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Jerardi: Villanova all the way

WHEN VILLANOVA went to the 2009 Final Four, I was not surprised. In fact, I picked the Wildcats in my bracket that year because I liked the draw. I did not pick them to win it because I thought there was no chance they could beat North Carolina if that was the national semifinal matchup. It was, in fact, the matchup that year at Ford Field in Detroit.

Villanova's Josh Hart celebrates after making a three-point basket late in the Elite 8 matchup with Kansas on Saturday, March 26, 2016.
Villanova's Josh Hart celebrates after making a three-point basket late in the Elite 8 matchup with Kansas on Saturday, March 26, 2016.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

WHEN VILLANOVA went to the 2009 Final Four, I was not surprised. In fact, I picked the Wildcats in my bracket that year because I liked the draw. I did not pick them to win it because I thought there was no chance they could beat North Carolina if that was the national semifinal matchup. It was, in fact, the matchup that year at Ford Field in Detroit.

I reconsidered before heading to Detroit, but just didn't think anything had changed. So I stayed with Carolina, featuring Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Episcopal Academy's Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. Carolina, as it did in every tournament game that year, won convincingly, 83-69, and then beat Michigan State two nights later even more convincingly, 89-72, for the championship. Those Tar Heels won their last five NCAA games by 14, 21, 12, 14 and 17. They were just that good.

The 2009 Villanova team was 96th in two-point efficiency and 19th in free throw accuracy. This team is third and second, respectively.

I picked these Wildcats to make the Final Four because I liked them even more than the 2009 team. I also liked their draw. In my published bracket, I picked the Wildcats to lose to Oklahoma in Saturday's national semifinal in Houston. Oklahoma is playing at about the level I expected. Villanova is playing way better than I imagined.

So, given the new information, I am changing my mind. I am picking Villanova to win Saturday. In fact, I am picking the Wildcats to win it all.

There is one team in this Final Four that is top 10 nationally in offensive (fourth) and defensive (seventh) efficiency. That would be Villanova. Oklahoma is 13th in both. UNC is first and 21st. Syracuse is 51st and 16th.

Let's start with Oklahoma, the team that crushed the Wildcats, 78-55, on Dec. 7. I think the Sooners are every bit as good as they were then. I just think this NCAA Tournament version of Villanova is playing at a higher level than any of Jay Wright's previous teams in the tournament. No team remaining has a better combination of offense and defense and that would include UNC.

Buddy Hield will be the absolute focus of Villanova's defense. West Virginia had an interesting approach in the Big 12 semifinals. It didn't let Buddy catch the ball. He ended up 1-for-8 and scored just six points. WVU, which was offensively challenged, barely won, 69-67.

Hield is a lethal scorer with in-the-gym range, but he is also unusual in that he is a righthanded player who plays like he's lefthanded. He rarely goes right in anything he does on the court, but he has certainly made it work.

Love watching the Sooners play, but I think Villanova will be able to score on them. If it comes down to the end, which it may, my belief is that Villanova's defense is the more likely to get stops.

Do I think the Wildcats are a cinch? Hardly. They could lose. I just don't think they will.

Which brings us to Monday night.

I have no explanation for Syracuse, any more than I can explain Middle Tennessee beating Michigan State. The Orange had lost five of six before Selection Sunday and were 31st of the 36 at-large teams selected. On the 68-team S-curve, UNC was 2, Oklahoma 6, Villanova 7 and Syracuse 39.

The 'Cuse did get a huge break when the Spartans lost because America's best three-point shooting team would have been a perfect match for the zone. But you have to take advantage of NCAA breaks and Syracuse certainly has.

What happened over the weekend in Chicago tests all laws of probability. The website kenpom.com gave Syracuse only a 5.5 percent chance of coming back to win Friday against Gonzaga after trailing 59-54 with 2:57 left. The Orange won, 63-60. They had a 1.4 percent chance Sunday against Virginia when trailing 54-39 with 9:32 left. They won, 68-62.

Do I think they are going to beat North Carolina? No. Could they? Apparently.

UNC obviously will have the best offense and best frontcourt in Houston. The Tar Heels have put up video-game numbers in this tournament, especially in the East Regional over the weekend at Wells Fargo Center. Those numbers, 1.42 points per possession against Indiana and 1.54 ppp against Notre Dame, come with a caveat. Indiana is not a very good defensive team, 73rd nationally, and Notre Dame is just bad, 172nd nationally.

The ball just comes at defenses so fast and the bigs are so skilled that opponents must feel like they are under assault, especially when UNC seems to be scoring so easily. It is all by design, of course, for a team that typically does not shoot many threes because it is not very good at it, despite what happened against IU.

If it's UNC-Villanova Monday night as I think it will be, UNC will be favored. I think Villanova's guard line is just better than Carolina's, but how exactly do the 'Cats stop the inside game or even slow it down.

Go back and watch the Kansas tape. Why was Perry Ellis a non-factor? Villanova's pressure on the passers was so intense they just could not enter the ball into the post. It is the most underrated aspect of post defense and the Wildcats did it brilliantly against the best high-low team in the country.

The lesson from Saturday night in Louisville, Ky., was that if the Wildcats can beat a team that had won 17 straight, they can beat anybody. And anybody would include Oklahoma and either North Carolina or Syracuse. That is my prediction and it will not change.

@DickJerardi

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