Villanova walked into the 4,000-seat Bloch Arena with high expectations. Ranked ninth in the nation, their seven wins had the Wildcats confident in their chances against seventh-ranked Oklahoma.
Yet, outstanding one run near the end of the first half to close the gap within six, the Sooners systematically dominated their counterpart en route to a 23 point victory.
Something seemed unusual about this Villanova team compared to those of previous years. They relied heavily on shots from beyond the arc, with over half of their attempts coming from long range, even though they only connected on 12.5 percent of these.
They left Hawaii with their fanbase concerned that this team lacked a true scorer and leader on the offensive end. But something changed once they flew back to Philadelphia. Ryan Arcidiacono, senior and starting point guard, may be the true leader inside the huddle, but Josh Hart rose to the challenge.
The junior from Silver Spring, Maryland had previously displayed his offensive potency against inferior opponents like Akron or Nebraska, but he lacked the true consistency of a star scorer. Hart entered an eight-game stretch where he shot over 60 percent from the field, an unprecedented stat from a guard. While he surfaced as a volume scorer, high school opponent and fellow junior Kris Jenkins began to find his stroke from deep.
Since the beginning of conference play, Jenkins has accumulated only five games where he made fewer than two attempts from beyond the arc. His 3-point ratio rose to a steady 37.9 percent as he added a necessary outside-scoring touch to the Wildcat frontcourt.
Along with Jenkins, Arcidiacono has become an overwhelming force in the backcourt. In the NCAA Tournament, the senior has accomplished 58 percent from the 3-point line.
Their offense as a whole has shot over 45 percent from long range in three of their first four NCAA Tournament games, an improvement over their 35 percent for the season. While the statistics do not lie in this case, Villanova seem to pass the eye test as well.
Their ball distribution is stunningly impressive and they have displayed a killer instinct on the offensive end that simply was not evident earlier in the season. While Hart and Jenkins have emerged as high volume scorers, the determination of the Wildcats has increased, thus raising their level of success.
Even though the Wildcats offense may be inherently separable from the team that shot under 35 percent from the field in December, Villanova’s defense has been improved these last few months.
As much an anomaly as the losses to Oklahoma and Virginia may seem; they proved that they just simply could not stop the better teams from beyond the arc. Both the Cavaliers and the Sooners connected on more than 50 percent of their 3-point attempts in matchups against the Wildcats.
Just like on offense, this sense of resolve has surmounted within Jay Wright’s team. While their defense was dominant throughout Big East play, they have become unstoppable during the NCAA Tournament.
Who knows what Wright stated to the team following their loss to Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament final, but whatever he said, it has proved effective. Since that loss, Villanova has not allowed more than 70 points in any game and, most impressively, they held Kansas to less than 27 percent from beyond the arc.
In the past month or so, an X-Factor has emerged. Mikal Bridges effort and agility on the defensive end has given Jay Wright a much needed boost off the bench. His materialization as a role players allows for Jenkins and Hart to rest while knowing that the drop-off in production will not be too steep.
The saying "defense wins championships" may be hackneyed, but it applies to this current team. They are aggressive on the defensive end forcing turnovers and forcing the opposition outside their comfort zone. Their overall command throughout the tournament on both ends of the court has not Philadelphia fans excited for a different result in this rematch against Buddy Hield and the Sooners.
When they face Oklahoma on Saturday, do not be mistaken: This Villanova team is comprehensively different from top to bottom.