when they take on Saint Mary’s (22-11) in their first-round game Thursday night.

Coach Jay Wright thinks they’ll be fine.

“I thought as the [Big East] Tournament went on, we got better,” Wright said Wednesday. “I thought in the Seton Hall (championship) game, everybody looked really comfortable. I really think that environment, and that one-and-done feeling, can help them here in the NCAA Tournament.

“I do think all of this is distracting for a player, in a good way. You know, they love it. The practice you have in front of a crowd, that’s the one piece you can’t simulate in the Big East Tournament. So how they handle all that is going to be interesting, but I definitely feel like the Big East Tournament helped us.”

Some of the underclassmen played a role in the Wildcats’ Big East championship run. Sophomore Collin Gillespie scored 19 points in a quarterfinal win over Providence. Sophomore Jermaine Samuels had 17 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists against Xavier. Freshman Saddiq Bey posted his second career double-double, 16 points and 10 rebounds, in the title game versus Seton Hall.

“I definitely feel like they did a great job, especially with three tough-it-out games, being all close games,” senior forward Eric Paschall said. “I feel like the young guys are doing a great job and continuing to get better in practice, just learning how to play Villanova basketball every second.”

Paschall and senior Phil Booth have led the Wildcats all season. Booth, the only player on the current roster who played in both the 2016 and 2018 national championship games, has 14 games of experience in the NCAAs. He likes what he has seen from his younger teammates.

“They’ve done a great job all season, made big impacts all season, especially in the Big East Tournament,” he said. “It’s no surprise they’ve played so well. In the NCAA Tournament, there’s a lot of distractions going on, a lot of things that can get in your head. If you focus on the opponent in front of you, take it one game at a time, that’s the best you can really do.”

Coach Jay Wright huddles his team at the start of practice. Villanova ran through their public practice session at the XL Center in Hartford, CT on March 20, 2019 as they prepare for their game against St. Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Coach Jay Wright huddles his team at the start of practice. Villanova ran through their public practice session at the XL Center in Hartford, CT on March 20, 2019 as they prepare for their game against St. Mary’s in the NCAA Tournament.

Saint Mary’s won the automatic bid from the West Coast Conference with a 60-47 upset of top-ranked Gonzaga. The Gaels play at a controlled pace, ranking 347th among the 352 Division I teams in adjusted tempo according to kenpom.com. They also guard the three-point shot well, allowing opponents to hit 31.8 percent of their attempts and an average of 5.4 threes per game.

That could be a problem for the Wildcats, who average 10.6 threes and attempt 53.5 percent of their shots from the floor behind the arc.

“They have the ability to keep enough space to keep you in front of them, take away threes, and protect the rim,” Wright said. “It’s a great scheme. I don’t think anybody that we’ve seen does it like they do, and we like to shoot threes. So it’s going to be a really tough challenge for us because they don’t do it like anyone else does it.”