BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Given the early NCAA tournament exits of the past few seasons, the nagging question for Villanova has been: What happens when the 3-point shots stop falling?
Although it was against UNC Asheville, the Wildcats might be feeling better about their answer: Daniel Ochefu.
The 6-foot-11 senior center had 17 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks to lead 2-seed Villanova to an 86-56 win over 15-seed UNC Asheville in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday.
Ochefu isn’t a new addition for Villanova, but his return to health is huge for Jay Wright’s team. He was limited at the Big East tournament last week because of a sprained ankle and could contribute only in stretches. Without Ochefu on the court, Villanova was reliant on its perimeter group -- and as a result could leave itself susceptible to a loss on a cold-shooting night. In the Big East title game against Seton Hall, the Wildcats were 8-of-23 from behind the arc, and Ochefu wasn’t able to do much in his 19 minutes.
Friday was a different story. After a week off, Ochefu looked much more mobile and much more effective. His post moves were quicker and he consistently gave Villanova an option against UNC Asheville’s trapping 1-3-1 zone by finding gaps in the middle of the defense. Ochefu scored eight points in the first six minutes of the second half to help Villanova extend its lead, providing a dominant inside presence after the Wildcats launched 17 3-pointers before halftime.
In each of the past two seasons, Villanova has been bounced in the round of 32 by a lower-seeded team -- on poor shooting nights. The Wildcats were 11-of-31 from 3-point range against UConn in 2014 and 9-of-28 against NC State last season; in those two games, Ochefu averaged just 4.0 points.
With his sprained ankle seemingly in the rearview mirror, though, Ochefu’s emergence could help Villanova erase its recent March demons.