Game Preview: (2) Villanova vs. (15) Milwaukee
The Teams: (2) Villanova (28-4, 16-2 Big East) 1 Game Losing Streak
(15) Milwaukee (21-13, 7-9 Horizon) 5 Game Winning Streak
The Date: Thursday, March 20
The Time: 9:25PM ET
The Location: First Niagara Center; Buffalo, NY
The Story of the Season (Villanova)
After cruising through most of the Big East during the entire regular, Villanova received a rude reality check from the Seton Hall Pirates last Thursday. Sterling Gibbs hit the game-winning jumper in Kemba-esque fashion to knock the top-seeded Wildcats out of the Big East Tournament after one game.
Regardless of that outcome, Jay Wright and Co. were able to secure a No.2 seed in the NCAA Tourney, their highest seed since 2010 when they were once again a 2-seed.
For all intents and purposes, the Cats should not have much trouble with Milwaukee in this first matchup, but nonetheless, if history is any indication, ‘Nova should tread with caution. In 2010, when Villanova was last a No. 2 seed, the Wildcats needed overtime to escape the 15th seeded Robert Morris Colonials by a 73-70 score.
This season, it'll be intriguing to observe how the Cats are able to bounce back after what was easily the most unexpected and shocking loss of the season. Coach Wright is most likely hoping that his team's response to a loss is similar, if not identical, to the first three instances this season. After all three losses this year, the Wildcats have responded with significant winning streaks, the shortest of these being six games. If the pattern holds true, this next six game winning streak would, at would last the Cats up until their crowning as national championships.
If Villanova wants to win this opening game in convincing fashion, and avoid the upset, the team is going to have to shake off the worst 3-point shooting performance of the season. Over the course of the regular season, the Cats ranked second in the Big East in 3-point shooting, but all that went flying out of the window against Seton Hall. ‘Nova shot a measly 4/19 (21.1% for you non-math majors out there), which included a 1/14 start from long range. Not to be captain obvious here, but that's going to be unacceptable against Milwaukee unless Villanova wishes to become this season's version of Georgetown, and make it two straight years in which a No.2 seed from the Big East has been upset by a No. 15.
For the Cats to avoid an upset, Darrun Hilliard needs to continue his hot play, but preferably, he would spread out his point distribution this time around. Against Seton Hall, Hilliard continued his spectacular play, as he reached double-digits points for the seventh straight game. In the first half of the game though, he struggled from seemingly everywhere on the field, and he couldn't get anything to drop. Thus, all 11 of his points ended up coming in the second half, during ‘Nova's furious comeback. Against a team such as Milwaukee, who is a complete and underdog, the key is to not allow them to gain any momentum whatsoever out of the gates. If the rest of starters fro Villanova continue their inconsistent play, it'll be square on the shoulders of Hilliard to pace the Cats' offense early and often.
The Story of the Season (Milwaukee)
Milwaukee enters this season's tournament as the representative for the Horizon League, after clinching the conference tourney with a 69-63 win over Wright State. For those needing a refresher on what makes the Horizon League tick, it was the conference that Butler repped during their two Final Four runs.
Coming into this season, there was less than any reason why Milwaukee would've been expected to think about March whatsoever, as the team was picked by ESPN to finish dead last in the conference. In fact, the Panthers really had to make a miracle run just to get to the tournament after finishing fifth in the Horizon League during the regular season.
Despite the lackluster record for Rob Jeter's squad, this is definitely not a team that should be underestimated. All time, Milwaukee has appeared in six NCAA Tournaments, and has won at least one game in all but one of its appearances. Granted, this is the lowest seed that the Panthers have received, they do have experience playing the underdog, and doing so successfully.
If there's one glaring weakness for the Milwaukee, it's the team's inability to shoot from beyond the arc. Entering this game, the Panthers are shooting a brutal 30.7% from 3-point range. That's tied with NC State for the worst long range-shooting clip of any of the 68 teams that received a tourney invite. Historically, the greatest Cinderella team's have been those that can catch fire from 3-point range, and that is in now way, shape, or form the Panthers game.
Another key to beating this Milwaukee team is to get any number of the starters in foul trouble. The Panthers are extremely thin when it comes to their bench, and for the most part, the reserves are not an experienced bunch. All five of Milwaukee's starters average at least 26 minutes, while the top bench contributes only about 13 minutes. This results in a team that doesn't have very much soring depth beyond the first five that are placed on the court. The top scoring reserve for the Panthers this season is senior forward Malcolm Moore, who only tallies a meager 3.8 ppg.
On the flipside though, ‘Nova cannot allow the Milwaukee to get into any type of overall rhythm with the first team out on the floor. Amongst the starting five, four of them average at least 10 ppg, and three of those guys shoot at least 40% from the field. Senior forward Kyle Kelm leads the pack in shooting, averaging 12.6 ppg on 52% shooting. Much like the entire team though, he's just a miserable 3-point shooter, at 17.5%, and he will have to rack up most of his points inside against the fearsome duo of JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu.
The Players That Must Perform:
Villanova: Despite being named onto the All-Big East first team, there haven't been many Wildcat players that have been performing worse offensively than James Bell. After a month long stretch from mid-January to mid-February, in which he torched opposing defenses and notched at least 16 points in every game, Bell has been struggling to say the least. Over his past six games, Bell has only reached double figures in three games, and hasn't surpassed 12 points since February 18. This most recent stretch has included a zero point output against Marquette and, most recently, a three point performance in the Seton Hall loss. Bell is the senior leader of this team and, during his best moments, he is the most dangerous scorer on the court. Bell needs to find his stroke as soon as possible, because if his poor play doesn't cost ‘Nova the game against Milwaukee, it will in a later tournament contest against a more skilled team.
Milwaukee: There's only one feasible way for the Panthers to pull off the monumental victory, and that's for senior Jordan Aaron playing out of his mind. Aaron is Milwaukee's leading scorer at 15 ppg and he has the capability to play out of his mind and singled handedly lead his team to victories. The two best examples of this came in Milwaukee's two wins against Green Bay, the top team during the Horizon League regular season and top seed in the conference tournament. In the two games in which the Panthers traveled to Green Bay, Aaron tallied a combined 58 points in two victories, including a huge overtime victory over the Phoenix in the Horizon League semifinals. At the same time, Aaron also has a tendency to disappear at times, and this was especially prevalent against Wisconsin. The Panthers traveled to Madison and Aaron had by far his worst game of the season (0/3 shooting for zero points), and as a result the Badgers blew them out. How competitive that Milwaukee will be able to make this game is directly correlated to what version of Aaron shows up on offense.
The Prediction: When you look at this one, Villanova has the advantage in seemingly every category, and when it comes down to it, the Panthers just don't have enough firepower to advance. It's never helpful for an underdog when Goliath is much closer to the "neutral site," and that's 100% the case for Buffalo. Look for the ‘Nova fans to turn out in home -game-like numbers to witness their Wildcats easily bypass the overmatched Panthers.
Villanova 85 Milwaukee 68