LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Saturday night’s Elite Eight matchup between Villanova and Kansas is just about perfect, other than being a week or so too early. Given the way each is playing now and has played all season, this game probably would have been a better fit in the Final Four or the NCAA championship game.
It might have worked out that way if Villanova had not lost a squeaker to Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament final. Maybe Villanova would have been a No. 1 seed and would have been in line to reach the Final Four without running into the likes of Kansas, the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. But the Wildcats believe that they are more focused and hungrier because of that loss at the Garden, which figures to make Saturday night’s game at the KFC Yum! Center so appetizing.
“They’re probably playing as well as anybody that we’ve gone against in recent memory. They’re on fire right now,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team ripped through Maryland, 79-63, on Thursday night hours after Villanova dominated Miami, 92-69. “It’s one thing to shoot a high percentage, but to shoot that high a percentage with the volume of threes they’ve been shooting makes it even more impressive.
“So they’re a red-hot team right now,” Self said. “But honestly, we’ve been playing pretty well ourselves.”
True enough: Even though Kansas (33-4) isn’t shooting .599 from the floor in the tournament, as is Villanova (32-5), the Jayhawks have their own hot streak: 17 consecutive wins since their last loss on Jan. 25.
“I do see it as a heavyweight battle of two teams playing really well,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I think both teams are really balanced.”
Each side is motivated by having failed to make it out of the first weekend of The Big Dance the previous two seasons. And each has a senior leader who is relentlessly trying to extend his final season.
For Kansas, it is forward Perry Ellis, considered “unguardable” by teammate Wayne Selden Jr.
For Villanova, it is energetic point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who is unstoppable, witnessed by the fact that he prepared for vaulting courtside tables by bouncing around the family living room as a kid. “We actually broke my mom’s wedding picture,” said Arcidiacono, who beat Kansas with a three-pointer at the buzzer in November 2013. Frank Mason III, a Jayhawk freshman at the time, took blame for that play Friday. He probably will guard Arcidiacono again Saturday night.
Ellis, who will go up against torrid long-range- shooting forward Kris Jenkins, never has been the verbal leader that Arcidiacono is, but he is much less quiet than he used to be. Ellis was asked to reflect on his speech as valedictorian at Wichita Heights High School and said, “The thing was, we actually had five or six other students that had all A’s. So not all of us spoke. I didn’t. I didn’t talk much then, so I was trying to find a way to get out of that.”
The resumes of the two heavyweights teams speak for themselves. Fittingly, the game is in Muhammad Ali’s hometown, which raised an interesting question.
“Wow. I was hoping nobody would ask me that here,” Wright said. “I’m a Philly guy. I was always Joe Frazier. With great respect for Muhammad Ali . . . in Philly, Smokin’ Joe is the man.”