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NCAA Tournament Preview & How to Watch: #5 Villanova Wildcats vs. #12 Winthrop Eagles

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The ‘Cats look to bounce back against the upset-minded Eagles

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The #5 Villanova Wildcats (16-6) will kick off their 2021 NCAA tournament campaign against the #12 Winthrop Eagles (23-1) out of the Big South Conference this Friday night. The game will mark Villanova’s first NCAA tournament game since being bounced by the Purdue Boilermakers in the Second Round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

By way of introductions, Winthrop University is a small public school located in Rock Hill, South Carolina, about 25 miles outside of Charlotte. Founded as a women’s teaching college, the university now boasts about 6,000 students. I spent a lot of time selecting a famous Winthrop alum and settled on Andie MacDowell of Groundhog Day fame.

This is the Winthrop Eagles’ eleventh NCAA tournament appearance - seven of which came under Gregg Marshall, the recently ousted former head coach of Wichita State. Now led by former Chris Mack assistant Pat Kelsey, Winthrop went 23-1 this season with its lone loss coming against UNC Asheville six weeks ago.

Let’s take a deep dive into what we need to know heading into Friday night’s tilt.

Andie MacDowell was born in Gaffney, South Carolina, the daughter of Pauline “Paula” Johnston, a music teacher, and —- just kidding. I laugh to hide my nerves. I smile to hide the pain.

Before we grab the lipstick and make a Danny McGrath hit list of every commentator picking us for the 5v12 upset, let’s take a deep breath. Log out of those burner accounts.

Winthrop has played two teams - this entire season - in the Top 100 in KenPom: UNC Greensboro and Furman. Winthrop won their three Big South Tournament games by an average of 26 points. Get this: 19 of their 23 wins have come against teams that are sub-200 in KenPom. That is a lot of mediocre basketball. For reference, the DePaul Blue Demons, who finished dead last in the Big East, would have been favored in 23 of the 24 games played by Winthrop this season. This is all for perspective.

Exhale. Now, this means nothing in March - we know this. Crazy things happen. Horrible, crazy things. However, Villanova will be the best team - by a wide, wide margin - that Winthrop has seen since they played Duke...in November 2019. In a normal year, a team like Winthrop may have had a few ‘buy’ games against some Power 6 teams - not this year. As we know, it’s tough to replicate high-level game action in practice - especially when your team has yet to even experience it. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Winthrop, at least initially, will struggle with a team of Villanova’s caliber.

On offense, the Eagles like to push the pace. Winthrop has the 11th fastest tempo in the country (Villanova is 320th) and the 8th shortest possession length on offense - blink and you’ll miss it. They play a click slower than St. John’s - a team that Villanova was able to control handily the second time around.

Winthrop is led by Big South Player of the Year (some conferences select just one) 6’7 senior guard Chandler Vaudrin, who is averaging just over 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists per game. Vaudrin, a former D-2 transfer, is shooting 47.5% from the field and 37.0% from 3-point range. Vaudrin has the 9th highest assist rate in the country - no doubt due to the fact that three of his teammates drop in over ten points a game. In terms of “takeover” power, something every high seed worries about, Vaudrin has hit 20 points just once this season - against #179 Presbyterian.

Vaudrin is buttressed by 6’9 sophomore forward D. J. Burns, who is coming off an 11-12, 21 minute, 22 point performance in the Big South Tournament Championship against the hapless Campbell Fighting Camels; and 6’3 senior guard Charles Falden, who is shooting over 36% from three this year including 5-7 from deep in the Big South Tournament Semi-Final against Longwood.

However, while the Winthrop offense is balanced (eleven players on the roster clock double-digit minutes...Eleven...11), it isn’t without its faults. Ranking 120th overall, the Eagles turn the ball over a lot (average over 14 turnovers per game in a poor conference) and, although they tend to get to the line, they cannot shoot free throws.

On defense, the Eagles are undersized, struggle to defend the rim, and foul a lot inside. Right off the bat, this is an opportunity for Villanova to lead with a heavy dose of Justin Moore and Jermaine Samuels driving to the basket. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl should have plenty of chances to make some noise under the basket and, athletically, there is little reason Villanova should not be able to assert its will on the offensive end.

NCAA Basketball: Big East Conference Tournament-Villanova vs Georgetown Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Candidly, the college basketball world already thinks ‘Nova is dead and buried and has been eulogizing Jay’s squad for the past two weeks. From the moment the ink on the bracket dried, the ‘Cats were locked in as the trendy 5v12 upset. This, combined with the fact that Villanova fans love wringing their hands about first round games, admittedly has a few of us feeling antsy. Well, also candidly, [bleep] that noise.

No disrespect to Winthrop but this game comes down to how Villanova plays. There are clear advantages here: experience (against stronger teams), athleticism, and talent. The ‘Cats will need to lean on those advantages while they continue to work out the kinks. This isn’t a game to get cute, or a game to play it safe, or a game to play not to lose - this is a game to control from tip to whistle by sheer force.

I typically focus these game previews on the other team. This board is full of people who know Villanova inside and out - I never need to focus on how Villanova will handle this or that. I enjoyed previewing Winthrop - they are a solid, balanced, and consistent team. However, for this preview, I want to remind everyone (and myself) what a Winthrop (WUhoops?) preview would look like for this game.

It would probably note that Villanova stumbled down the stretch after losing its senior point guard and leader. It would note that ‘Nova’s second leading guard is coming off an ankle injury. It would probably note the ‘Cats had a long Covid pause and that the team is continuing to tinker with a young line-up. As such, it might note that there’s a chance!

But then it would note that the ‘Cats still have Jermaine Samuels, a 6’7 230 lb. senior who is averaging 20 points over his past two games and can do this:

It would likely go on to note that Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Big East Player of the Year (some conferences do three), former Big East Freshman of the Year, and future NBA player, is averaging over 15 points and 8 rebounds a game. The preview would point out that he is coming off an 8-10, 26 point performance against Big East Champs Georgetown (a current 12 seed ranked 40 spots ahead of Winthrop on KenPom) and nearly went for 20 on the road at Texas - the current Big 12 Champions.

Oh, and that he’s 6’9 and sometimes casually plays point guard. The preview would warn you to watch out for that.

I’m sure the preview would then move on to point out that Justin Moore, potentially doubtful for the tournament, gutted out an early return for the Big East Tournament and will be the meanest and coldest guard the Eagles have faced in half a decade. If the author of the preview likes fun facts (like I do), he/she will also point out that Caleb Daniels, in his penultimate game at Tulane, dropped 36 points on former Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall’s head/Wichita State Shockers.

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Villanova Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Now, at this point, this preview would not have even touched on how Winthrop will try to handle Brandon Slater’s defense - or keep Cole Swider from getting shots off - or manage an overdue Bryan Antoine getting some extended run. Or Arch. Or Dixon.

This imaginary preview would then ultimately conclude that the reports of Villanova’s death are greatly exaggerated.

Time to crush some skulls in this one.

How to Watch

Time: Friday, March 19th- 9:57p ET

TV: TNT

Stream: Watch on the entire NCAA Tournament with a 30-Day Free Trial of Paramount+ and via Amazon Prime.

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