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2017 NCAA Tournament: Will Villanova face Mount St. Mary’s or New Orleans?

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Will the Wildcats face a Mount St. Mary’s team that turned around their season, or a New Orleans team that redeemed their program?

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Seton Hall vs Villanova Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

At this time last week, Villanova was headed into the Big East Tournament without knowing who their first round opponent would be. A week later, they’re facing the same predicament as the 16 Seed in their region will be determined in Tuesday night’s First Four Round. The possible opponents are the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers out of the NEC, and the New Orleans Privateers out of the Southland. The two face off in Dayton at 6:40 PM EST tomorrow in the official first game of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Just as we did last week, here’s this season’s second edition of Choose Your Own Opponent!

If Mount St. Mary’s Wins

Record: 19-15 | KenPom Rank: 215th | Off Rank: 275th | Def Rank: 141st

The Mountaineers would not have been picked by many to make the NCAA tournament after a 1-11 start to their season. However, a closer look at that start not only reveals why they lost so many games, but also why it may help them against Villanova should they advance. In those first 12 games, Mount St. Mary’s played 7 Top 80 teams (per KenPom.com), 5 of which were Top 40 and 6 of which made the NCAA Tournament. They have experience playing against elite level teams from the Power Conferences, and won’t be intimidated by the spotlight if they get to Buffalo. Remember, they’ve gone 18-4 the rest of the season.

One strength of this team are that they don’t turn the ball over. While the Mountaineers are quite undersized, including Junior Robinson who at 5’5” is D1’s shortest player, they use their size to their advantage and attack unsuspecting teams on both ends of the court. Defensively, their smaller, feisty guards cause turnovers at the 22nd best rate in the country. The teams best player, Elijah Long, is deadly inside and outside the arc. At 6’0”, he’s still able to effectively drive and finish at the rim, while also shooting over 40% from deep.

Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, their weaknesses play right into Villanova’s hands. This is a terrible rebounding team. Not only are they the worst offensive rebounding team in the tournament, but they’re also in the Bottom 20 nationally in defensive rebounding. For a Villanova team that’s been making the most of second chance opportunities lately, things could get ugly quick in this match-up. And if this game would come down to free-throws, Villanova again has a huge advantage. Mount St. Mary’s makes just 67.5% of their free throws, 275th nationally, compared to Villanova’s 2nd best 79.4%.

If New Orleans Wins

Record: 20-11 | KenPom Rank: 178th | Off Rank: 241st | Def Rank: 102nd

Villanova fans love this senior class because of the winning culture they’ve sustained throughout their four years on campus. But despite all they’ve achieved, it’s hard to compare to what the Privateers four seniors have accomplished this year. A few years after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans was a school strapped for cash and looking for a way to keep their athletic programs going. In 2009 they announced their intention to drop from Div. I to Div. III. Then they decided to change to Div. II. Then a new President came in and decided to keep everyone at Div. I. But by then panic had set in, and many athletes transferred out while coaches and staff also bolted for greener pastures. In 2011, Mark Slessinger took over a depleted team with mostly sub DI talent. Now, six years later, the school has their version of Nova’s “Redemption Class”. The difference is that this class had much farther to climb. These four seniors have led a program, and a school, back from nothing to its first Championship in 20 years and a berth in the NCAA tournament.

The Privateers didn’t just accomplish this with the grit and determination of a Hollywood underdog story, these guys are good. The team’s star, small forward Erik Thomas, is one of the few players in this tournament averaging more points (19.5) and rebounds (7.8) than Josh Hart. They’re a solid defensive team that creates a lot of turnovers with pressure from their guards and primarily play man to man. On offense, they’re very good at finding ways to score after their first shot. Not only are they 17th nationally in offensive rebounding, but they’re also ranked 16th in the country at getting to the free-throw line.

But the Achilles heel of this team is their turnovers. New Orleans Turnover % is 23.8%, the 3rd worst in the country. It would be extremely hard to win after coughing the ball up that much against a Nova team so adept at scoring off turnovers. They also struggle to score from behind the arc, shooting 31.1% as a team this season. Against a Wildcat defense that likes to run teams off the line and force them into their help defense, that could be a big problem.

What It Means For Villanova Either Way

“Laser focused” is a phrase I’ve heard a lot from Jay Williams on ESPN, along with a number of other talking heads, in describing how Villanova has played this season. While I may not agree with a number of his “assessments”, he got this one dead right. Even after their Big East Tournament Championship victory, the team didn’t waste too much energy celebrating, they just wanted to focus on who came next.

If we’re being completely honest, regardless of concentration, Villanova’s talent should be simply too much for either of these other teams to overcome. That’s been the case in the previous 128 1v16 seed match-ups in the tournament. However, I expect Villanova to treat this game with the same level of concentration and resolve that they’ve had all season. When Kris Jenkins was asked how he would describe his final season at Villanova, he responded the same way the entire fan base feels. “Not over.”

Villanova’s first game will be in Buffalo at 7:00 PM EST on CBS.