Houston — Just because this is Villanova and it made 70 percent of its shots in a Final Four game, don’t make the mistake of believing this would be an upset on the order of Villanova over Georgetown. That Nova was a No. 8 seed; this is a No. 2 that might have been a No. 1 had it not lost to Seton Hall in the Big East final. And that Georgetown was the defending champ and the No. 1 overall seed, not to mention the most feared team of its era if not ever.
That was an upset as big as any the Final Four had or has seen. (Everyone talks about North Carolina State over Houston, but N.C. State had just won the ACC tournament.) The Villanova of 1984-85 entered the NCAA tournament with 11 losses, including one to Georgia in a holiday tournament at the old Omni. (I covered the game.) These Wildcats have lost five games; North Carolina has lost six.
Ken Pomeroy’s rankings have Villanova ahead of Carolina, and his projection is that the Wildcats will win 77-76. That’s not outlandish. This is a solid Nova club. It has a better inside-out balance than Carolina – most teams do, but it’s noteworthy than Daniel Ochefu is taller than any of the Tar Heels’ starting big men – and plays better defense. The 95-51 deconstruction of Oklahoma was the most impressive performance of the season, not just the tournament. Yes, it helps when you hit 71.4 percent of your shots, but Villanova could have made 61.4 percent and won by 30. That game was over after 15 minutes.
So why I am picking Carolina? Talent. In NBA prospects, the Heels aren’t a match for Duke of last season or Kentucky of 2012 or Florida’s back-to-back champs or even the Carolina teams of 2009 and 2005, but in a sport where most of the big-timers have gone pro by their 20th birthdays, this is what passes for overwhelming. The Heels are big underneath and quick everywhere, and their offensive rebounding is breathtaking in its brute force.
I can see this going the other way if Marcus Paige, who needed 30 minutes to make a 3-pointer against Syracuse, misses again. I can see Villanova winning if it steals an early led and makes Carolina’s big men chase on the perimeter. (Notre Dame, which isn’t nearly as good as Nova, kept it close that way in the East Regional final.) I can see the weight of being the favorite pressing down on the Heels if this remains a game inside the final 10 minutes, which hasn’t happened to Carolina in this tournament.
I can imagine such a thing happening, but I’m swayed by the reality of what I’ve just seen with these eyes – Carolina beating Indiana, Notre Dame and Syracuse by an aggregate 46 points. (Granted, that would seem more impressive had Villanova not just won by 44.) The Heels play so fast and push so hard that nobody has been able to stay with them for 40 minutes.
I’m willing to concede that Villanova might be the team that can. Jay Wright is a very good coach, and his guys have beaten Iowa by 19, Miami by 23, Kansas by five and Oklahoma by 44. That’s a No. 7 seed from the Big Ten, a No. 3 from the ACC and a No. 1 and 2 from the Big 12. All four of those teams rank among KenPom’s top 23. Using those ratings, the best team Carolina has played in the NCAA is No. 15 Indiana; the second-best is No. 24 Syracuse.
It sounds as if I’m making a case for Villanova winning without having the guts to pick Villanova. What I’m trying to do (I think) is make the case that we shouldn’t be stunned if the Wildcats do prevail. After the game on April Fools’ Day 1985, I remember the point guard Gary McLain shouting, “We shocked the world.” This would be no shock. It would be one very good team beating another. But I like Carolina. Make it 79-75.