It was an absolutely bonkers first weekend of the NCAA Tournament featuring upsets galore but the East Regional was spared from such chaos with near chalk making it to the second week. That might not have made for any Cinderellas making it to Boston but it does give us some of the best matchups of the Sweet 16 — including the most anticipated game in top-seeded Villanova looking to get past old Big East rival No. 5 West Virginia.
The Mountaineers and head coach Bob Huggins will once again be a tough out thanks to their defense that affectionately earns them the name “Press Virginia.” The team is in the top 10 in the country in turnover margin and forced turnovers while also racking up more than eight steals a game. In contrast to previous Sweet 16 trips for the school however, there’s plenty of offensive firepower to keep the game moving behind terrific two-way guard Jevon Carter and shot-blocking center Sagaba Korate.
The Wildcats will be prepared for the battle ahead and have a veteran unit capable of taking home the title again for the second time in three years. Guard Jalen Brunson is one of several National Player of the Year finalists for what he’s been able to do orchestrating the Villanova attack and the group enters the Sweet 16 as one of the best shooting teams in the country the past few weeks thanks to the hot hands of Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo. Outside of perhaps Duke, nobody looked better through the opening rounds and Jay Wright’s squad is hopeful that will continue at the TD Garden in this regional.
In fact, this will really be the first big test for each side in the tournament after both breezed through the first two rounds. Villanova had no issues with their 16-seed in an 87-61 victory over Radford and then the Wildcats contained Collin Sexton to throttle No. 9 Alabama in what could have been a tricky second round matchup. West Virginia had no issues going all the way out to San Diego, shutting down two good offensive teams in Murray State and in-state rival Marshall last week.
Both teams may not have played each other in a while but they do have a lengthy history from nearly two decades of battling it out in the old Big East. The Wildcats did have a slight 12-11 edge in the series during conference play and you can bet that the Mountaineers will be dead set on evening things up going into Friday night’s game.
East Region: No. 5 West Virginia (26-10) vs. No. 1 Villanova (34-4)
Time: 7:27 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: TD Garden (Boston, Mass.)
Keys for West Virginia
We all know that Huggins’ team can play defense but it’s been the offense on the other end that gives a different vibe to this year’s edition of the Mountaineers. Both teams don’t mind getting up and down the court but West Virginia has to make sure it takes fill advantage of opportunities for easy layups and transition offense to put the pressure on the top seed in the region and make things tight in the final minutes.
Naturally, the biggest matchup will involve do-everything guard Jevon Carter. He nearly had a 30-point game against Marshall while also adding in five assistants and five steals, numbers the broadcasters mentioned in the same vein as Allen Iverson nearly 20 years ago. The reigning defensive player of the year in college basketball, getting the best of Villanova’s guards on both ends of the floor will help dictate the flow of the game and help lighten the load on Carter’s teammates at the same time.
It also goes without saying that Sagaba Korate will play a huge role in the lane by forcing tough shots and making driving to the basket much harder than anything the Wildcats have faced. The Mountaineers need to be aware of the ball getting kicked out however, as their opponent has the shooters to make you pay if the defense collapses.
Keys for Villanova
KenPom’s No. 1 offense in the country will be tested in ways it hasn’t been in this Sweet 16 matchup but the Wildcats are well equipped to adjust on the fly given the experience on the roster. Things typically start with Jalen Brunson (19.1 ppg, 3.7 apg) but the emergence of potential lottery pick Mikal Bridges down this recent stretch run has really elevated the team into a title favorite.
That said, anytime you play West Virginia, limiting turnovers is going to be the key and that will be priority No. 1 for Jay Wright’s backcourt. They’ve done well in that regards so far in March but the full-court press being thrown at them is a different animal from just about anything they’ve seen and requires focus all game long.
Also don’t sleep on making a big effort on the boards. Omari Spellman leads the team in rebounding and nearly averages a double-double but this will be a team effort on both offense and defense. If it’s a tight game like many expect, free-throw shooting will naturally play a role as well and these Wildcats need to live up to their percentages at the stripe and more.
While the path to the Final Four for both Villanova and West Virginia isn’t as easy as others in the bracket, both sides are playing extremely well and have a good chance to make it to San Antonio given the firepower they bring to this matchup. Whichever side manages to control the pace will have the upper hand and it would surprise nobody if this is a close, back-and-forth game that comes down to who is making 3-pointers in the final minutes and sealing things off at the charity stripe.
The Wildcats have only lost four times all season and are the better shooting team from the perimeter so they get the edge in this one but it won’t be easy at all against a tough-minded Bob Huggins team. The winner moves on to see either Purdue or Texas Tech and probably will wind up as one of the trendy picks to take home the title down the road as well.
Prediction: Villanova 69, West Virginia 64
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.