Thursday night went just as I had expected. First, UCONN beat Purdue.
Next, Pittsburgh overcame a large Xavier lead when Levance Fields hit a clutch three-pointer, Pitt’s first of the game, to put the Panthers up one with under a minute to play. Pitt hung on to win.
In the third game, Missouri beat Memphis. You might not have seen that coming, but I did. Finally, in the late game, Villanova destroyed Duke.
My Elite Eight is a perfect four-for-four so far, with my other four teams all still alive to play on Friday. How is yours looking?
Duke scored the first five points of the game. Nova then took the lead seven to five and kept it the rest of the game. Villanova’s lock-down defense was the key to the game, as both teams found key players in foul trouble.
Gerald Henderson was held to just seven points on a horrid 1-for-14 from the field (he led Duke with nine rebounds). Overall, the Blue Devils had just two players score in double figures.
Kyle Singler led Duke with 15 points (on 5-of-13 shooting), and Jon Scheyer added 13 (on a frigid 3-of-18 from the field including 2-of-10 from three-point range).
As a team, Duke shot just 26 percent from the field (their worst in NCAA tournament history), and 18 percent from three-point range (5-of-27). They were 17-of-24 from the foul line (70 percent).
No wonder they are Blue Devils; anyone would turn that color after such an icy cold shooting performance.
On the other side, Villanova played a great game, outhustling Duke on both ends of the floor. The Wildcats out-rebounded the Blue Devils 46-32 (and 12-7 on the offensive glass). Nova hit 82 percent of their free-throws (19-of-23).
While Villanova didn’t have a wonderful shooting day (42 percent), they hit big shots when they needed them. Up only three at the half, Villanova came out strong in the second half, where they outscored Duke 51-31.
This was a total team effort by the Wildcats. Dante Cunningham dropped a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Reggie Redding had 11 points and nine rebounds and also led the team with four assists.
Scottie Reynolds led the Wildcats in scoring with 16 points. Senior Dwayne Anderson added a serviceable eight points and seven rebounds, as did fellow senior Shane Clark with seven points and five rebounds.
Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher combined for 13 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
Overall, Villanova had eight different players with at least one offensive rebound, and four players with two. That’s team basketball. Walk-on Frank Tchuisi even got in on the action in the final minutes of the game, adding four points on two field goals (a put back lay up and a slam dunk).
That was twice as many field goals as Gerald Henderson made for Duke. Wow. As for the coaches, only one is moving on, and in this instance it's definitely Jay before K.
This is Villanova’s second straight win by 20 or more against a national powerhouse. Since trailing by 14 points in the second half against American, the Wildcats have simply outplayed their opponents. That’s why you won’t see UCLA or Duke playing on Saturday in the East Regional Final; and why you will see Villanova.
If Villanova wants to advance to first Final Four since 1985, they will have to beat Big East rival Pittsburgh, and that is no small task. More than once this season, the Panthers were ranked No. 1 in the nation, and they are the No. 1 seed in the East Region.
They are led by big-time players DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, and Levance Fields. Those three players combined for 43 of Pitt’s 60 points in their 60-55 win over Xavier. Blair also added 17 rebounds.
Tough? Yes. Impossible? Certainly not. In their only regular season match-up, Villanova defeated Pitt by double figures in the last college basketball game ever played in the historic Philadelphia Spectrum.
At the time, Pitt was ranked No. 3 in the nation. Villanova was ranked No. 18. So how did Villanova do it? They got DeJuan Blair into foul trouble, limiting him to seven points and eight rebounds in just 20 minutes of play.
Without Blair, the Panthers are a totally different team. Young scored 14 points and pulled down nine rebounds, Fields added 11 points, and Brad Wanamaker added 13 points.
It wasn’t enough. Without Blair in the game, Villanova was able to drive to the bucket more and despite being out rebounded by four, Villanova won by 10 points.
If I were Jay Wright, I would go at Blair early. If you are aggressive early and set the tone, it will allow Villanova to dictate the style of play throughout the game.
Antonio Pena played just eight minutes against Duke, adding four points and three rebounds. More importantly against Pitt, he is five extra fouls.
Jamie Dixon, Pitt’s coach, will likely play zone defense to try to keep Blair out of foul trouble. If I were Wright, I would put Pena in the game early and have him drive at Blair.
If Blair draws the charge, so be it. If not, two fouls on Blair in the first 10 minutes could really alter the game in Nova’s favor.
If Blair is able to play, the Wildcats will have to be very aggressive on the boards and box out as much as they can if they hope to get offensive rebounds (something they have done very well so far) and limit Pitt’s second-chance shots.
Blair is almost impossible to back down, so Cunningham will have to face up and knock down his jump shots. Fisher will have to be fearless, drive the lane, and hit some of his circus lay-ups over the top of Blair.
Redding and Reynolds will also have to drive to the basket in order to open up better looks from the outside.
Villanova will also have to play great help defense like they did against Duke and UCLA. Pitt has a lot of dangerous shooters, and if Nova cheats inside too much to help out on Blair, it could open up good looks for Fields, Young, and others.
Nova might have to rely a little more on outside shooting and that means they will have to shoot a better percentage from three than they did tonight.
Stokes, Anderson, Clark, and Fisher combined for just one of 10 shooting from behind the arc. Redding and Reynolds combined for three of eight. The Wildcats combined to shoot just 22 percent from three.
It is my opinion that Villanova will beat Pittsburgh and advance to the Final Four. Take nothing away from Pitt, they are a great group of players, but rarely have I seen a group of players play as a team the way that Villanova is doing now.
The Wildcats are hungry, they are unselfish, and they are willing to give up their egos and their bodies to play tough, gritty, hard-nosed basketball.
They function like a well-oiled machine. While Pittsburgh barely beat Xavier, Villanova destroyed Duke. I think that when the dust settles Saturday night, Villanova will be cutting down the nets and heading to the Final Four.
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