As soon as Maryland-Baltimore County shocked the basketball world by upsetting top overall seed Virginia in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Villanova became the favorite to cut down the nets on April 2.
That hasn’t changed.
What has changed is how much good the Wildcats have been. Though all four teams in San Antonio are capable of winning the national title, there are reasons why coach Jay Wright’s Wildcats are the favorite:
1. Jalen Brunson
The 6-3 point guard is the USA TODAY player of the year, and he has showed why in the NCAA tournament, especially with 27 points against the potent and vexing defense of West Virginia. In the overtime win against Providence in the Big East tournament final, Brunson had 31 points and a number of clutch shots down the stretch. If the game’s on the line, Villanova has a player that other teams don’t.
More than anything, it’s how Brunson makes the rest of Villanova’s players better. The leadership role he took on this season isn’t something he’s grown into. It fits his natural ability, and it makes him one of Wright’s best guard ever.
2. The nation’s best offense
A nation-leading 87 points a game, 50% shooting average, 12 made three-pointers each game. Six players shooting around 40% from beyond the arc. And No. 1 in adjusted efficiency per KenPom.com.
But it’s how this team averages those numbers. The Wildcats scores 90(!) points against Bob Huggins’ West Virginia defense in the Sweet 16. The key stretch was an 11-0 run that put the game out of reach. Some of that was sparked by Brunson and some of it was propelled by a huge lift from 6-9½ freshman Omari Spellman. In the second round against Alabama, the Wildcats blew a close game wide open in the second half. Villanova’s offense comes in flurries that can bury some of those most gifted teams.
3. Defensive spike
In the win over Texas Tech, the offense went cold (33% shooting) and the defense was the difference-maker. Villanova has held opponents to 70 points or fewer in the last seven games and is playing with a grittiness that’s indicative of championship teams. Mikal Bridges is a lottery pick not just for his offense (18 points a game), but for his ability to defend as a 6-6 two-way player.
4. The two big men in the lineup
In comparison to Kansas, Michigan and Loyola — essentially four-guard, small-ball lineups — Villanova uses traditional two big men, and that is what can set it apart in in San Antonio. Wright has the arsenal to go small for matchup purposes, but he also has 6-9 Eric Paschall and 6-9 Spellman to frustrate teams. Frontcourt players who can corral rebounds and draw fouls on Kansas’ one effective big man can provide an edge late in the game in Villanova’s favor.