By Joseph Santoliquito
PHILADELPHIA (CBS)—Making the NCAA Tournament was a foregone conclusion for Villanova, though the Wildcats made Selection Sunday a curiosity, after being upset by Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament. For St. Joseph’s, the Hawks controlled their own destiny, which they did by winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
Both Villanova and St. Joe’s had their names called in the 68-team field on Sunday Selection. And both are in the Eastern Regional. What’s more, they could face each other in the third round if they win their opening games.
Villanova (28-4 overall) opens as the No. 2 seed against No. 15 Milwaukee (21-13) on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y. St. Joe’s (24-9), making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years, opens as a No. 10 seed against No. 7 UConn (26-8), also on Thursday in Buffalo.
If both win, they’ll face each other.
It’s been four years since Villanova last won a tournament game, when the then No. 2-seed Wildcats beat No. 15 Robert Morris, 73-70, in 2010 when Wildcats’ coach Jay Wright benched Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds at the beginning of the game as a “teaching moment.” The Colonials lead by six at the half, but their 20 turnovers allowed the Wildcats to rally. Villanova was then upset in the second round by No. 10 St. Mary’s, 75-68.
In 2011, No. 9 Villanova lost to No. 8 George Mason, 61-57, in the second round and last year the Wildcats, a No. 9 seed, suffered another early exit, losing to No. 8 North Carolina, 78-71, in the second round.
This season, the Wildcats have been a top-10 team throughout much of the year. Entering the week, Villanova was ranked No. 3 in both the AP and USA Today Coaches’ polls, its highest ranking since 2009-10 when the team came in at No. 2, before suffering 64-63 setback to Seton Hall on a buzzer beater.
Coming off that loss, Wright never questioned the confidence of his team. He knows they could have played better defensively and still feels the confidence of his team is still high.
“It was really crazy, I hope [the Seton Hall loss] was a blip, because we played our best game of the year against Georgetown the last regular season game,” Wright said. “We had great practices. We went into that [Seton Hall] game and we didn’t make shots. Seton Hall played a great game, and had a great game plan. We battled back. We took a lead with 3.7 seconds left. They hit a great shot. In tournament play, I hope it’s a blip on the screen. We’ve had great practices since and our guys are in a great frame of mind.”
Entering the tournament, Wright said the focus will be on defense and rebounding. “In tournament play, you can have one bad night shooting, and if that’s what you’re relying in, it’s over,” he said. “You have to have a mentality that we can win with our defensive rebounding, even if we don’t make shots. All of our good teams in tournament play have done that.”
The road to this year’s tournament was a much rougher ride for St. Joe’s. The Hawks began the season 4-4, before changing their season around and winning nine of their next 10.
This marks the first time St. Joe’s is in the NCAA Tournament since 2008—and fourth time in the last 12 years. Beating No. 23 Virginia Commonwealth in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship on Sunday gave the Hawks their first A-10 title since 1997.
It also erased any doubt that was hovering over the Hawks. Going into the A-10 tournament, St. Joe’s was considered a bubble team. That was erased with the 65-61 victory over VCU.
In 2008, the No. 11 Hawks were ousted in the first round of the tournament by No. 6 Oklahoma, 72-64. In 2004, the Jameer Nelson-led Hawks, a No. 1 seed, reached the Elite Eight, losing to No. 2 Oklahoma State, 64-62. In 2003, the No. 7 Hawks lost to No. 10 Auburn, 65-63.