The Miami Hurricanes (27-7) and the Villanova Wildcats (31-5) have traveled down considerably different paths to reach their current destination of the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, with the former playing the role of underdog and the latter calling the top five in the AP Poll home throughout must of the 2015-16 campaign.
However, both squads are confident that the Sweet Sixteen will not be the final stop on a journey that has cascaded into what should be an absolute barn burner between the ACC and Big East foes. Both sides ride into the opener of this weekend's tremendous slate of NCAA Tournament contests flushed with optimism.
Wildcats Surge Into Second Weekend
While the vast majority of the 16 teams still standing have fought through adversity throughout the opening weekend of March Madness to reach their current platform, the second-seeded Wildcats breezed through both UNC Asheville and Iowa. They did this by riding a ferocious defensive approach and brilliant outside shooting to a combined margin of victory of +49 over the first two rounds.
Having not advanced past the Second Round of the tournament since their most recent Final Four run in 2009, Villanova was able to overcome the ghosts of years past with two scintillating victories this past weekend. Villanova swarmed their opponents with a blistering pace of play and burling through the defenses of the Bulldogs and Hawkeyes with efficient activity on the offensive end.
The Wildcats shot a marvelous 58% from the field and 46% from beyond the arc in their 86-56 decapitation of UNC Asheville in Brooklyn on Friday to open up their tournament slate, assisting on 21 baskets while forcing 14 Bulldogs turnovers.
On Sunday afternoon, Villanova hounded the Hawkeyes relentlessly, building a 54-29 advantage at the halftime break en route to an elementary-style 87-68 win against a team that reached the No. 3 slot in the AP Poll midway through their Big Ten conference slate.
Somehow improving on their superb shooting numbers against the Bulldogs, the Wildcats shot 59% from the field and 53% from deep against Iowa, garnering assists on 23 of their 32 baskets while hitting 77% of their attempts from the free-throw stripe.
Miami Grinds Its Way Into Sweet Sixteen
The Hurricanes' trek to Louisville has witnessed its fair share of bumps in the road, however, that is just how Miami prefers it.
The third-seeded 'Canes overcame just 33% shooting from deep and an early nine-point deficit to knock off the No. 14 Buffalo Bulls in the first round while nearly blowing a 21-point advantage in a rather narrow 65-57 win over the 11th-seeded Wichita St. Shockers in the Second Round.
Miami emerged victorious from the tandem of contests in considerably different fashion in both showings, hitting the glass for 44 rebounds in comparison to the Bulls 31 while blocking six Buffalo shot attempts in their opening round contest, holding their opposition to just 39% shooting from the field as they surmounted a shaky 44% mark of their own.
However, the tides turned in the Hurricanes' Second Round matchup with the Shockers, as the team shot an excellent 55% from the field and 58% from three-point range.
Miami still relied on their defensive prowess to garner the victory, holding Wichita St. to a deplorable 34% mark from the field and 27% from deep. However, the Hurricanes were out-manned on the glass, grabbing just 26 rebounds compared to the Shockers' 33.
Which version of Miami will show up against Villanova?
Backcourt: Villanova Receives The Slight Advantage
What will make Villanova so difficult for the Hurricanes to deny is their incredibly deep guard play. The Wildcats feature five guards capable of affecting the outcome of a contest with their performance on both sides of the floor, something that will be difficult for Miami to counter.
Furthermore, each of these guards can spread the floor with their shooting, making it paramount that the Hurricanes close out with intensity, leaving them vulnerable to the blow-bye penetration.
Freshman point guard Jalen Brunson has been tremendously effective in pioneering the Wildcats offense thus far, especially in transition.
The Illinois native recorded 10 points, three assists, and three rebounds in the win over the Bulldogs on 4-7 shooting before hitting the Hawkeyes for 12 points, four dimes, and three rebounds on 5-10 shooting on Sunday, knocking down two of his three treys in the process.
Senior shooting guard Ryan Arcidiacono and junior shooting guard Josh Hart have also been instrumental in Villanova's ascension to the Sweet Sixteen.
Arcidiacono, a staple in head coach Jay Wright's rotation for the last four seasons, converted on four of his six three-point attempts in the win over UNC Asheville for 14 points before going 2-3 from deep against the Hawkeyes in a 16-point outing, piling up four assists in each contest.
Hart, a 6'5" junior, busted through a poor shooting outing against UNC Asheville in a big way on Sunday afternoon, pouring in 19 points on 7-11 shooting while proving himself to be a dynamic penetrator through opposing defenses.
These three do not represent the full sum of Villanova's prowess at the guard position, however. The bench features a superlative duo in Phil Booth, who poured in a combined 15 points on 3-6 shooting from deep in the two opening weekend victories, and Mikal Bridges, a rangy 6'7" Malvern, Pa. native who pioneered the Wildcats bench with 12 points on 5-9 shooting in the team's victory over UNC Asheville.
This is not to say that the Hurricanes do not feature a frightening cast of guards, however.
Miami is home to perhaps the most effective senior tandem of backcourt mates in the nation, with point guard Angel Rodriguez and shooting guard Sheldon McClellan representing the majority of the squad's offensive leadership.
Rodriguez posted 24 points, seven rebounds, and four assists against Buffalo before checking in for a career performance versus the Shockers as he dominated to the tune of 28 points on 9-11 shooting, five assists, and four steals to lead the Hurricanes.
The native of Puerto Rico plays with tremendous poise and control for someone who stands below six feet. His ability to take defenders off of the dribble is reminiscent of the Boston Celtics' All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas.
However, if there is any freshman in the nation who can keep Rodriguez in check, it is Brunson, who has the size (6'3", 199 pounds) and the defensive capability to fluster the Miami point guard.
The resilient McClellan torched the Bulls for 20 points and five rebounds in 38 minutes before pouring in 18 points against the Shockers in another lengthy 38-minute outing.
While his will to take the Hurricanes to his hometown of Houston, Texas. for the Final Four is evident, McClellan has struggled from deep in the tournament (2-6), and Villanova, contrary to Buffalo and Wichita St., has the size on the perimeter to keep him in check (cue Hart and Bridges).
One guard to watch for the Hurricanes is 6'2" sophomore Ja'Quan Newton. Raised in the Philadelphia, the hardened Newton is on a mission to quell the championship hopes of the city that he calls home, and the reserve spark plug just could do it.
Despite an underwhelming two-point outing against the Shockers, Newton is difficult to prevent from penetrating from the perimeter, evident in his 10-point showing in 26 minutes against Buffalo on Thursday night.
Expect him and junior winger Davon Reed (10 points on 3-4 shooting in 32 minutes versus Wichita St.) to determine whether the Hurricanes can overcome the Wildcats formidable guard lineup.
Frontcourt Rests In Villanova's Favor
The Hurricanes ability to thwart Villanova will ultimately rest on the broad shoulders of two behemoths down low, seven-foot senior Tonye Jekiri and 6'8", 216-pound junior Kamari Murphy.
However, this contest will come down to who can assert their dominance on the rebounding battle in addition to who can affect the most shots down low, and the Wildcats receive the advantage on paper.
The 244-pound Jekiri has scuffled through foul issues throughout the first two games of the tournament, amounting as many personal fouls (seven) as points in Miami's victories.
In addition, the Hialeah, Florida native swiped just three rebounds in the win over the Bulls while failing to record a single block in the past two games. This is something the Hurricanes cannot afford to go without if they wish to steal the victory over Villanova.
Expect the Wildcats' Daniel Ochefu to dominate Jekiri down low. The 6'11", 245-pound senior matches up nicely with Jekiri in the post and has a more developed offensive game, racking up 17 points on 7-9 shooting to accompany his 10 rebounds against UNC Asheville.
The Baltimore native has been more assertive on the glass -- 10 rebounds against Iowa -- and on the defensive end -- six combined blocks in the NCAA Tournament -- than Jekiri, and this trend should continue on Thursday night.
Murphy performed admirably in the opening round triumph over Buffalo, garnering 11 points and 13 rebounds, however, he disappeared on the offensive end against Wichita St. ending the night with four points on 2-3 shooting in 36 minutes. He has also yet to face opposition as threatening as Villanova's 6'6", 240-pound Kris Jenkins.
Jenkins, fresh off of a Big East Tournament in which he torched the Providence Friars and the Seton Hall Pirates for 20+ points each, posted 15 points on 6-9 shooting in addition to six assists in 31 minutes against Iowa, and should trump the underwhelming Murphy on the offensive end.
Final Prediction: Villanova 79, Miami 72.