North Carolina

Top ‘Cats: Villanova Begins Title Defense as Biggest Target

Entering last year's tournament, Villanova had become best known for having its heart broken and bracket busted early.

Villanova advances in Buffalo, defeating Mount St. Mary's 76 to 56.

Along with the accolades, attention and autograph seekers, Villanova earned something else with its national championship.

A target.

In one year, the Wildcats have gone from the team that couldn't get past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament to the one to beat.

What a difference a shot makes. From chokers to champions.

While the memory of Kris Jenkins' iconic buzzer-beating 3-pointer to edge North Carolina in the 2016 title game remains fresh, Villanova starts a new quest — to become college hoops' first back-to-back champion in 10 years on Thursday when it faces No. 16 seeded Mount St. Mary's in the East region. With three senior starters, the Big East tourney champions are poised to make another deep run in March, maybe into early April.

"Obviously, we would like to repeat," said senior center Darryl Reynolds. "Every team in this tournament wants to win the tournament. There isn't a team that wouldn't want to win. You can't look too far behind or too far forward, because you end up tripping on what you're doing right now."

The Wildcats know all about falling flat.

Entering last year's tournament, Villanova had become best known for having its heart broken and bracket busted early.

The Wildcats had failed to get past the first weekend in four consecutive NCAA appearances, and that was all they heard about before their six-game title run. Villanova shook its one-or-two-and-down reputation with the school's first title since the near miraculous one in 1985, when coach Rollie Massimino's crew dropped mighty Georgetown.

The pressure is different this time around.

"There was a big monkey on our back with the first weekend thing," senior guard Josh Hart said Wednesday before the team practiced for the first time in KeyBank Center. "It was kind of weird this year not having to answer that question that I answered the last three years. But, you know, it is what it is. Both of them are challenging. We just know we've got to be focused and ready to play."

Villanova opens with the scrappy Mountaineers, who nipped New Orleans 67-66 in the First Four on Tuesday night. Mount St. Mary's is led by 5-foot-5 point guard Junior Robinson, the nation's smallest Division I player, who made one big play after another while scoring 23 in the tourney's first game.

Of all the upsets that have taken place in the tournament, there has never been a No. 16 seed over a No. 1. That doesn't make Nova coach Jay Wright any less nervous.

"You know those teams, they can get it going and they put game pressure on you when you're a 1 seed," he said. "You got to be ready for it and got to overcome that, too."

In Buffalo's other East region game, No. 8 Wisconsin will face No. 9 Virginia Tech. In Orlando, Florida, No. Virginia (22-10) plays UNC-Wilmington (29-5), and Florida (24-8) meets East Tennessee State (27-7).

WISCONSIN-VIRGINIA TECH: With three straight appearances in the Sweet 16 and 19 consecutive NCAA bids, the Badgers know their way around the brackets as well as anyone.

Wisconsin has won 11 games in the tourney since 2014 — more than any other school — and that experience would seem to favor the Big Ten power against the Hokies, who are making their first visit since 2007.

However, Wisconsin coach Greg Gard expects Virginia Tech to be ready.

"They've played through a rigorous conference schedule," he said. "We've both seen tournament environments, so I think you can kind of throw that (experience factor) out. They've got some guys that have some experience in game environments. Sometimes that's overblown because we've already played 30-some games each."

FLORIDA-ETSU: East Tennessee State's roster is filled with transfers, a group coach Steve Forbes calls "misfit toys."

The 13th-seeded Buccaneers might be perfectly suited for an upset. The Gators have taken a step back since losing center John Egbunu to a knee injury last month and having guard Canyon Barry slowed by an sprained right ankle. Florida has lost three of its last four games and enters the tournament looking vulnerable.

VIRGINIA-UNC WILMINGTON: The Cavaliers and Seahawks bring drastically contrasting styles. Virginia slows the game to a crawl, relying on pack-line defense to make it a low-scoring affair. UNC Wilmington wants to get up and down as much as possible.

"We've got to do a lot of things to be able to score against those guys," said UNCW coach Kevin Keatts, whose team went toe-to-toe with powerhouse Duke in the opening round last year, leading at halftime before losing 93-85.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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