Impressive opening wins on Friday send Villanova and Ohio State into a second-round matchup with a date in the Sweet 16 at stake.
Both the Buckeyes and Big Ten Tournament-winning Wildcats surged ahead in the first half on Friday, thanks to stifling defense. Ohio State (20-11) held Loyola to just 41 points in a 13-point victory that often felt more lopsided than the final score indicates.
After falling behind Colonial Athletic Association Tournament champion Delaware early, Villanova (27-7) took control and cruised to an 80-60 win.
South Region: No. 7 Ohio State (20-11) vs. No. 2 Villanova (27-7)
Time: Sunday, March 20 at 2:40 p.m. ET (approximately)
Where: PPG Paints Arena (Pittsburgh)
Spread: Villanova -5.5
Keys for Ohio State
The Buckeyes successfully beat Loyola Chicago at its own game, forcing the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament champion into a putrid shooting performance of just 25 percent inside the 3-point arc and 28.6 percent beyond it. Ohio State held the Ramblers to just 0.65 points per possession, substantially fewer than their 1.065 average per TeamRankings.com.
The Buckeyes' defense allowed them to build a cushion their slow-tempo opponent was ill-equipped to bridge. Against Villanova, Ohio State will see another methodical offense. The Wildcats average almost 20 seconds per possession via KenPom.com for one of college basketball's slowest paces, but score at one of the best PPP rates of 1.104.
Villanova owes its efficiency in large part to its outstanding 3-point shooting. Collin Gillespie's 42.3 percent from deep paces the Wildcats, who make 36.2 percent as a team. Nearly half of all Villanova's field-goal attempts come from deep, so if Ohio State can approach its outstanding defensive performance from the first round on Sunday, the Buckeyes will dance on to the Sweet 16.
"We're going to have to if we want to win," Malaki Branham said in Saturday's press conference of replicating Friday's defensive effort. "If we just stay connected like we've been doing last game, I feel like we're going to be in good shape."
Keys for Villanova
Keeping Ohio State out of the interior could be crucial for the Wildcats. In late-season losses to Maryland, Nebraska, Michigan and Penn State, the Buckeyes were held to 16 made 2-point field goals or fewer, and below 50 percent shooting from inside the arc in all but one of those games.
Preventing the Buckeyes from getting inside is more of a challenge now than it was at the tail-end of the regular season, however, with the return of Kyle Young to the lineup. Young gives Ohio State more length and a versatile playmaker for which the Villanova defense must account while also trying to limit All-American E.J. Liddell and Branham, the latter of whom has played his best ball in the last few weeks.
"E.J. and Malaki are definitely two of their more dominant ball handlers, guys who have the ball in their hands," Gillespie said at Saturday's media availability. "So you've got to focus on those guys but also try to take away the other things that the other guys also do."
Jermaine Samuels gives Villanova a tough physical presence inside, and the perimeter defenders effectively pack in. The Wildcats force opponents to shoot 3-pointers at a high rate, but close out with discipline to force a low percentage (30.6).
The Ohio State team that limped to a conclusion in the regular season isn't the bunch that showed up against Loyola Chicago. Young's return and Branham's continued maturation make this much more comparable to the team that broke into the top 15 of the AP poll, and the Buckeyes have the pieces necessary to get to the Sweet 16.
Villanova's experience and head coach Jay Wright's recent run of postseason success suggest the Wildcats will be ready for Ohio State. Seniors Gillespie and Samuels are savvy leaders, and junior Justin Moore has picked up his scoring production since mid-February. That should be enough to propel Villanova to the next round.