Villanova’s Road to the Final Four

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When college basketball season starts in early November, there is no way to truly predict what is to come.

It is the start of a journey. Every team in the nation with a goal: get into the NCAA Tournament. After that, anything goes.

For four teams, that journey continues in the Final Four this weekend, and one of those teams calls the Main Line, just outside of Philadelphia, home.

The Villanova Wildcats are back in the Final Four for the first time since 2009 looking to channel the will of the 1985 team that came away with a championship.

But before moving forward with Saturday’s game against the Oklahoma Sooners, here is how the Wildcats got to Houston.

The season started strong with an eight-game winning streak. Villanova started the season as the 11th-ranked team in the nation, but moved up to as high as eighth overall.

The first setback of the season came on Dec. 7, when the Wildcats fell to No. 7 Oklahoma, 78-55, in what would be their worst loss of the season.

After rebounding with a win against La Salle six days later, Villanova fell again on Dec. 19 at Virgina. At the time, Virginia was ranked eighth in the nation.

The next nine games from Dec. 22 to Jan. 20 were all wins. That brought the Wildcats up to the fourth overall ranking in the nation with a 17-2 record.

An overtime loss to Providence on Jan. 24 dropped them to 17-3 and the sixth overall ranking, but another winning streak was on the horizon. Seven straight wins from Jan. 31 to Feb. 20, including a redemption win over Providence and a Big 5 win over Temple, helped vault them to the top of the rankings.

The Wildcats claimed the No. 1 rank in Week 14 of the season, after wins over Creighton and Providence, and held the top spot for three weeks.

Villanova saw the seven-game win streak snapped by No. 5 Xavier on Feb. 24, knocking them from first to third in the rankings with a 25-4 record. The Wildcats closed the season with three straight wins against Marquette, DePaul and Georgetown, finishing with a 16-2 record in the Big East to claim the regular-season conference title.

Villanova built on the success to close the regular season with wins in the quarterfinals and semi-finals of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden, defeating Georgetown and Providence.

They would suffer a tough loss at the hands of Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament Championship, falling by just two points, 69-67.

That loss cost the Wildcats a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They finished the season with the sixth overall ranking and a 29-5 record, claiming a No. 2 seed in the Tournament, and would travel to Brooklyn to play in the first two rounds.

The 2-15 matchup in the first round was against the Bulldogs of UNC Asheville. Villanova roared to a 40-26 lead at halftime and shot 72 percent from the floor in the second half to finish with a field goal percentage of 57.9 percent. That shooting success, led by Daniel Ochefu with 17 points and 10 boards, carried the Wildcats to an 86-56 win in the first round.

The Wildcats then faced the Iowa Hawkeyes in the second round. Iowa was coming off a close win over Temple in the first round and Villanova pounced. They shot 60.6 percent from the floor in the first half, opening up a 25-point lead at the break. The shooting success didn’t stop in the second, as Josh Hart led four Wildcats in double figures in points with 19 and Villanova claimed an 87-68 win to advance to the regional round in Louisville.

The Sweet 16 gave Villanova a real test. The No. 3 seed Miami Hurricanes finished the year ranked 11th overall in the nation. The first half was a shooting clinic.

Villanova shot 64 percent from the floor in the first 20 minutes, but were bested by Miami with a 66.7 percent showing from the floor. But the Wildcat finished the half in front by six with a 43-37 lead.

In the second half, the Wildcats continued their strong shooting and the defense came around to completely rattle the Hurricanes. Ryan Arcidiacono and Kris Jenkins split the lead in points with 21 each. Villanova shot 61.5 percent from the floor in the second half and held Miami to 42.3 percent shooting. They took a six-point lead at half and opened it up to as many as 25 before finishing things off with a 92-69 final.

The Wildcats had moved on to the Elite Eight, but had an incredibly daunting task ahead of them. The No. 1 overall seed, Kansas Jayhawks, were waiting.

Both teams struggled to find a rhythm early with fouls and turnovers going against both. Neither team shot particularly well, with Villanova recovering to go 48.1 percent from the floor at halftime. The Wildcats had opened up a nine-point lead late in the first half, but settled for seven-point margin at the break, 32-25.

Villanova struggled mightily from the floor in the second half, shooting just 32 percent. But they went 14-of-15 at the line and stayed out of foul trouble. They also tightened up on defense in a big way.

Kansas finished the game shooting 46 percent and with 16 turnovers to Villanova’s nine. The Jayhawks also made just 11 trips to the free-throw line in the game, converting on just seven of those attempts.

In their lowest scoring game since a 59-45 win over Stanford on Nov. 26, a team-high 13 points from Jenkins, Arcidiacono and Hart proved to be enough in a 64-59 win that vaulted the Wildcats to Houston and the Final Four.

Overall, what carried the Wildcats to the Final Four was the differentials in shooting and points. Villanova averaged 77.5 points per game while allowing 63.6 points per game. Their shooting percentages feature a noticeable gap as well – 47.6 percent for and 40.5 against.

They also get balanced scoring on a nightly basis. Four players averaged in double-figures this season. Seniors Daniel Ochefu (10.1 PPG) and Ryan Arcidiacono (12.3 PPG) and juniors Kris Jenkins (13.5 PPG) and Josh Hart (15.3 PPG) have been constant threats to get hot from the floor on any given night. In Villanova’s first four games of the Tournament, it was a different player stepping up to lead his team.

A lot of the credit also goes to head coach Jay Wright. It’s a standard of excellence that has become a fixture of Wright’s teams over his 15 seasons at Villanova.

This team is very strong defensively. They make a majority of their free throws. They take care of the ball. And by sticking to the game plan and focusing on fundamentals, Villanova has become a team that demands your attention from start to finish in a game.

That is why Villanova’s journey continues in Houston this weekend. Their chance to move into the National Championship comes against Oklahoma on Saturday at 6:09 p.m.

Kevin Durso is editorial assistant for Sports Talk Philly. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Durso.

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