VILLANOVA, Pa. — Villanova has a more urgent goal as a No. 1 seed than a Final Four.
Try, surviving opening weekend.
The Big East Tournament champion Wildcats (30-4) earned yet another top seed in the NCAA Tournament and will open the East Region on Thursday in Pittsburgh against the winner of the LIU Brooklyn-Radford game.
The Wildcats have a 2016 national championship that serves as the crowning moment under coach Jay Wright. But the program has been known as much for its early NCAA exits as it has for a 159-21 record with four Big East regular-season titles in the last five seasons.
The Wildcats were the overall top seed last year and lost to Wisconsin. Villanova lost opening weekend as a No. 1 seed in 2015, and as a No. 2 seed in 2014 and 2010. They failed to get out of the first weekend in 2011 and 2013. Villanova has advanced out of the opening weekend only twice in the last 10 seasons — when it reached the Final Four in 2009 and when Kris Jenkins hit a 3 at the horn to win it all in ’16.
“I think it’s been different each year,” Wright said. “I don’t see one consistent issue. I looked at each one of them independently. I did try and find some consistencies. The only thing that was consistent was tough matchups.”
He’ll find plenty ahead in the East.
Purdue (28-6) is the No. 2 seed and plays 15th-seeded Cal State Fullerton. Texas Tech, Wichita State, West Virginia and Florida are among the teams that could also come out of the East should Villanova stumble.
Wright, who became Villanova’s career wins lead in the Big East Tournament, has the Wildcats rolling behind their B-listers: Big East player of the year Jalen Brunson, all-Big East pick Mikal Bridges and national title game leading scorer Phil Booth. Brunson matched a career high with 31 points in Villanova’s overtime victory against Providence to clinch the tourney title. The Wildcats spent eight weeks at No. 1 in the AP Top 25, have no seniors and NBA prospects Brunson and Bridges are not expected to return next season, increasing the feeling to make a Final Four run now.
“It’s not pressure, it’s just an expectation, I guess,” Brunson said. “We know what we’re capable of doing.”
Here’s what else to look for in the East Region.
MARSHALL VS. MARSHALL
What’s in a name?
In the 4-13 matchup, it’s Marshall. Coach Gregg Marshall leads his fourth-seeded Shockers (25-7) against No. 13 seed Marshall (24-10). Marshall was an assistant at Marshall — or was it Marshall employed Marshall as an assistant? — from 1996 to 1998.
The Shockers didn’t miss a beat in their first season in the American Athletic Conference and secured their ninth straight 25-win season. Marshall earned an automatic berth as the Conference USA Tournament champion and is going to its first NCAA Tournament since 1987.
How does Marshall (the coach) feel about the showdown?
He skipped interviews and was unavailable.
The Boilermakers (28-6) are a perennially tough team that usually falls short of making a deep run in March. Purdue won 19 straight games and seemed poised to win the Big Ten until a 3-game losing streak. Purdue and Villanova could meet in the East Region final months after it was expected they would play in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. But the Boilermakers were upset in the Bahamas and the anticipated game may come instead with a Final Four berth at stake.
Purdue guard Carsen Edwards walked into the locker room after the Boilermakers got their highest seed since 1994 and told Matt Painter, “Thanks coach.”
Purdue could face Butler in the second round. The 10th-seeded Bulldogs defeated Villanova this season and lost to the Boilermakers in December.
Avery Johnson coached the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals.
Can he pull off a rare double and lead a college team to the Final Four?
Johnson has Alabama as the No. 9 seed in the East and it advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.
The Crimson Tide could be a factor in the region — just as long as it plays five players. The Crimson Tide had a 3-on-5 matchup — that’s players, not NCAA seeding — for the final 10 minutes in a November loss to Minnesota. Alabama lost the rest of the roster because of ejections, fouls and injuries.
That’s a different kind of madness.