By The Empire Editors Benjamin Simon and William Derry. For more information, visit their website.
Mount St. Mary’s
Record: (20-15 overall, 14-4 conference)
Key players: Sophomore guard Elijah Long (15.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.4 APG, .420 FG%, .395 3P%), junior guard Junior Robinson (14.3 PPG, 2.9 APG, .425 FG%, .399 3P%), and freshman guard Miles Wilson (11.5 PPG, 3.8 RPG, .461 FG%, .367 3P%).
Summary of Season: Mount St. Mary’s started the 2016-17 season 1-11 overall after being picked to finish 4th in the Northeast conference (NEC) preseason coaches poll. The Mountaineers rebounded by going 19-4 to finish the season and won the NEC regular season title for the first time in 21 years with a victory over St. Francis (BKN).
With single-digit wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the NEC tournament, the Mountaineers defeated St. Francis (PA) by 10 points for the conference championship and earned an automatic tournament bid as a result.
Despite a late push by New Orleans in yesterday’s first round matchup in Dayton, Ohio, the Mountaineers escaped with a 1-point win and advanced on to the 2nd round of the tournament to face the No. 1 overall seed in Villanova.
Though the Mountaineers compete in a non-power 5 conference, they faced West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota and Michigan during non-conference play earlier this season. That experience against power 5 conference teams should help prepare head coach Jamion Christian and his group for Villanova.
Record: (31-3 overall, 15-3 conference)
Key players: Player of the Year candidate senior guard Josh Hart (18.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG, .508 FG%, .407 3P%), senior forward Kris Jenkins (13.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, .372 FG%), and sophomore guard Jalen Brunson (14.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, .541 FG%, .396 3P%).
Summary of Season: Villanova did not miss a step this season after winning the 2016 National Championship.
Including last year’s postseason run, the Wildcats went on a 20-game winning streak to begin the season. However, Jay Wright and the reigning NCAA tournament champions did lose three regular season games (two against Butler and one against Marquette) during the 2016-17 campaign, but still clinched their 4th straight regular season Big East title against Creighton in late February.
The Wildcats beat Creighton again for the Big East tournament title after a 41-point victory over St. John’s in the quarterfinals and 2-point victory over Seton Hall in the semifinals. Nova earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and have the most wins (31) of a defending champion entering the tournament.
What Villanova will need to do to win:
Villanova will need to continue to shoot a high-percentage from the field. The Wildcats are currently shooting 50% overall, which is sixth best in the nation, and 37% from three. Villanova head coach Jay Wright will rely on seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds to set the tone and provide veteran leadership in this early round matchup against Mount St. Mary’s. Despite entering tournament-play as the No. 1 overall seed, the Wildcats will need to limit the Mountaineers’ chances around the basket. If Nova can force the Mountaineers into long-range attempts instead of drives to the basket then the Wildcats will all but eliminate Mount St. Mary’s offensive scheme.
What Mount St. Mary’s will need to do to win:
Mount St. Mary’s will need major scoring from their backcourt trio in Junior Robinson, Elijah Long, and Miles Wilson. The three combine for 60% of the team’s 68 points per game. In order to defeat the Wildcats, they will need to jump out early and find a way to score consistently throughout the game. That will start with these three guys. The Mountaineers will also have to run the Wildcats off the 3-point line. If they’re able to force Villanova into struggling from beyond the arc, they’ll have a much better chance at history. In the three games that Villanova lost this season, they shot 18 for 74 (24%) from 3. The Wildcats shot 37% from 3-pointers on the year which has extremely helped them open up free driving lanes. They are an extremely efficient team when the 3’s are falling, as they rank second in the nation in 2-point conversion percentage, at 59.7%, as a result of the space the 3 ball creates. Mount St. Mary’s will have to replicate the disturbance that Butler and Marquette caused on Villanova’s three point shots.
Jalen Brunson vs. Junior Robinson
The battle of the little guards. If Mount St. Mary’s has any chance, they’ll need big play from a big time player. Robinson, who is the shortest player in Division 1 college basketball at 5-foot-5, is steaming hot right now, coming off 20 point outings in three of his last four games. He’s lightning quick and a gamer, as proved in his first round matchup against New Orleans (23 points on 9-14 shooting). It will be Brunson’s job to neutralize him early and make sure he doesn’t catch fire, like he has shown he can do so many times this year. Likewise, if Robinson can find a way to contain Brunson and make it tough for him to get the Villanova offense going, that will be the start of good news for Mount St. Mary’s. The problem is few defenders have been able to disrupt Brunson this entire year. Robinson will surely need to do so in order to pull off the improbable win.
Chris Wray (Mount St. Mary’s) and Donte DiVincenzo (Villanova)
One way to defeat Villanova would also be through their thin frontcourt. Not many teams, however, have been able to take advantage of the defending national champions’ lack of size up front. For Mount St. Mary’s to do that, it has to start with 6-foot-8 junior Chris Wray. In arguably the Mountaineers most impressive victory this season, against a 20-13 George Mason team, Wray notched a career-high 21 points and 10 points after shooting 10-13 from the field. Donte DiVincenzo will also play a major role for Villanova off the bench. If the game is close early on, the Delaware native will be relied on to provide a spark off the bench. The starters may not be clicking and it will be DiVincenzo’s job to bring energy and get the team back on track.
Prediction: 80-50 Villanova Wildcats
Although Mount St. Mary’s has the hot hand coming into this contest after defeating New Orleans yesterday in the first round, Villanova’s skill, size and experience will be too much for the Mountaineers to compete with. Nova’s overall team skill will overwhelm the Mountaineers and will force them to play from behind for most of the game. Nova will cruise past the Mountaineers and advance on into the Round of 32 unscathed.
Photo: NovaNut35 (via: Wikimedia Commons)