Not so fast. George Mason (26-6, 16-2 CAA) is the exact type of mid-major team that always seems to give Villanova fits in the NCAA Tournament. One of the biggest reasons for Nova’s recent collapse has been their inability to defend the perimeter. (See: Notre Dame) So I wasn’t pleased to discover that six of Mason’s top seven scorers shoot over 34% from behind the arc, and three of them shoot over 40%. George Mason also has an experienced squad, full of upper classmen. Furthermore, those two victories over the Patriots did not come easy. In 2007-2008 they met in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando (You can read my recap of that game here). With contributions from Malcolm Grant and Casiem Drummond (really?), Nova held on to win that game 84-76. Last season, The Wildcats and Patriots met in a warm location again for another preseason tournament, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (recap here). That game was even closer, with Nova needing a game-winning 3-pointer from Isaiah Armwood to pull out a 69-68 victory.
Villanova encountered two mid-major schools in las year’s Tournament. Nova needed overtime to beat Robert Morris (73-70), then they fell to St. Mary’s in the second round (75-68). The year before, Nova trailed by 10 at halftime and as many as 14 points to 14-seed American University, before pulling away for a 80-67 win. After that scare from a lowly mid-major school, Nova went on to trounce national powerhouses UCLA and Duke by 20+ points, then beat Pittsburgh to go to the Final Four where they lost to eventual National Champions North Carolina. I don’t know why, perhaps it traces back to the “Perfect Upset” of 1985, but Villanova usually feels more comfortable in the underdog role. Which leads to their difficulty against these small mid-major schools that they are always favored against. Villanova is technically the underdog this year in the 8/9 game versus George Mason. However, in terms of national recognition and historical success, Villanova is Goliath.
So can Villanova win this game? Yes, of course. Villanova could even beat #1-seed Ohio State in the second round, as well as just about any other team in the country when they play to their full potential. The question is will they beat George Mason? Or will they be at the top of their game? Here’s my quote from last year’s win over George Mason: “Corey Fisher got to the line 18 times and sank 14 of them, which helped make up for his poor 1-12 shooting effort from the field. To his credit, he kept driving to the basket, attacking George Mason defenders. Although he missed a lot of shots, I liked the fact that he was aggressive and drove to the basket, rather than just settling for jumpers.” The key to Villanova’s success is Corey Fisher, more specifically his health. If this week off has given Fisher enough time to fully recover from his knee injury, then he can finally get back to the way he normally plays, attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. Villanova is 7-0 when Fisher attempts 8 or more free throws in a game. The last game Fisher attempted more than eight free throws in a game just so happens to be the last game Villanova won (DePaul). The problem is, as I wrote last week, Fisher’s knee tendentious has caused him to become a jump shooter.
Speaking of injuries, Villanova also needs Moupthtaou Yarou to recover from the hard fall he took in the Big East Tournament. George Mason has some talented 3-point shooters, but they are a small team and don’t have anybody that can guard Mouph inside. I truly believe it was the injuries that ravaged Villanova’s season, and it will be their health that determines Villanova’s fate in the NCAA Tournament. So if they do lose, don’t call for Jay Wright’s head; blame the injury gods.