It wasn’t much of a surprise for Villanova fans when the Wildcats landed the #1 Seed in the East Region on Selection Sunday. What was surprising were the rest of the teams that landed in their path. A lot of people, myself included, thought that at least one of UNC, Duke, Michigan, or Michigan State would stand in the way of a Final Four run. Instead, all of those teams were sent to either the Midwest or the West.
What Villanova got was a lot of teams that were really good this year, but not your traditional “blue bloods”. These aren’t teams with great tournament records, but there are a lot of teams that have proven throughout the season that they are capable of standing up to the Wildcats.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at all the themes and teams that make up the 2018 NCAA Tournament Eastern Region, and how Villanova can advance to its third Final Four under Jay Wright.
Is the East Tough or Weak?
When the brackets were first revealed, a lot of the talking heads instantly proclaimed the East one of the weaker regions. I’ll admit that when applying the “eye test” to the teams listed in Villanova’s path, I was pretty excited.
But some of the numbers conflict with that initial assessment. KenPom.com, which uses predictive data to determine which teams have the best chance to win future games, really likes the East Region. It’s one of only two regions to have its top 2 seeds in KenPom’s Top 5, and it’s the only region to have 4 teams in the Top 13.
Then again, BPI and FiveThirtyEight (two ESPN predictive models) say that Villanova is the second most likely team to win the whole tournament. So does that mean it really is an easy region to get through?
The answer probably lies in the middle. I think the East Region is top heavy. Teams like Villanova, Purdue, Texas Tech, even West Virginia, are going to be tough outs. I personally think those four are going to make easy work of the rest of the bracket, and in that sense it’s a little weak. But once they get to Boston and have to face each other? Let’s just say this region could produce the most exciting Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games of the entire tournament.
East Region Team Previews
Now that I’ve predicted who advances to the second weekend, there of course will be upsets. But not for Villanova. Why? Because we’ve scouted out every team they could face en route to the Final Four. Let’s Go Nova!
Seed: 16 (Play-In) | Record: 18-16 | KenPom Adj. O: 211 | KenPom Adj. D: 294
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: The Blackbirds are actually a Top 50 team when it comes to defending the three point line, but that might be because you can score so easily on them in the paint. This is a guard dominated team led by Joel Hernandez and Raiquan Clark who average over 20 and 17 points respectively.
Why Villanova Wins: While Villanova has some big strong guards that can defend multiple positions, LIU-Brooklyn has small guards and even smaller bigs. Knowing that, it’s going to be hard for the Blackbirds to score inside, and they’re not a great shooting team either. And that doesn’t yet take into account that Nova’s #1 offense should have no problem shredding Brooklyn’s 294th ranked defense.
Seed: 16 (Play-In) | Record: 22-12 | KenPom Adj. O: 203 | KenPom Adj. D: 133
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: Radford tries to win with its pressure man defense. They force teams to go late in the shot clock, and then they take their time on offense so that they play the 5th slowest tempo in the country (346th). It would be tough to “out efficient” Villanova by playing at such a slow tempo, but Radford would at least be prepared to play at that speed.
Why Villanova Wins: Radford’s offense is... well, not good. They shoot less than 50% from inside the arc and tend to rely more on jacking up late three pointers. For those of you who missed it, that’s exactly how they got into the NCAA Tournament. Villanova tends to play slower usually, but against this opponent you could see them easily speeding things up and using their superior athleticism to win the game.
CSU Fullerton Titans
Seed: 15 | Record: 20-11 | KenPom Adj. O: 176 | KenPom Adj. D: 134
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: It’s not often that a double digit seed is the best at something, but the Titans have the best Free Throw Rate of any team in the country according to KenPom.com. The team accounts for nearly 25% of their points from the charity stripe, where they shoot over 73% collectively.
Why Villanova Wins: While the Titans are all about driving and drawing fouls, Villanova is Top 20 in the country when it comes to keeping their opponents off the charity stripe. Without free throws, Fullerton becomes a poor three-point shooting team that turns the ball over one in every five trips down the court.
Steven F Austin Lumberjacks
Seed: 14 | Record: 28-6 | KenPom Adj. O: 177 | KenPom Adj. D: 67
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: The Lumberjacks are a hard-nosed defensive team that uses an aggressive man defense to create turnovers at the highest rate in the country (26.2%). They play at a high pace on both sides of the court, and simply try to create enough chaos to make their opponent have no idea what just hit them.
Why Villanova Wins: SF Austin’s “out of control” defensive effort doesn’t translate well on offense, as they cough up the ball over almost as often as they create turnovers. Villanova has multiple ball handlers that can handle any type of “frenzy” defense the opponent throws at them. While this approach may work on some teams, it would probably end in a large margin of victory for the Wildcats.
Seed: 13 | Record: 24-10 | KenPom Adj. O: 96 | KenPom Adj. D: 144
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: The Thundering Herd play just like their mascots namesake, looking for a quick shot or drive to the basket on offense. And most of the time, those shots are three pointers. Marshall takes the 7th most threes in the country, accounting for more than 45% of their shots. They also play at the country’s 3rd fastest offensive tempo, so usually they’re jacking up a three before the shot clock reaches 15 seconds.
Why Villanova Wins: The Wildcats are actually used to quick possessions on defense, ranking in the Top 40 fastest defensive tempos in the country. They’re also Top 50 when it comes to defending the three. Villanova’s length could be a real problem for Marshall on both ends of the floor, as the Herd are not good at defending the three themselves.
Seed: 12 | Record: 26-5 | KenPom Adj. O: 56 | KenPom Adj. D: 82
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: The Racers are led by senior guard Jonathan Stark, who averages over 21 points per game. He’s crazy efficient, shooting 48% from the floor, 41% from deep, and 89% at the line. Remind you of anyone? They’re also terrific at defending the three, holding teams to 30.8%.
Why Villanova Wins: This is the first opponent we’ve come to that wouldn’t simply be outmatched physically by the Wildcats. That said, they still don’t have the skill level to contain Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, or any of Villanova’s many other scoring options. The Racers can put up points, but not nearly as well as Nova can.
Seed: 11 (Play-In) | Record: 25-7 | KenPom Adj. O: 59 | KenPom Adj. D: 94th
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: The Bonnies are one of the country’s better mid-majors, making the tournament as an At-Large bid. They have a stellar backcourt of Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley who combine for nearly 40 points per game. Their a Top 20 team in three-point percentage, and they don’t have any glaring weaknesses on defense.
Why Villanova Wins: If you can run the Bonnies off the three point line, it becomes very difficult for them to score. They shoot under 50% inside the arc, and they also tend to get their shots blocked on the inside. The Villanova defense matches up well here, and should cause a ton of problems if the two teams meet.
Seed: 11 (Play-In) | Record: 21-11 | KenPom Adj. O: 23 | KenPom Adj. D: 110
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: Aaron Holiday is a stud who all but carried this team into the tournament on his back. He averages over 20 points and 5 assists per game, also leading the team in steals. UCLA is an above average three point shooting team that protects the ball despite playing at a quick tempo.
Why Villanova Wins: The Bruins couldn’t create a turnover if their life depended on it, and they’re not that great on the offensive glass. Basically, they don’t generate extra possessions for themselves. Against a team like Villanova, you need every possession you can get. It’s another favorable matchup for the Wildcats.
Seed: 10 | Record: 20-13 | KenPom Adj. O: 32 | KenPom Adj. D: 48
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: Kelan Martin, Kamar Baldwin, other things Nova already knows from playing them three times this season.
Why Villanova Wins: More of THIS. Sure, you can’t expect a 19-0 run to start every game, but I think it’s safe to say that Nova knows how to beat the Bulldogs.
Seed: 9 | Record: 19-15 | KenPom Adj. O: 115 | KenPom Adj. D: 13
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: Welcome to the Collin Sexton show. The talented freshman averages over 19 points per game, and is responsible for almost 33% of his team’s possessions. He’s likely a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, and if Alabama is going to advance they’ll need him to be playing at his best. But the true strength of this team is their defense. They’re long, athletic, and play a stifling man defense that can shut teams down inside and outside the arc.
Why Villanova Wins: Collin Sexton may be an athletic guard with the offensive skills to be a lottery pick, but Mikal Bridges is also a lottery pick because he can shut down that type of player. Without Sexton’s offense, it’d be very difficult for Alabama to match Villanova’s production. Add in that the Crimson Tide turn the ball over on over 20% of their possessions, and Villanova would have a clear advantage in this one.
Seed: 8 | Record: 21-11 | KenPom Adj. O: 39 | KenPom Adj. D: 54
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: Virginia Tech has a potent offense, and were the only team in the country able to beat #1 overall Virginia in Charlottesville this season. They shoot over 38% from deep and are Top 10 at finishing inside the arc. And it’s not just one guy responsible for their offense, five players average double digit scoring but none average more than 14 points per game.
Why Villanova Wins: The Hokies glaring weakness is on the glass. They’re well below average in defensive rebound percentage (203rd), and even worse at grabbing offensive rebounds (312th). A big contributor to this is they have a tendency to put up quick shots on offense. If Villanova can stay sound on the perimeter and lead in rebounds, they’ll have the inside track to beating former Big East coach Buzz Williams.
Seed: 7 | Record: 23-11 | KenPom Adj. O: 19 | KenPom Adj. D: 103
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: Arkansas is another run and gun team that thrives on 40% shooting from behind the arc as a team and a Top 20 turnover percentage. When they don’t chuck it up from deep, freshman 6’11” center Daniel Gafford is developing into an NBA calibur big man in the post on both ends of the court.
Why Villanova Wins: Even with the big man down low, the Razorbacks give up a large percentage of offensive rebounds. Villanova has been getting increasingly better at taking advantage of those second chance opportunities. Arkansas also has a tendency to get into foul trouble, and Villanova is not a team you want to send to the line with their Top 20 free throw percentage.
Seed: 6 | Record: 20-12 | KenPom Adj. O: 37 | KenPom Adj. D: 25
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: The Gators may be the most consistently inconsistent team to make the Big Dance. At times they look like they’re world beaters, while other times they couldn’t hit water if they jumped out of a boat. Nova needs to be ready if “good” Florida shows up, as they don’t turn the ball over and they can get super hot from deep.
Why Villanova Wins: If “bad” Florida shows up, say goodnight. But even when Florida is playing well, they struggle to score inside the arc. Like Villanova, they live and die by the three. But unlike Villanova, they don’t have other ways to score when the deep ball isn’t there. If the Wildcats can protect the perimeter (spoiler alert, they can) than Florida’s will have a hard time getting buckets.
Seed: 5 | Record: 24-10 | KenPom Adj. O: 14 | KenPom Adj. D: 39
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: “Press” Virginia is going to play fast paced press defense for all 40 minutes of every game they’re in. For teams that aren’t built to handle that kind of pressure, the result is a ton of turnovers. Even if you get into the half court, West Virginia forces teams to beat them from outside the arc, and Sagaba Konate may be the best rim protector in the country.
Why Villanova Wins: If winning in March comes down to matchups, Villanova is the worst possible matchup for the Mountaineers. They’re a veteran team with multiple ball handlers that will be able to break the press for easy buckets. Even if they can set their half court defense, they’re susceptible to 1 on 1 drives to the basket and kick out threes. That just happens to be what Villanova does better than anyone else in the country.
Seed: 4 | Record: 25-7 | KenPom Adj. O: 5 | KenPom Adj D: 107
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: Wichita State is an excellent offensive team with multiple options that can score both inside and out. Landry Shamet can create for himself and his teammates, while Shaquille Morris and Darral Willis make up a hard to handle front court. They don’t turn the ball over, they’re great rebounders, and they’re Top 25 in eFG%.
Why Villanova Wins: Unlike some of the Shocker teams of the past couple years, this seasons squad is not especially threatening on the defensive end. They don’t create a lot of turnovers, and they allow a lot of open looks on the perimeter. Bottom line, this team does not do well against teams who can shoot from the outside.
Seed: 3 | Record: 24-9 | KenPom Adj. O: 46 | KenPom Adj. D: 3
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: The Red Raiders are an elite defensive team that simply does not allow uncontested shots. They create turnovers, play in your face man defense, and even do a great job protecting the rim. Their overall offense is above average, but their star senior Keenan Evans can go off for 20+ on any given night. If not for a late season injury, he’d likely be in contention for an All-American nod.
Why Villanova Wins: Despite not committing an egregious number of fouls, Texas Tech still sends its opponents to the free throw line much more than the national average. In turn, they’re a terrible free throw shooting team. If they get into a slug fest that comes down to free throws, they’re going to be in a lot of trouble. The Big East has prepared Villanova to win exactly that type of game.
Seed: 2 | Record: 28-6 | KenPom Adj. O: 2 | KenPom Adj. D: 28
What Villanova Needs To Prepare For: By far the biggest threat to Villanova’s Final Four hopes, Purdue is A LOT like the Wildcats. They are long and athletic, allowing them to crash in on the paint and protect the basket. On offense, they’re the second best three point shooting team in the country, and they do an excellent job protecting the ball. They have a number of scoring options from their athletic guards and wings to their dominant bigs, and they can win in multiple ways.
Why Villanova Wins: For as good as the Boilermakers are, the Wildcats are just a little bit better. Purdue’s biggest weakness is that they aren’t good at creating extra possessions for themselves, ranking in the 200s in both offensive rebound percentage and defensive turnover percentage. They also rank outside the Top 100 in opponent three-point percentage. Nova will have to play at their best to beat Purdue, but Nova’s best is better than anything the Boilermakers can throw at them.