Danger: Wolfpack ahead
Villanovas offense would seem to be too much for NC States defense, but the Wolfpack is capable of beating almost anyone.
PITTSBURGH - North Carolina State is exactly the kind of opponent No. 1 seeds get in their second NCAA Tournament game - good enough to overwhelm Duke 2 months ago, 87-75, and bad enough to lose at Boston College, 79-63, on Feb. 28, talented enough to win at Louisville and North Carolina, inconsistent enough to lose to Wofford and Wake Forest.
The Wolfpack is more athletic than any team Villanova has played all season. It has two shooters who have combined to make 163 threes. It has blocked 177 shots. It also has missed 217 free throws, committed 358 turnovers and lost 13 times.
"When they're at their best, they're as good as anybody in the country," Villanova coach Jay Wright said about tonight's opponent at the Consol Energy Center.
They just have not been at their best all that often.
"Our ups have been way up, been pretty high," Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said hopefully.
NC State actually has no business even being in this game. They looked awful for 31 minutes late Thursday night, trailing LSU, 62-48. LSU then proceeded to play perhaps the worst 9 minutes in tournament history. Consider that after LSU missed its last 12 field goal attempts and its last six free throws, the Wolfpack still needed a buzzer-beater to win after it seemed like nobody on their team wanted to touch the ball much less shoot it. It was a classic case of one team losing rather than another winning.
However, a team that wins a game in that manner can often feel very good about itself going into the next game. It is Villanova's job to discourage the Wolfpack players and convince them they can't win. The Wildcats have been doing exactly that for 2 months, winners of 16 straight and a Big East championship, and playing at such a high level for so long that only unbeaten Kentucky is ahead of them in the rankings.
Wright had high praise for NC State's perimeter of Trevor Lacey, Ralston Turner and Anthony Barber and a comparison that all Villanova fans will understand.
"They remind us of our '06 team - three guys who could just go get a shot any time any way, could make tough shots," Wright said.
They would be Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry.
"They're just dangerous, really dangerous," Wright said of the Wolfpack trio. "You've got to stay confident against them because they can hit tough shots."
Turner, who played two seasons at LSU before transferring, has made 90 threes this season and 262 in his career. He has unlimited range.
"I guess it was God's plan for me to be a shooter," Turner said.
Said teammate BeeJay Anya, who made the game-winner against LSU: "If he sees the rim, it's a good shot."
Villanova's skill really should trump NC State's athletes. And it's not like the Wildcats don't have athletes themselves. The Wildcat ball pressure is really unlike any team plays in the ACC. And they are absolutely one of the best shooting teams in America - with 317 made threes while shooting just shy of 40 percent.
Gottfried noted 'Nova's 93-52 win over Lafayette.
"They were maybe as impressive as anybody in the tournament," he said.
If Wisconsin is the nation's most difficult matchup because it has skilled size, Villanova is not far behind because of its skilled perimeter. Darrun Hilliard, Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono, Dylan Ennis and Phil Booth all handle and pass like point guards. That puts incredible pressure on the defense. The five have combined for 426 assists, 184 steals and just 215 turnovers, the kind of ratios that portend the blowouts that have defined Villanova's season.
"It's hard [to defend] because we like to play two post players," Gottfried said. "It's a difficult thing for us to match up against . . . If they are getting past guys and getting it to shooters, you're in for a long night."
If it ends tonight, it will still be a legendary numerical season for Villanova. But the 2015 college hoops reality is that teams with Villanova's profile must play at least into the Sweet 16 to be validated. Senior JayVaughn Pinkston is thinking even bigger. He's thinking Final Four in Indianapolis.
"If we don't get there, I'll feel like I failed my team," Pinkston said.
Of the four units on the floor tonight, the best statistically will be the Villanova offense, the worst the NC State defense. If Villanova wins that matchup decisively, as the seasonlong numbers suggest it really should, it will control how the game is played and that should translate to the scoreboard.
This game is the next step, a potential 34th win, a Sweet 16 appearance Friday night in Syracuse, two more wins away from an early-April arrival in Indianapolis.