The road to the NCAA Championship began at The Garden for the defending national champions.
Whether or not the Villanova Wildcats can make it to Glendale, AZ, site of this year’s Final Four, and become the first team since the 2006-07 Florida Gators to repeat as champs remains to be seen. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee believes Nova is the team to beat.
The Wildcats are the No. 1 overall seed. From the Big Apple to the Big Dance goes Nova.
This is a testament to where coach Jay Wright has taken the Villanova program. The Wildcats fear no expectation, no opponent and no seed is too high or too low.
“Hey, will take it man,” Wright said on ESPN of the No. 1 seed. “It’s an honor. It’s a sign of the work we put in all season.”
Of course, the hardest work comes now.
The beauty and beast of the NCAA Tournament – the randomness that sets this month-long basketball rave apart from any other championship – is that the best team doesn’t necessarily win.
In this one-and-done format, all it takes is one off game and dreamers with bright eyes are transformed into mourners with rivulets of tears streaming from those same eyes.
Nova is the No. 1 seed in the East. Kansas (Midwest), North Carolina (South) and Gonzaga (West) received the other No. 1 seeds. The Wildcats will open play in the NCAA Tournament on March 16 in Buffalo against the winner of the New Orleans-Mount St. Mary’s game.
If the Wildcats can advance to the regional final, they will play in their home away from home, as The Garden hosts the East Region Final from March 23-26.
Villanova (31-3), capped a remarkable season by winning the Big East Conference Tournament Saturday evening in The World’s Most Famous Arena. They dominated Creighton in a 74-60 victory. The Wildcats also won the league regular-season title.
Villanova has won four straight games in the Mecca of Basketball by an average of 17.5 points. They’ve won two of the last three Big East Conference Tournaments. From the Main Line to Broadway, Villanova is at home.
Wright, who coached at Hofstra, said, “I grew up watching the Big East and it was always my favorite basketball, all my favorite teams. Villanova was my favorite team. I coached here in New York, so every time I come back here there’s a lot of friends.
“So I just enjoy seeing my guys enjoy it and win because I know it’s special to them, too. I get the feeling — a real good glow inside seeing these guys be happy and accomplishing something.”
Villanova has some variables to deal with. Because of the snowstorm that is expected to hit the Northeast, Nova is expected to depart at 3 p.m. on Monday for Buffalo. This is arguably the first time in NCAA Tournament history a No. 1 seed has fled to Buffalo to escape snow.
Bring the white stuff. Bring the No. 1 seed. Bring the pressure that can come with being the defending national champion. Villanova’s focus never changes from game to game.
“We don’t think about defending champion or any of that,’’ said Big East Tournament MVP Josh Hart. “We just talk about being the best team we can be.”
So far that’s worked out pretty well.
NOTES: The Big East may not be one of the five “Power Conferences,” but you’d have a hard time selling that notion based on the NCAA Tournament field. Seven of 10 teams are going to the Big Dance.
Seton Hall, which beat Villanova in last season’s conference championship game and lost, 55-53, in a semifinal game this year, must have ticked off someone at NCAA headquarters. The Pirates (21-11) got a No. 9 seed and must face No. 8 seed Arkansas (25-9) in Greenville, SC, in what will feel like a home game for the Hogs.
Last season, the Pirates, making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006, got a No. 6 seed. But they were sent to Denver to play Gonzaga, in what essentially was a home game for the Zags. Seton Hall lost, 68-52.
Butler (23-8), which handed Nova two of its three losses, got a No. 4 seed in the South. The Bulldogs face Winthrop (26-6) in Milwaukee.
Creighton got a No. 6 seed in the Midwest. The Blue Jays (25-9) open against Rhode Island (24-9), one of the hottest teams in the nation, in Sacramento. The Rams are coached by Danny Hurley, son of Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley Sr.
Marquette got the Seton Hall treatment. The Eagles (19-12) got a No. 10 seed. They meet No. 7 seed South Carolina (22-10) in Greenville. That’s about a 90-minute drive from the Gamecocks’ campus.
Providence will have to work overtime to advance. The No. 11 Friars (20-12) meet No. 11 USC (24-9) in a First Four game in Dayton, OH. The winner of that game plays Southern Methodist in Tulsa.
Xavier (21-13), the No. 11 seed in the West, opens against No. 6 Maryland (24-8) in Orlando. The Big Ten, of which Maryland is a member, tied the Big East with seven bids. The ACC got the most teams in with nine.
“It’s not a privilege playing in the NCAA tournament, it’s an honor,” said Josh Hart. “It’s humbling.”