Whether they’re playing in Brooklyn, Boise, Birmingham or 10 miles from Bridesburg in South Philly, unless Villanova has a healthy Daniel Ochefu pounding the boards and wreaking defensive havoc in the paint, the Wildcats don’t figure to be dancing for long in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
For as well as Jay Wright’s 29-5 team has played all season — good enough at one point to be No. 1 throughout the land — last weekend’s Big East tournament showed how critical his 6-foot-11 post presence is to their success.
Obviously hampered by a nagging ankle injury that limited his minutes and effectiveness, the Cats can only hope having nearly a full week of rest and treatment before they take on UNC Asheville in their tournament opener Friday is like a trip to Lourdes for Ochefu.
He’s confident by then he’ll be much more of the inside force that dominated the Big East than the guy who labored through parts of three games in three days last weekend.
"It's going to be good because I get to rest it, get a lot of treatment on it," said Ochefu, who managed just 13 points and eight rebounds in wins over Georgetown and Providence, followed by that crushing 69-67 loss to Seton Hall in the championship game.
That’s what cost ‘Nova a likely No. 1 seed and a chance to play at the Wells Fargo Center should they finally get to the Sweet Sixteen. Instead, they’re No. 2 in the South, meaning Louisville instead.
"Hopefully by Friday, I'm back to 100 percent,” continued Ochefu, averaging 9.7 points, 7.6 boards and 1.5 blocks for the season. “That should make a huge difference. I should get a lot of my strength and confidence back. I’m looking forward to it.”
Not any more than his teammates.
“He’s really important the way we focus on defending and rebounding so much,” said fellow senior Ryan Arcidiacono, who knows from here on each game could be his last. “Not having him out there hurts us. Having an extra day for him to get ready is really crucial.”
But should Ochefu go down again — or simply need a blow, 6-8 junior Darryl Reynolds is ready to step in.
“He’ll have a couple of days to get his ankle right, which is big," said Reynolds, who averaged 5.3 and 6.7 boards in the Big East tournament, a notch above his 3,7, 4.7 numbers for the season. “But I think I did well. My Defense and rebounding is my main job on this team. Offense is a plus. Three games in three days show the toughness of this team, but I’m happy that stretch is over.”
Indeed from here on there are no more back-to-backs, which should come as a relief to Ochefu & company. A win over the 22-11 No. 15 seeded Bulldogs, champions of the Big South Conference, would move the Wildcats into a second round date with the Temple-Iowa winner. That would be a matchup filled with all sort of Philadelphia ramifications, considering Nova has already beaten Fran Dunphy’s gang handily last month, 83-67, while Iowa coach Fran McCaffery grew up near Philly and went to Penn before beginning his coaching career at Lehigh.
Of course, Wright will make sure his players’ minds are strictly on UNC-Asheville for now. He’s just happy after hearing all season that nothing really mattered until tournament time, it’s finally here.
“We’ve heard that all year," admitted Wright, who downplayed the Cats being placed in the South, noting they’ve played well on the road all season. “People would say ‘You’ve got to get past the second round.’ I love the way our players have handled that, because we couldn't do anything about it until now. We had to get to the tournament first. Now it's here, but we still have to concentrate on North Carolina Asheville."
Take care of business Friday and they’ll be right back where they were the last two years — a high seed taking on a dangerous underdog like Connecticut and N.C. State, which took advantage of poor Villanova shooting and enough defensive lapses by the Wildcats to pull off the upset. The Owls or Hawkeyes will surely take note of that, knowing all the pressure will again be on Nova. Both have a score to settle, Iowa’s going back to an 88-83 overtime loss in the 2013 Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas championship game.
But first… “We’re definitely not looking past UNC-Asheville,” declared Ochefu. “We know anything can happen in March.
“We’ll just leave the pressure on the outside.”
And hope that when they wake up first Saturday morning, then Monday it will be time to start getting ready for Louisville and that long awaited trip to the Sweet Sixteen.”