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6 teams entering March Madness with momentum

There’s no way around it — Villanova is playing some seriously good basketball.

Coach Jay Wright might not have the one-and-done lottery picks that several other top-5 squads have, but the 14th-year head coach has his top eight playing as well as any team in the country.

The Wildcats took home the Big East Tournament title with a thoroughly impressive three-game romp at Madison Square Garden this weekend, capping things off with a dominant, 69-52 win over Xavier in the finale to claim the No. 1 seed in the East Region.

Though it’s not perhaps the same Big East Tournament that Madison Square Garden hosted in the mid-2000s, when 16 teams brought their fanbases to New York City, for Wright, taking home this trophy was no less meaningful.

“It’s thrilling,” he said. “I sit and think about some teams like ‘06 with Randy Foye and those guys … the ‘09 team, I felt bad they didn’t get to experience it. It’s hard to be a good enough team to win the tournament, but I’m thrilled for these guys.”

Now Wright and his team have their focus on a much bigger prize: the NCAA Tournament. Though the suburban Philadelphia school has become a national hoops name over the last three decades, putting together a 318-151 (.678) record under Wright, the program’s performance in March hasn’t always met expectations.

Back in 2010, as a 2-seed, Villanova was bounced by Saint Mary’s in the Round of 32. The 2005-06 squad that was ranked as high as No. 2 in the country lost in the Elite 8 as a No. 1 seed, upended by eventual national champion Florida.

The only team that has been able to break through under Wright was the 2008-09 ‘Cats, led by Scottie Reynolds, who upset Big East rival Pittsburgh in the Elite 8 to make it to the national semifinals for the first time since winning it all in 1985 under legendary head coach Rollie Massimino.

If this group can carve out a similar path, it’ll be hard to deny their place in ‘Nova history. They’ve already set the school record for most wins in a season, and one more makes them the winningest team in Big 5 (La Salle, Saint Joseph’s, Penn, Temple and Villanova) history.

“We’ll see how they do in the next tournament,” Wright said after hoisting the Big East trophy, “but this does have a chance to be the best team I’ve ever had.”

Of course, as good as they’ve been, Villanova won’t be the favorites to win the National Championship. That title has been long bestowed upon Kentucky, the No. 1 overall seed in the field with a 34-0 record entering the NCAA Tournament in search of becoming the first team to complete a 40-0 season.

Villanova’s roster doesn’t have the same pro potential as the other group of Wildcats, who have no fewer than six or seven future first-round picks on the roster.

“We’re not Kentucky in terms of depth and talent, but we could beat them. But we could lose to a 15 or 16 too, if we don’t play right,” Wright said. “I just think that’s what we are.”

Five More Teams with Momentum

1. Kentucky

It’s the biggest question of the entire tournament — will Kentucky be able to complete the 40-0 perfect season? John Calipari has guided his Wildcats to a 34-0 record after winning each of three SEC Tournament games by at least 14 points; only one of UK’s last 10 opponents has been able to stay within single digits. That Georgia squad actually led Kentucky 62-56 with just over five minutes to play, but couldn’t hold on as Kentucky escaped with a 72-64 win. If that was the eye-opener that Calipari needed to show his team they were beatable, they could have this tournament won already.

2. Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish didn’t look so great back on Feb. 7, when they were embarrassed by Duke at Cameron Indoor, 90-60. Coach Mike Brey and company certainly got some nice revenge this weekend, topping the Blue Devils in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament before taking down North Carolina in the final to capture the ACC title for the first time in just their second year in the league. Jerian Grant (16.8 ppg, 6.6 apg) is one of the country’s more underrated stars, and keep an eye out for sophomore Steve Vasturia, who’s averaged 11.7 points over the last 12 games.

3. Arizona

The Pac-12 champion is one of the few teams in the NCAA Tournament that could realistically matchup with Kentucky’s size and athleticism, and these Wildcats are on a pretty good roll themselves. Winners of 11 straight entering the Big Dance, they took down Oregon 80-52 in the Pac-12 title game, one of four wins by 20-plus points in their last five games. Sean Miller will have to rely heavily on a top six who are all averaging 9.1 ppg or more, with senior point guard T.J. McConnell (9.8 ppg, 6.4) the key to a deep tournament run.

4. Southern Methodist

The American Athletic Conference wasn’t incredibly strong this year, as the conference’s two bids show, but the Mustangs’ 17-2 run during their last 19 games is impressive nonetheless. Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown has a deep and talented frontcourt led by AAC Sixth Man of the Year and tournament most outstanding player Markus Kennedy (11.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg) leading four key contributors who are 6-8 and taller. They’ll be needed if chalk holds and they have to face Iowa State’s Georges Niang in the Round of 32, but if they can get past the Cyclones, this team has a chance to make a deep tournament run as a six-seed.

5. Northern Iowa

The Panthers rose up the national rankings this spring with a 16-game winning streak through the Missouri Valley Conference, including a 16-point win over Wichita State at home in January. The Shockers got revenge to end the regular season on their home court, but an upset by Illinois State over Wichita State in the MVC semifinals paved the way for UNI to take home the tournament crown, its 19th win in 20 games entering the tournament. They might even be under-seeded at a 5-seed, and are going to provide serious challenges for Louisville and possibly even Villanova in the East regional.

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