Villanova wasn't supposed to be here. They were coming off of a dismal season where they couldn't do much right and on top of that, they saw both of their top scorers depart school early for the professional careers. It isn't the sort of scenario that teams usually bounce back from so quickly, but here we are, hours away from an NCAA Tournament tip-off in Kansas City.
The last time the Wildcats and Tarheels met was the 2009 Final Four, and UNC was more than too-much for the small-ball Wildcats of Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham. In 2013, the tables are turned, with UNC moving to a small-ball lineup after a defeat at the hands of Miami in January. The Tarheels, relying on a smaller lineup also relied more and more on the 3-point shot, an area where they complete about 37% of their attempts on the season.
Villanova can hit a few from deep as well, but streaky performances have dropped their team average to just 33.6% from beyond the arc.
"That is an area we have struggled all year, is defending the three‑point line. So, of course, this is the way it works," Jay Wright lamented. "Who do you get in the NCAA tournament? The only Carolina team that ever has relied strictly on a three‑point line. That's the way it works.
"We feel like we've got a good scheme. We just feel like we have not executed it through the year."
UNC has connected on 255 3-pointers this season, or about eight per game, and they've been hitting more as the season progressed. Villanova has given up about 30 more deep shots than they have scored on.
That's the real key to this game, if the Wildcats can take away the perimeter shot, they can take their chances inside the paint, where they are bigger and stronger than the players that UNC is likely to throw at them.
Offensively, Villanova's weakness in protecting the ball will play into UNC's defensive strength of generating turnovers. Pressure defense from schools like Louisville have caused the Wildcats to turn the ball over 19 and 25 times this season -- the product of an inexperienced backcourt.
Jay Wright's team will need to improve and play better in both of those categories tonight if they hope to squeeze past their blue blood opponent. Apparently, they were looking ready enough in practice on Thursday that Wright decided to end the session a little bit early. Does that mean that the 'Cats are ready, or as ready as they are going to be?
The answer to that question comes at 7:20 pm, eastern time, 6:20 pm central.
Though some will make it seem insurmountable, KenPom.com puts the Wildcats' chances of a victory around the same as their chances were to beat Georgetown or Marquette at home, 43%.
In addition to protecting the ball and defending the perimeter, the Wildcats need to work the free-throw line, an area where Nova has excelled this season. The 'Cats need to drive the ball or pass inside to try and earn some trips to the charity stripe. That means that JayVaughn Pinkston and Mouph Yarou should see their numbers called often, while freshman guard Ryan Arcidiacono may have to take a back-seat this round as his teammates bang around inside.
The Wildcats need to score. They are 12-1 in games when they reach 70 points this season, and that is largely attributable to a defense that gives up an average of just 64.7 points per game.
For a young Villanova team, they will need to grow up quickly to look like a team that knows how to buckle down and grind out a win against a talented opponent like UNC.