When Jay Wright looked at one of the televisions in the Fitzgerald Club at Finneran Pavilion and saw the opponent for Villanova in Thursday’s first round of the NCAA Tournament come up on the screen, he flashed back nine years and remembered one of the grimmer days in Wildcats postseason history.
The defending national champion Wildcats drew St. Mary’s, winner of the West Coast Conference tournament after upsetting No. 1 Gonzaga. This will be the first time the two teams have met since March 20, 2010, when the 10th-seeded Gaels upset No. 2 seed Villanova, 75-68, in a second-round game at Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I.
This time, Villanova (25-9) will be a 6 seed and St. Mary’s (22-11) an 11 in the South Regional. But each team has the same coach who led that year, Wright and the Gaels’ Randy Bennett, each now in their 18th seasons. And the Gaels still have a deliberate, disciplined style of play that can frustrate an opponent.
“Our guys don’t know yet but they gave us a hell of a game, they beat us,” Wright said Sunday. “Actually, probably no one was around but me. It’s a really intelligent team, very difficult style of play to play against, very well-coached, a really tough matchup.”
It was that way, too, in 2010. The Gaels’ center, 6-foot-11 Omar Sanham, went 13 of 16 from the field and scored 32 points against the Wildcats while Matthew Dellavadova, who later would win an NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers, directed the attack.
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This year, Saint Mary’s ended the six-year run of Gonzaga as WCC champ with a 60-47 victory. The Gaels’ top scorer is 6-1 junior guard Jordan Ford at 21.3 points per game. Their big man is 6-10 Jordan Hunter, who averages 7.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots.
Wright said that when his players see the WCC championship game and see their style of play, “they’re going to be impressed.”
“They’re a very, very well-coached team, very disciplined,” he said. “They run the shot clock down and if they get an offensive rebound, they run the shot clock again, a very difficult team to play against.”
This will be the first tournament appearance for the Wildcats’ four freshman and graduate transfer Joe Cremo. The team’s three sophomores, Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, have more significant roles than they did during last year’s NCAA run, and exhibited them during the Big East Tournament.
“It’s telling the young guys, just be locked in,” senior Phil Booth said. “There’s a lot of distractions that come from being in the tournament, a lot of different stuff you’ve got to do, extra stuff. So trying to stay focused and locked in on what we have to do as a team is more important.”
This will be the last NCAA competition for Booth and fellow senior Eric Paschall. Booth has played in 14 NCAA games and was one of the stars of the 2016 championship game, scoring 20 points off the bench in the Wildcats’ 77-74 win over North Carolina that featured Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating game-winning three-point basket.
Paschall also has starred in the Final Four, hitting 10 of 11 shots from the field and scoring 24 points last season in the Cats’ 95-79 national semifinal victory over Kansas. In six tournament games that year, he averaged 12.3 points and 6.2 rebounds.
The Wildcats are playing at the closest NCAA first-weekend site to their campus while the Gaels will have to fly cross-country from their campus in Moraga, Calif. But Wright, recalling what happened in 2010, thinks there’s no advantage.
“Let’s hope they’re tired,” he said, chuckling. “We played them in Providence and they weren’t tired. I think they travel well.”