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East Regional preview: Chalkiest region gives no confidence to No. 1 seed Villanova

UPDATED: Thu., March 22, 2018, 3:49 p.m.

Villanova players gather at center court prior to practice at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Boston, Thursday, March 22, 2018. Villanova faces West Virginia in a regional semifinal on Friday night. (Charles Krupa / AP)
Villanova players gather at center court prior to practice at the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Boston, Thursday, March 22, 2018. Villanova faces West Virginia in a regional semifinal on Friday night. (Charles Krupa / AP)

BOSTON – Sporting the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s chalkiest region doesn’t give Villanova coach Jay Wright any special confidence heading into Friday night’s game against West Virginia.

The Wildcats were together in a Pittsburgh hotel room last weekend when they watched top overall seed Virginia’s unprecedented first-round loss to No. 16 seed University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

When it was over, there was no need for Wright to harp on the lesson.

“It was so impactful that you didn’t have to say it,” he said Thursday as Villanova hoped to avoid joining the slew of deposed favorites when it plays the fifth-seeded Mountaineers for the East Region’s spot in the national quarterfinals.

“I had talked about it so many times, saying: `This is going to happen. You’ve got to respect these guys,“’ said Wright, who since 2010 has lost in the round of 32 twice as a No. 1 seed and twice as a No. 2 seed. “It wasn’t a matter of fear like, `Don’t let it happen to us.’ It’s just: You just have to respect these teams.”

Along with Kansas in the Midwest, Villanova is one of two No. 1 seeds remaining in this year’s bracket. Joining the Wildcats and Mountaineers in Boston are second-seeded Purdue and third-seeded Texas Tech.

Each of the other three regions has at least one team seeded ninth or higher; none of the top four in the South is still playing.

“I don’t think we need a wake-up call at all,” said Purdue’s Vincent Edwards. “We’re not overlooking any opponent that we have, and we’re not going to overlook the game. It can show you from the start of this tournament it doesn’t even matter.”

Villanova (32-4) and West Virginia (26-10) will meet in the early game in Boston, where both teams were frequent visitors in the original Big East. Purdue (30-6) and Texas Tech (26-9) will play in the nightcap.

Here is a look at the regional semifinal games:

Villanova vs. West Virginia

With all those low seeds in the tournament, West Virginia doesn’t seem like much of an underdog. But the Mountaineers are hitting that angle hard, saying they don’t get the respect they deserve as a senior class that has reached the Sweet 16 three times in four years.

“I felt like ever since our freshman year, we’ve always been underrated,” guard Jevon Carter said “We’ve always been the underdogs coming into any game we’ve played. So we’ve always had an extra chip on our shoulder.”

Coach Bob Huggins, who is seventh on the NCAA’s all-time victory list, said the lack of hype goes back to when his players were recruited. Rather than guys with the potential to go to the NBA after one year, he has to pick the ones who might otherwise attend a mid-major school.

“I told my athletic director that really he had two choices: Either fire me for recruiting the guys I recruited, or give me a raise for being able to win with them,” Huggins said. “We got a bunch of guys that really were looking for an opportunity to play at the highest level.”

Villanova isn’t buying it.

“If you’re at this point, you’re just as good as the team in front of you,” Villanova guard Phil Booth said. “West Virginia is playing as good as anybody else or any other team.”

The Mountaineers rely on a stifling full-court defense that has earned them the nickname “Press Virginia.” Villanova’s ability to pull up for 3-pointers in transition is seen as the key to breaking the West Virginia pressure.

“I don’t think we’re going to change our defense. We’re going to press,” Mountaineers forward Esa Ahmad said. “We’re going to try to take them out of what they do well and just try to take everything away from them.”

Purdue vs. Texas Tech

Texas Tech’s Chris Beard made it a point to watch the video of the last time he faced Purdue, when he was coaching Arkansas-Little Rock and it upset the Boilermakers in the opening round of the 2016 tournament.

Purdue’s Matt Painter doesn’t need a reminder, thank you.

“Sometimes you don’t like to live those bad dreams,” he said, adding that he left that up to his assistants. “It was definitely one of those moments that you’ll never forget as a coach. He’ll never forget it on a positive side, and I’ll never forget it on a negative side.”

Purdue is expected to be without Isaac Haas, who broke his elbow in the second half of the first-round game against Cal State-Fullerton. The 7-foot-2, 290-pound center has been trying to get back onto the court, but Painter said it’s unlikely he will play.

“It’s very difficult in those situations, but you also have to be a truth-teller. That’s your job as a coach,” he said. “You’ve got to be diplomatic about it because it’s really hard. You play 130 games to get to your senior year for this moment, but as a coach, you’ve got to do what’s best for your team.”


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