Coming into the 2015-16 season, Jay Wright and the Villanova Wildcats hadn't made it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2009.
They ended that streak in impressive fashion on Sunday, however, obliterating the Iowa Hawkeyes, 87-68, to reach the Sweet 16. The Wildcats led by as many as 34 points at one point in the second half.
Kevin Cooney of the Intelligencer put Villanova's win in perspective:
For Ochefu/Arcidiacono, the legacy is secure. For Wright, the "can't get back to Sweet 16" talk dies. For Nova, Final Four talk is now real— Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney) March 20, 2016
Chris Hassel of ESPN noted that the Hawkeyes struggled with better competition this season:
Iowa went 8-1 vs tourney teams who lost in 1st round and 0-7 vs teams currently alive— Chris Hassel (@hasselESPN) March 20, 2016
Josh Hart led all scorers with 19 points, but the rest of the starters didn't disappoint. Ryan Arcidiacono (16 PTS, 4 AST); Kris Jenkins (15 PTS, 6 AST, 2 STL); Jalen Brunson (12 PTS, 4 AST); and Daniel Ochefu (6 PTS, 11 REB, 4 AST, 3 STL, 3 BLK) were all excellent for Villanova.
It was a complete performance from the Wildcats, who shot 59.3 percent from the field, were 10-of-19 from beyond the arc, dished out 23 assists and nabbed nine steals.
Jarrod Uthoff led the way for Iowa with 16 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks.
Villanova played a flawless first half.
The Wildcats went into the locker room up 54-29 after shooting 60.6 percent from the field and 58.3 percent from three (7-of-12). That was the most points in the first half at the NCAA tournament game since Iona scored 55 against BYU in 2012, per ESPN Stats & Information.
They out-rebounded the Hawkeyes (19-12), forced eight Iowa turnovers and were perfect from the free-throw line (7-of-7) while allowing the Hawkeyes to reach the charity stripe just twice (0-of-2).
Even when things didn't quite go to plan, they still worked out for Villanova, like this dunk attempt from Jenkins:
Villanova's Kris Jenkins now has 12 pts in the first half including this steal and fast-break layup https://t.co/3TXWNGi02k— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 20, 2016
While the Wildcats didn't look like they could miss on offense, it was the defense that was so impressive, hounding the Hawkeyes and holding the team's top two scorers, Uthoff (five points) and Peter Joke (six points), in check.
And Hart capped off the impressive defensive showing and first-half rout with this transition dunk, via NCAA March Madness:
Meanwhile, Villanova spread out the scoring, as Jenkins (12 PTS, 3, AST), Hart (10 PTS), Jalen Brunson (10 PTS, 3 AST), Phil Booth (8 PTS) and Arcidiacono (7 PTS, 3 AST) all were heavily involved in the offense.
So dominant were the Wildcats that Seth Davis of CBS Sports handed them the win at halftime:
Villanova. Sharpie.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 20, 2016
Nova didn't build this lead by hot shooting, which can turn cold. It did it with overwhelming D, which can be sustained. Hence the Sharpie.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 20, 2016
The difference in defensive pressure and intensity was what separated the two teams in the first half, as Dana O'Neil of ESPN tweeted:
Villanova is hitting 3s in this game but Jay Wright believes Wildcats defense is real difference this year. Showing that here against Iowa— Dana O'Neil (@ESPNDanaOneil) March 20, 2016
Course fact that Iowa can't guard a a statue helping Villanova's cause— Dana O'Neil (@ESPNDanaOneil) March 20, 2016
But there is also a difference between this Villanova team and previous iterations, per ESPN's Jeff Goodman:
Villanova running Iowa out of the gym. Jay Wright’s team is different than in previous years. More balanced, two PG’s, great chemistry.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 20, 2016
If there was any fear of Villanova letting up in the second half, the Wildcats quickly erased it, extending their lead to 65-31 by the 16-minute, 10-second mark of the second half.
Even the Villanova fans were a bit surprised by the team's complete domination, as Paul Schwartz of the New York Post noted:
"Save some for Thursday!'' shouts a Villanova fan as the lead expands to 30.— Paul Schwartz (@NYPost_Schwartz) March 20, 2016
Iowa showed some life after Nova's strong start to the second half, going on a 13-2 run over the next seven minutes. Iowa just couldn't seem to string enough shots together or break down Villanova's defense consistently enough to really threaten the Wildcats' big lead, however.
Up next for the Wildcats will be a matchup against the No. 3 seed Miami Hurricanes, who knocked off the always-dangerous No. 11-seeded Wichita State Shockers in the second round.
The Hurricanes are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country (12th in offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com) and in many ways mirror Villanova. They are experienced, play solid defense and have a talented backcourt, led by Sheldon McClellan, Angel Rodriguez and Ja'Quan Newton.
But if the Wildcats can replicate their success from the first half against Iowa, it will be tough for any team in the nation to beat them. When they are playing swarming defense and hitting their perimeter shots, few teams are more formidable.
They are deep, balanced and supremely skilled. And now that they've finally returned to the Sweet 16, it seems anything is possible for Wright's Wildcats.
For Villanova, finally advancing to the Sweet 16 again may not have been as much of a relief as no longer having to address that elephant in the room, as Nicole Auerbach of USA Today wrote:
Junior Josh Hart said all the questions about whether this team could make it through the tournament's first weekend had grown rather "annoying" all season.
Said Wright: "It's like if you have a cold and everybody keeps asking you, how's your cold? How's your cold? How are you doing? After a while, you're like, 'I'm fine, you know.' You know you've got to answer the question. I'm just relieved we don't have to answer the question, honestly. It wasn't that big of a deal to us."
Arcidiacono did acknowledge he was glad to have it all behind him.
"It was definitely a big time sigh of relief," he said of getting through the first weekend, per Auerbach.
Iowa's coach Fran McCaffery stayed positive after the big loss, meanwhile.
"I told the guys that I love them and that I'm proud of them," he said, per Iowa Basketball. "The younger guys had a great senior class to look up to."
He added, "I couldn't be more proud of this senior class. I'm going to miss them, I'll tell you that."
For Villanova, however, it's all about next Thursday, not next season. And while Wright believes deeply in his team, he also knows the perils of March Madness.
"This team can win it all, but this team could lose to anybody, too," Wright said in his postgame interview during the CBS broadcast. "That's the beauty of this tournament."
Check out Bleacher Report's live updating bracket to track your picks along the road to the Final Four.
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