PITTSBURGH - Villanova coach Jay Wright had spent part of his pre-NCAA tournament news conference expressing concern about how to defend Lafayette and its three-point attack, one that carried the Leopards to the Patriot League championship.
When informed Wednesday of Wright's apprehension, Lafayette coach and Villanova graduate Fran O'Hanlon quipped, "Was Jay really scared?"
When the Wildcats, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA East Regional, take on the 16th-seeded Leopards on Thursday night at the Consol Energy Center, a key will be which defense can stop the three-point shooting of its opponent more effectively.
Lafayette (20-12) has put up some dazzling shooting numbers - 48.8 percent from the floor, 41.3 percent from three-point distance, 76.6 percent on free throws, and 8.0 made threes per game. The Wildcats (32-2), the Big East champion and winner of 15 straight games, are no slouches from distance either - 38.9 percent from the arc, 9.0 made threes.
Wright said he spoke of Big East rival Creighton, one of two teams to make 10 three-point baskets this season against Villanova, as a way of relating to his players how Lafayette plays.
"I actually think they shoot the ball a lot better than Creighton," he said. "They might not be as big, but they shoot it a lot better. I hope we can do a better job of defending the three-point line and still containing them off the dribble. I thought against Creighton we did a decent job on the three-point line, but we got blown by off the dribble a lot.
"These guys can stretch a little bit more, so it's going to be a little more of a challenge."
Three Lafayette starters - Joey Ptasinski, Seth Hinrichs, and Bryce Scott - have connected on 50 or more three-pointers. Hinrichs is a 6-foot-8 forward and capable of drawing the Wildcats' big men, 6-11 Daniel Ochefu and 6-7 JayVaughn Pinkston - away from the basket.
Wright said Ochefu will be an important figure on defense.
"Daniel is a guy that can have a tremendous impact on this game, and he can be a liability," he said. "There are guys that teams like this go after, try to get your big guy away from the basket, and Daniel is going to have a lot of difficult decisions during the game like on the shooter. But he can guard on the perimeter and he can guard inside."
O'Hanlon, a star guard for the Wildcats from 1967 through 1970, has his share of concerns with 'Nova's balance and teamwork.
"This is a terrific basketball team," he said. "Now that we're going to have to play them, I've had the misfortune of seeing them a lot this year; I'm a Villanova guy. You can't concentrate on just one person.
"You look at the kid [Josh] Hart coming in who may be their best player, and they have so many good players. You have Archie [Ryan Arcidiacono] and you have [Darrun] Hilliard, who's had some great games. They can spread you out in so many ways. We're going to have to play our absolute best game that we've played all year."
Wright called "pretty good" the decision by President Obama to predict that the Wildcats would play No. 1 Kentucky in the NCAA championship game April 6.
"I would take that," he said. "I wasn't looking at that as a negative. I was thinking he was a pretty smart guy. That's interesting. That's flattering. I know he's a Georgetown fan, so he's seen us a couple of times I'm sure. That's cool.
"I'll take that as a positive that he put us in the finals. If we could ever do that and get to the finals against Kentucky . . . let's see what happens. We'll just take that."
Line: Villanova by 22½.
Josh Hart was the best player on the court for Villanova in the Wildcats' three-game sweep to the Big East tournament championship. The 6-foot-5 sophomore sixth man shot 21 of 29 (72.4 percent) from the field and averaged 17.7 points while knocking down nine three-point baskets in 14 attempts (64.3 percent).
Lafayette point guard Nick Lindner, a sophomore from Germantown Academy, averaged 23.7 points and deposited 61.5 percent of his field-goal attempts and 60 percent from three (9 of 15) in the Leopards' run to the Patriot League title.
The Wildcats' JayVaughn Pinkston shot 30.4 percent (4 of 13) in the Big East tournament and scored 18 points in the three contests. The 6-7, 235-pound senior took only three shots in each of the last two games. With a physical advantage inside, he will need to look more to the basket Thursday night.
Ryan Arcidiacono won the Big East semifinal game against Providence by driving the length of the court, getting fouled in the paint, and sinking a pair of free throws with 3.6 seconds to play.
When speaking of Lafayette, you might say "wrong team to foul." The Leopards finished ninth in the nation in free-throw percentage at 76.6 percent, and every starter on the team is shooting at least 76.6 percent. Lindner (85.0) and forward Seth Hinrichs (84.5) have the highest marks of players who have averaged one made free throw per game.
Villanova's Dylan Ennis has the lowest percentage (62.0) among the team's eight-man rotation.
Again, there are a plethora of candidates in this category. Between the two teams, seven players have connected on at least 50 threes, led by Darrun Hilliard of Villanova with 73 and Joey Ptasinski of Lafayette with 72. Hart (46.8 percent) and Ptasinski (45.6 percent) are the top shooters from deep on each team.
Villanova coach Jay Wright may have to go to a four-guard lineup to counter Lafayette's four three-point shooters on the floor. That might mean the 6-5 Josh Hart going up against Seth Hinrichs, a 6-8 forward who had converted 51 threes and shoots better than 39 percent from deep.
- Joe Juliano