A day after it left Madison Square Garden with yet another trophy, Villanova received yet another honor. The defending national champion and current Big East winner learned Sunday evening that it is the No. 1 overall seed heading into this year’s NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats also could find their way back to the Garden if they reach the Sweet 16.
All told, it was a weekend of distinction for a team that had a season worthy of the title it won on a last-second three-pointer last April. Villanova will begin its championship defense in Buffalo on Thursday as the top seed in the East Regional, which will conclude March 24 and 26 in Manhattan. Villanova’s fans roundly toasted their team at the Garden on Saturday after the Big East final.
“There are different kinds of pressure during the year. There’s definitely a hangover from last year, which, however you define it, put pressure on us this year,” coach Jay Wright said of the prospect of becoming the first team since Florida in 2007 to repeat as national champion. “And I thought we handled it really well.”
His team will play a No. 16 seed, the winner of Tuesday’s Mount St. Mary’s-New Orleans game, and go from there. In the regional final, there is a chance it could face Duke, which also won a conference title in New York on Saturday. The Blue Devils won the ACC Tournament at Barclays Center and earned the No. 2 seed in the East.
In a largely controversy-free process, the NCAA Selection Committee chose North Carolina, Kansas and Gonzaga as the other top regional seeds. If there was a degree of second-guessing, it involved Syracuse, which did not make the field. Committee chairman Mark Hollis said, “As you look at the resume, 2-11 on the road, that became a theme.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim pointed out that his team finished ahead of Wake Forest, which made the tournament, in the ACC standings. Boeheim, appearing on ESPN, acknowledged the “bad losses” but added, “We had three top 10 wins, and nobody on the bubble had three top 10 wins.” Ultimately, he was less cantankerous than he was after a loss to Miami in Brooklyn on Wednesday.
“At the end of the day, everybody who thinks they’re close thinks their team should be in,” Boeheim said. “It is what it is. We know at the end of the day, we needed to win a couple more games. We have to accept it. We’ll play in the NIT and try to do the best we can.”
The ACC did land nine members in the 68-team field, the most of any conference. The Big East also made a strong showing, with seven of its 10 teams reaching The Big Dance. Seton Hall, which lost a squeaker to Villanova on Friday, will play Arkansas on Friday in Greenville, South Carolina.
Vermont, which lost to Stony Brook in the America East final last year but beat Albany on Saturday, will bring a nation-leading 21-game winning streak into its game against Purdue. UNC Wilmington, champion of Hofstra’s CAA, was awarded a No. 12 seed and will face Virginia.
Perhaps the headliner Sunday was Northwestern, which had been the only team from a major conference never to have been in the tournament. That long drought has ended, as the Wildcats were named an eight seed in the West and will face Vanderbilt. Coach Chris Collins said he told his players and supporters, “Very rarely in life do you get a chance to do something that has never, ever been done.”
No one associated with Villanova ever has won back-to-back national titles.
Wright said Saturday that the Big East Tournament was a relief. “We weren’t defending champions, you know? It’s just Big East teams, it’s that New York, Madison Square Garden vibe.”
He and his team have a chance to catch that vibe again.
Leagues receiving multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament:
Big East 7
Big Ten 7
Big 12 6