With the madness of Winter Storm Stella done with in the northeast, a new kind of madness is about to begin at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Top-seeded Villanova (31-3, 15-3 Big East) will officially begin its title defense on Thursday night against 16-seed and First Four winner Mount St. Mary's (20-15, 14-4 NEC).
The Wildcats are seeking to be the first team to repeat as National Champions since the Florida Gators did so in 2006-07. It is a rare feat to accomplish, as before the Gators did so, the last school to do it was Duke in 1991-92, and before that? The UCLA dynasty in the 1970s.
How to watch, listen, and stream
Game Time: Thursday, March 16, 2017, at 7:10 p.m. ET
TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)
Live Stream: March Madness Live
According to Oddsshark.com, Villanova is listed as a 26.5-point favorite over Mount St. Mary's.
The Wildcats won all three meetings against the Mountaineers, including their most recent one in the 2013-14 season. Mount St. Mary's suffered a 31-point beatdown but was able to find its way to the Big Dance later that season, this year is its first appearance since then. Josh Hart was just a freshman then, leading the bench with a strong 17 point, 11 rebound performance in his second collegiate game.
How They Got Here
Villanova: After winning their fourth straight Big East regular season title, the Wildcats followed through by winning their second conference tournament in three years. Compiling a 31-3 record and securing the Big East crown, they were awarded with the program's first-ever top overall seed and will be in the East region of the bracket. Fortunately for them, they got to sit tight while...
Mount St. Mary's: Beat New Orleans in a 67-66 nailbiter in the First Four round on Tuesday night to advance to the Round of 64 against top-seeded Villanova. The Mountaineers endured a rough non-conference schedule in which they finished 2-11 before heading in NEC play. From there, they turned themselves around, finishing the rest of the regular season 14-4 and then winning their conference tournament.
What to Watch For
Muggsy Bogues, is that you?
There's no doubt that basketball is a tall man's game, but meet Junior Robinson, the 5-foot-5 guard for the Mountaineers. Robinson has become a NCAA Tournament darling for his short stature, but he can hold his own against the bigger players out there. Although he won't dunk like Spud Webb, the comparisons between Robinson and smaller well-known past NBA players like Webb and Muggsy Bogues have been made. He is coming off of a 23 point (off 9-of-14 shooting) performance against New Orleans. Robinson is unafraid to take it inside and has shown his finesse floater can do the trick on taller defenders. He also has a solid 3-point stroke that he can rely on from deep, knocking down just under 40 percent of his long range shots. This season, he is averaging 14.3 points per game and is 42.5 percent on the floor. He has a pretty good eye while on the floor, finding his teammates on cuts or kicking out to the open man at the perimeter while attacking the basket. His one problem is that sometimes he can be a bit ambitious in his passing or reckless with the ball, turning the ball over more than he would like.
While Robinson has been capturing the attention of cameras and grabbing headlines after that New Orleans game, Mount St. Mary's is far from a one-man show. Fellow guard Elijah Long splits time with Robinson as the team's primary facilitator and ball-handler. Long is a complete guard that can do it all, he can score, rebound, dish out assists, and play defense. He averages a team-high 15.1 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game, and 4.4 assists per game. Primarily known as a slasher last year, the sophomore guard has added an improving 3-point jumper to his repertoire. He still prefers to attack the basket, but he can confidently take-and-make the three. Also keep an eye out for Miles Wilson, a guard who is making an impact as a freshman. Similar to Long, he is another slasher but not as good from deep. He's entering Thursday night after back-to-back double-doubles in the First Four and the NEC championship game.
Handling the Press
Mount St. Mary's likes to slow things down offensively. It isn't an uptempo type of team that will try to run all over its opponents. So far, the Mountaineers have shown that they have a hard time adjusting to an opponent that aggressively presses them, forcing them to speed up their game. The drastic change in tempo out of their comfort zone makes them uneasy and also turnover prone.
According to KenPom, they turn the ball over on 19.2 percent of their possessions, which is good for 238th in the country. At the beginning of the season, the Mountaineers opened up play with West Virginia. Bob Huggins' vaunted 1-3-1 zone press gave Mount St. Mary's a hard time, as it turned the ball over 21 times in a lopsided 87-59 loss. on Nov. 11. The Wildcats run their own style of high-pressure defense with a 1-2-2 press that also gives opponents a hard time, forcing turnovers on just over 20 percent of possessions. The press has been an integral part of the Wildcats' success, as it creates scoring opportunities off steals and keeps opponents at bay. Villanova’s pair of Co-Big East Defensive Players of the Year, Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges, should have a big game for the Wildcats defensively, as they create easy scoring chances for the whole team to flourish.
There's been a lot of chatter surrounding Villanova's limited depth, let alone its scarce front court—although the late-season development of 6-foot-10 freshman Dylan Painter is slowly changing all this. Outside of Painter, Villanova’s tallest player is Darryl Reynolds, the team’s starting center, who is the only other player taller than 6-7. The Wildcats have done well without guard Phil Booth and freshman center Omari Spellman, managing just fine with limited depth and size.
However, this is an occasion where the Wildcats enter a game with a similar sized opponent. They might even have a slight size and length advantage over the Mountaineers. Villanova should feel confident heading in, as the win-streak of No. 1 seeds beating No. 16 seeds continues to grow.