The monkey is finally off their backs and the elephant has left the room
So now what does Villanova, coming off its best half of NCAA Tournament basketball since their unforgettable 1985 National Championship win vs. Georgetown, do for an encore?
Following their 87-68 thrashing of an Iowa team that at one point had been ranked No. 3 in the country Sunday in Brooklyn, the Wildcats took it all in stride. While everyone around them shuddered at the thought they’d come up short and fail to get to the Sweet Sixteen for the third straight year as a high seed, they simply went about their business and dispatched the Hawkeyes as disdainfully as if it Iowa were some pre-season opponent.
While players like seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu and high scoring juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins admitted to a certain sense of relief about finally getting out of the first weekend, they made it a point to say they respect all teams but fear none.
And see no reason why this can’t keep going when they square off Thursday in Louisville against 27-7 Miami, a veteran team built much in their own image. The winner meets the Kansas vs. Maryland winner Saturday with a trip to the Final Four in Houston on the line.
“We definitely can go all the way as long as we stick to what we do,” said Arcidiacono, after Villanova shot a blistering 61 percent while surging to a commanding 54-29 halftime lead against Iowa. “If we defend like we did in the first half and stay solid like that, our offense will eventually come.
“Once we set the tone on the defensive end in rebounding, we can go as far as that takes us.”
It’s been a formula that’s worked all season — even getting the Wildcats’ to the No. 1 spot in the rankings for three weeks. Watch Villanova defend and see how often the opposition has to go deep into the shot clock, frequently having to force poor percentage shots simply to avoid a violation.
But against Jim Larranaga’s Hurricanes they know they’ll be facing an experienced, battle tested team which has endured the rigors of an ACC schedule.
“When you get to the Sweet 16 you’re not getting any easy ones,” said Wright, whose club lost to Larranaga’s George Mason team in the opening round of the 2011 Tournament. “They have a lot of redshirt seniors that are tough and smart. They are an intelligent and connected defensive team. Usually, when you play teams that have young guys they can be a little disconnected defensively. They have so many veterans that defensively they’re amazing.”
Which should make this a fascinating matchup, as the 31-5 Wildcats take on a Miami team that blew a 27-6 cushion over Wichita State in its second round matchup — but lived to tell about it.
“They have great experience and length,” said Arcidiacono, who knows each game from now on could be his last. “Angel Rodriguez is a stellar point guard out there. Then they have Sheldon McClellan and Davon Reed on the wings plus their big guys down low. They are well-coached, play defense real well, and can score the ball offensively.
“It’s going to be a tough one for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
Yet even having stuffed the monkey in the closet and silenced the doubters, they’ll approach this one the same as the previous 36.
“Our thing is we’re not gonna change anything,” said Hart, the Wildcats leading scorer for the season, averaging 15.4 points, who led the way with 19 against Iowa. “Same philosophy. Same fundamentals. Before we came out Sunday there was no big speech. No change in game plan. Just focus on what we do.”
“It’s something that we have worked on all year,” said center Daniel Ochefu, who pronounced his tender ankle—which clearly hampered him during the Big East Tournament—a non-issue. “ Next day, next game.
“The most important game is the game against Miami. “We’re maintaining our business approach.”
Will it be business as usual and a Villanova win Thursday and then, just maybe another one Saturday? One thing’s for sure. So far no team left in the tournament has looked as impressive as the Wildcats.
Like that elephant which has left the room, they want to make this a season to never forget.