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NCAA Tournament predictions: Why Villanova will be the team to beat for title

Jalen Brunson (left) and Mikal Bridges of the Villanova Wildcats celebrate in the closing seconds of a game against the Xavier Musketeers at Cintas Center on Feb. 17, 2018 in Cincinnati, Ohio. | Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The nutshell game recap read something like this: Star juniors Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges combined for 56 points as Villanova beat Providence 76-66 in the championship game of the Big East tournament Saturday.

Sounds like a two-man show, right? But there was so much more that met the eye to the Wildcats’ performance down the stretch of that game, as there is more than meets the eye in general with the best team in America.

At the risk of belaboring the details, the Wildcats (30-4) were on the ropes after an 11-0 run gave Providence its first lead with 7:49 to play in New York. That’s when ’Nova unleashed its special brand of hell on the Friars, holding them without a field goal for more than six minutes (and later allowing only one more in overtime), blocking five shots (three by 6-9½ freshman Omari Spellman) and tearing down six offensive rebounds (three by 6-9 junior Eric Paschall) the rest of the way. The Wildcats ended the game with five consecutive defensive stops.

Friars coach Ed Cooley had talked about wanting to drag the Wildcats ‘‘into the gutter’’ for a fight. He got his fight, all right.


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Leading scorer Brunson, a former Sun-Times Player of the Year at Stevenson, went more than 16 minutes in the second half and overtime without making a basket, but this was a clinic in everything other than scoring for a team that, oh, yeah, just so happens to lead the nation with more than 87 points per game and tops all major-conference teams in field-goal percentage, three-pointers made per game and assist-to-turnover ratio.

It’s a long way of saying the Wildcats — who have six players, including the underrated Donte DiVincenzo, averaging in double figures — have more ways to beat you than you have to beat them. Their coach, Jay Wright, indeed has built a monster, amassing 159 victories in the last five seasons, including six mighty big ones en route to the national title in 2016.

‘‘Get into the NCAA Tournament, you get a good seed, maybe your first game is [easy],’’ Wright said. ‘‘Then — bang — you get hit in that second round. You’re in a battle.’’

No one is better prepared to battle than ’Nova, my pick to win it all.

Ramblin’ on?

Most projections had Loyola as a No. 12 seed and headed west to Boise, Idaho, or San Diego to kick things off. Instead, the 28-victory Ramblers are bound for Dallas, where they’ll face sixth-seeded Miami at 2:10 p.m. Thursday in the South Regional. The winner will play again Saturday against third-seeded Tennessee or 14th-seeded Wright State.

Like Loyola, the Hurricanes often play with four shooters on the floor. They are very athletic (enjoy 5-7 freshman Chris Lykes, if you can keep up with his jackrabbit movements) and have a lot of length to their defense (6-11 sophomore Dewan Huell), but they can be sloppy.

Coach Porter Moser’s veteran team just has to stay close, then win the execution battle at the end.

Tennessee would be a particularly challenging second-round foe. The Volunteers are deep and outstanding defensively, and they’ve improved under coach Rick Barnes as the season has gone on.

Hot takes

1. Kansas has the easiest road to the Elite Eight of any of the No. 1 seeds, but the Jayhawks also have the scariest-looking No. 2 seed — Duke — with them in the Midwest. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo can’t be loving life as a No. 3 seed there, but look out for the Spartans if they get some revenge against Duke in the Sweet 16.

2. Enjoy that No. 1 overall seed, Virginia. And try not to blow it too hard if and when you come up against far-more-talented No. 4 seed Arizona or far-more-talented No. 5 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16 of the South.

3. It’s nicely set up for Gonzaga, the No. 4 seed in the West, to put another run together. How about a rematch of the Zags-North Carolina national-title game last year in the Elite Eight?

4. Michigan State beat Purdue in their one head-to-head meeting, won the Big Ten regular-season title outright and lost two fewer games overall. Neither team won the conference tournament. So, of course, the Boilermakers are a No. 2 seed and the Spartans are a No. 3.

5. You want a sleeper? Look at fourth-seeded Wichita State in the East. The Shockers are capable of beating anybody, including Villanova, my pick to win it all.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.


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