The defending national champion draws a difficult matchup to open the 2019 Tournament
Death. Taxes. The NCAA Tournament selection committee woefully under-seeding Saint Mary's. Yep, this is March, alright.
After shocking No. 1-ranked Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference championship game, Saint Mary's — a team ranked No. 31 overall in KenPom.com metrics — was given an 11-seed, playing on the other side of the country, against the defending national champion. Some reward. Not that it's much better for Villanova, which must face an especially dangerous opening round opponent after winning the Big East Conference Tournament.
With two of the most efficient offenses in college basketball, and two of the game's premier coaches on the sidelines (Villanova's Jay Wright and Saint Mary's Randy Bennett), expect this 6 vs. 11 matchup to provide one of the most exciting games of the first round.
South Region: No. 11 Saint Mary's Gaels (22-11) vs. No. 6 Villanova Wildcats (25-9)
Time: 7:20 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: XL Center (Hartford, Conn.)
Keys for Saint Mary's
The last time Villanova lost an NCAA Tournament game, in the second round of the 2017 edition, the Wildcats were frustrated by the long defensive possessions and stifled looks at the rim Wisconsin forced. Saint Mary's is a similarly constructed team, opting to slow down the tempo dramatically when it has possession, then pestering opponents into contested shots on the other end.
The Gaels have capable shooters in Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts but would prefer to not have to score into the 70s if at all avoidable. In fact, of the Gaels' 11 regular-season losses, they put up more than 70 points in just in four of them. In contrast, Saint Mary's won six games scoring fewer than 70, including last week's WCC Championship upset of Gonzaga.
Keys for Villanova
Few teams in college basketball attempt as many 3-pointers as Villanova, and only eight owe a higher percentage of their point distribution to the deep ball than the Wildcats. Veterans Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, and rising underclassman Colin Gillespie all can shoot the 3-pointer effectively — and will need to so for Villanova to advance past Saint Mary's. A common thread in Villanova losses this season is missed shots from long range.
For example, the Wildcats hit just 31 percent against St. John's on Feb. 17. A week later, Villanova shot a dismal 27.8 percent at Xavier. In both instances, Villanova took far more 3-pointers than shots inside the arc, living up to the old cliche, "Live by the three, die by the three."
In that same vein, starting strong offensively is critical. Saint Mary's plays a grinding style, flourishing when it can keep the combined score below about 120 points. Villanova needs to assert a higher tempo against an opponent ranked No. 347 nationally in adjusted tempo, per KenPom.
This may be the most intriguing first-round showdown on the docket. Jay Wright's emphatically shaken off any stigma about March performances, winning two national championships in three seasons. Despite losing a veritable college All-Star team from last season's title roster, Villanova did well to win the Big East and garner a manageable bracket in 2019, despite drawing a badly under-seeded challenge in its opening matchup.
Saint Mary's deserved better than to have to traverse the continent as an 11-seed against the defending national champion. The good news for Randy Bennett's squad is that if it can knock off Villanova, the Gaels are strong contenders to make a run to the Final Four.
Prediction: Villanova 67, Saint Mary's 62