Why the Villanova Wildcats Could Win the NCAA Tournament
2015 has been Kentucky's year, and for good reason, as the 2015 Kentucky team could be the best in the last 15 years. This has taken the spotlight away from the other top teams.
Other teams have still been receiving some notoriety, of course, but one squad has eluded the spotlight: a different group of Wildcats.
The Villanova Wildcats are currently 27-2 and are first in the Big East. Sure, the record is nice, but there are plenty of reasons to keep an eye on Villanova down the stretch.
Villanova was a 2 seed last year in the NCAA Tournament before falling to the eventual national champions, Connecticut, in the second round. From the 2014 team, Villanova lost only one significant contributor, James Bell, while the next seven men in their 2014 rotation came back for 2015. Villanova now starts two seniors and three juniors, which is about as experienced a starting five as you will see in the one-and-done era of college basketball.
Looking at the NCAA champions over the past five years, four of the five champions had an upperclassman majority in their starting lineup, and the 2012 Kentucky team seems more like an outlier with a freak player. It sounds cliché, but the data backs up the fact that more experienced teams do better in the NCAA Tournament.
This season’s Kentucky team is known for its depth, and they famously have nine former McDonald’s All-Americans on the team, but Villanova gives Kentucky a run for its money in terms of depth in terms of playing time and Offensive Rating.
Looking at these tables, the eight-player-deep Villanova squad can match up with Kentucky, as no player on either team plays more than 80% of the team’s minutes or has an Offensive Rating under 100.0.
What Villanova has over Kentucky is that, outside of freshman Phil Booth, this team has been playing together for two years straight and has double the reps, in both practice and game situations, than Kentucky has.
The large amount of interchangeable players separate Kentucky and Villanova from teams such as Virginia or Wisconsin that rely on a smaller group of core players.
Strength of Schedule
When Syracuse, Connecticut, and Louisville left the Big East, most pundits decided the conference was doomed to be a mid-major. The 2015 Big East is currently ranked the second best conference by KenPom, and it is easy to see why -- our Bracketology project that there will be six Big East teams that make the NCAA tournament.
With only 10 teams in the conference, Villanova has been playing tournament-quality teams in more than half of their conference games. The Cats are 14-2 in conference this year.
Their overall strength of schedule rates as 33rd in the country, per KenPom, showing that they have played and beaten many quality opponents this season, even outside their conference.
On the Villanova team page, the five most similar historical teams according to our algorithms are all former Final Four teams, one of which is an NCAA Champion (the 2012 Kentucky squad). Villanova ranks fifth in our nERD metric, which indicates by how many points they would be expected to defeat an average opponent on a neutral court. Their nERD of 18.62 isn't even a full point behind Arizona (19.45), who ranks second in the metric.
As our own Bryan Mears profiled, this year only Kentucky has an offense and defense that are both in the top 10 in efficiency. However, Villanova is knocking on the door to reaching this elite status, and with a strong Big East tournament against three possible tournament teams, Villanova could find itself as the second team with a top-10 offense and defense.
Even though Kentucky is the clear-cut favorite to win it all this year, Villanova very well may be a team capable of taking down Kentucky and winning the NCAA tournament.