WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS
vs. VILLANOVA WILDCATS
NCAA Tournament – Sweet Sixteen – TD Garden, Boston, MA
Tip-off: Friday, 7:27 pm ET
Line: Villanova -5, Total: 152.5
The sweetest matchup of the Sweet Sixteen takes center stage on Friday night.
In an especially wild year of March Madness, only one Sweet Sixteen game appears to feature two teams that are good enough to make a run at the national title. That would be the No. 1 seed Villanova Wildcats versus the No. 5 seed West Virginia Mountaineers in the East Region, which will host its three final games in Boston this weekend. At one point ranked No. 1 and No. 1 in the country, respectively, Nova and WVU have each trounced their way through their first two tournament games. The Wildcats beat 16 seed Radford 87-61 before going bonkers from the field in the second half to blow out 9 seed Alabama 81-58. West Virginia beat 12 seed Marshall 85-68 in the opener, and won even bigger in the second round with a 94-71 dusting of 13 seed Marshall. As far as the Mountaineers' hopes for pulling an upset in this one, it's not an ideal stylistic matchup: WVU likes to force opponents into mistakes with a relentless full-court press, but Villanova has a stable of capable ball-handlers and is second in the nation in turnover margin at plus-5.2 per game. Since 1997, neutral-court favorites coming off three straight wins of 10 points or more (NOVA) are 69-30 ATS in games involving two teams allowing between 67-74 PPG to opponents. On the other hand, underdogs of 3.5 to 9.5 points coming off of two straight covers as a favorite (WVU) are 33-10 ATS against opponents coming off of two straight covers as a double-digit favorite (NOVA) in the same time frame. Starting F Wesley Harris (20.5 MPG) is likely to play for the Mountaineers after recovering from a concussion.
Sports fans who wait until March every year to tune into college hoops will recognize West Virginia G Jevon Carter from past tournaments, and he's earned the recognition. The unanimous First Team All-Big 12 selection leads his team in scoring and assists—and is third in rebounding—all while playing at the top of its vicious defense and easily leading the conference in steals per game with 3.0 (2nd nationally). He's had a magnificent early tournament, averaging 24.5 PPG (.543 FG%), 6.5 APG, 4.5 RPG and a dominant 5.5 SPG. Of course, that's against fairly low-level competition, and the Wildcats will bring a whole new challenge. Anchoring the defense on the interior is F Sagaba Konate, who's fourth in the country with 3.2 BPG. He is as elite as they come when it comes to rim defenders. And he had three blocks in the opening round against Murray State. F Esa Ahmad, who joined the team midway through the season, joins him and Harris on the normal front line. Harris got only six minutes against Marshall before going down with injury, and reserve F Lamont West stepped up admirably with 18 points and 10 boards in 23 minutes. Second-leading scorer G Daxter Miles Jr. rounds out the starting five, and the senior's ability to score could be an x-factor for WVU's chances against Villanova.
The final score of Villanova's brutalizing Alabama doesn't tell the full story: The Wildcats very likely would have faced a decent deficit at halftime if not for the efforts of G Donte DiVincenzo, who carried the team to a five-point halftime lead with 18 points in the frame. After that point, all the Wildcats got red hot (except DiVincenzo, who didn't score again), but G Mikal Bridges was was the hottest among them. The program's most highly touted NBA Draft prospect in at least a decade, Bridges scored 23 points, 22 of them in the second half, and brought a swagger that had Villanova very much looking like the national title favorites at this point in the tournament. Bridges isn't the Cats' biggest star, though—that would be G Jalen Brunson. Arguably the best player in the nation, he hasn't played 30 minutes yet in a tournament game this year thanks to the wide margins of victory, but has shot 10-of-16 from the floor and 5-of-9 from three when he's been out there. He scored 31 points in Nova's Big East Championship victory over Providence. Many believe the absence of G Phil Booth cost Villanova a couple games when he missed time a few weeks back, but he's now back in the starting lineup at full health. Those four guards—including DiVincenzo, who comes off the bench—are all bigger names than the team's two starting forwards, Omari Spellman and Eric Paschal. Spellman looks like a future star with 10.6 PPG and 7.9 RPG as a freshman, and both he and Paschal will need to play tough against West Virginia's intimidating duo of Konate and Ahmad.