The journey all started nearly two years ago when a team we all knew very little about took down one of the blue bloods of college basketball.
On April 4th of 2016, Villanova hit the shot heard round the world taking down UNC for only their 2nd NCAA Tournament title and their first 1985.
Now they look to get their third title and their 2nd in 3 years, but first, they must get through another of college basketballs blue bloods.
They will face off against the Kansas Jayhawks in the Final Four and were they to win they will face either Michigan or Cinderella story Loyola-Chicago.
This is how they will end up doing all of the above.
Guard play is essential in the NCAA tournament. It is the thing that makes a Cinderella most of the time and what usually leads an up and down team to a big run through the rounds.
Take UCONN and Kemba Walker for instance who led his team to a title, or Davidson with a young unknown guard named Stephen Curry making a run.
Either way, you see one of the many cases for why guard play, veteran guard play at that, is necessary to a run in the big dance.
This Villanova team is led by two junior guards, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, which is rare in college basketball today but again if you go back over the years you notice it is players like these two that end up winning titles because they know what it takes.
Jalen Brunson is a 6 foot 3-inch combo guard from Illinois who was a unanimous Big East first-team selection last year and has been a starter since day 1.
This year Brunson averages 19.2 points per game, but more important than his ability to score is his movement with and without the ball. He averages nearly five assists a game and over three rebounds, which for a smaller guard who spends his time on the perimeter mostly is admirable.
Brunson even without the ball in his hands helps to stretch a defense and spread out the offensive set. He will cut back door down the baseline to open up the paint, help force a switch and create a mismatch, basically because Brunson is a junior and has been in this Wildcat offense for three years now he understands it and has mastered it. This helps Villanova in high-pressure situations and has all year.
Opposite Brunson is fellow junior guard/forward Mikal Bridges, all 6 foot 7 inches of his 210-pound frame. Bridges is Superman to Brunson’s Batman. Where Brunson slices up a defense with finesse and surgical precision, Bridges goes through them with strength and power.
He averages 17.4 points per game and 5.4 rebounds, but much like Brunson, it isn’t just his skills with the ball in his hands that makes him special.
Bridges moves around and helps create major mismatches for himself or others with his size and versatility, as well he helps assist the other guards giving them someone who can go inside out with their game without losing ballhandling since he is both a guard and a forward.
Between Brunson and Bridges, the Wildcats have a 1-2 punch that few teams can equal or counter.
VILLANOVA GOES SUPERNOVA
Now I know so far you are thinking, guard play is vital but sounds like the Wildcats are deficient in the paint; no big man or post presence.
You are not wrong but here is the problem. The Wildcats are so good at spreading you out, running up and down the court, and finding the open easy shot that their deficiency in the middle is almost non-existent.
Take for instance their game in the Maui Invitational against the University of Tennessee.
The Vols had the advantage down low and at halftime even led 46-34. However, the Wildcats would come out in the second half put up 50 plus points and bury Tennessee without breaking a sweat all because they started running the floor and making open shots.
This wasn’t anything new for Villanova and it continued all year. All the way up to and including the NCAA tournament.
Any expert will tell you that though teams may be ranked higher in defensive efficiency, there are no two tougher defensive systems to crack than the Syracuse zone or West (“Press”) Virginia.
Well, the Wildcats went through West Virginia like a hot knife through butter. The Mountaineers never stood a chance as even their classic full court press and 40 minutes of hustle couldn’t slow down the Villanova attack.
Nova posted 90 points, shot 54.2 percent from three-point range, and 50 percent from the field as a whole.
They broke one of the best defensive systems in all of college basketball and on top of that West Virginia point guard Jevon Carter is one of the best defensive guards we have seen in many years. He shut down guards like Trae Young multiple times this season. So what did Jalen Brunson do in the matchup; He scored 27 points and still had 4 assists.
Kansas is a good team, but they are not a healthy team.
Loyola-Chicago has had a magical run but they have to get through a very tough Michigan team just to have a shot at the Wildcats.
Michigan should be the favorite behind Villanova and if they win their game I believe it would make for a crazy and possible instant classic game for the Wolverines to play the Wildcats in the title.
However, ultimately Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are too good, Nova as a team always seems to just turn it on whenever they need to like flipping some metaphorical switch, and as great as John Beilein and Bill Self are it seems to me that Jay Wright is for the moment the best coach in college basketball over the last 3 to 5 years.
Written By: Colin Castleberry
Edited By: Matthew Peterson