VILLANOVA FANS can be forgiven for feeling a sense of foreboding as they watched their team pile up 20-plus wins this season, a familiar sight during the last 15 years of coach Jay Wright's tenure. Yes, the Wildcats earned the first No. 1 ranking in school history for three weeks in February, but they have not advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since reaching the Final Four in 2009. Haunted by early round losses to the likes of Saint Mary's, George Mason and North Carolina State, the faithful can only wonder why this Big Dance would be any different.
The first reason for optimism is the defense. 'Nova is seventh nationally in defensive efficiency, matching its highest ranking since Ken Pomeroy started tracking tempo-free stats in 2001--02. Second, the Cats have made 77.9% of their free throws, best in the country. And third, while they have struggled at times from three-point range (33.5%, eighth in the Big East and 241st nationally), they are tied for fourth in D-I in two-point shooting, at 57.2%. Defense, free throws, points in the paint—those are the pillars of success in March.
Finally, there is the improvement of 6'11", 245-pound center Daniel Ochefu. During his four years on the Main Line, Ochefu has evolved from a slightly built, foul-prone defensive specialist into a reliable scoring option in the post. Ochefu (10.3 points, 8.1 rebounds) is capable of having a big night (he scored 18 and 16 points in February wins over Marquette and Temple, respectively), though he is more than willing to defer to his smaller teammates. His presence alone has allowed Villanova's deep platoon of guards to operate in space and take advantage of driving lanes to the basket.
In the past the Cats' lack of size has been a big problem, especially when their backcourt has had an off shooting night. This year the team is bigger, stronger and tougher, and it has more ways to win. That's why it is ready to exorcise the ghosts of tournaments past.
Career wins for the five Wildcats seniors, the most in program history. They had a 58--6 record at home.
Points per game scored by opponents this year at the Pavilion, where Villanova averaged 81.7.
Consecutive Big East regular-season titles for the Cats. They are the first to threepeat since UConn in 1995--96.
Their reliance on the three-point shot can [hurt them]. If they're playing a team that can beat them up, that may be problematic. They don't have great depth on the front line. Ochefu is solid but I wouldn't say he's a great offensive player. He plays his role. [Junior forward Kris] Jenkins at the four is a great shooter and has a really good feel. [Senior guard Ryan] Arcidiacono is probably the toughest player in the conference. [Junior guard Josh] Hart is a righthander who does everything lefthanded. If you crowd him and sit on his left hand, it's almost comical how much it affects him.
RICH SCHULTZ/GETTY IMAGES