Villanova is definitely the upstart of the Final Four, but that might be a reflection of how chalky things have become since George Mason's incredible run three years ago. In the last two seasons, 6 of the 8 Final Four participants have been one seeds. The other two were two seeds. Suddenly a three seed makes the final weekend, and now people are making comparisons to an 8th-seeded team that made the Final Four 24 years ago. How quickly we forget - in 2006, there was nary a 1 seed in the Final Four, and of course there was George Mason's #11 seed present. But even in 2005, we witnessed a #4 and #5 seed make the Final Four. In fact, to find a Final Four as chalky as either 2007 or 2008, you'd have to go back to 1999 (when three #1 seeds make the semifinals, though there was a #4 seed present as well).
But in the Age of Chalk, where 11 of the last 12 Final Four participants have been #1 or #2 seeds, Villanova is a certified underdog (Query: is the Committee getting better at seeding, or is there something else going on here? Are the rich getting richer? Is the correlation with the one-and-done rule merely a coincidence? Talk amongst yourselves.), if only a relative one. But don't let that fool you, this team is good. At what, well, that's much harder to say.
You see, this team isn't exactly great at anything. Rather, they happen to be merely very good at seemingly everything ('cept not fouling. That could get them in trouble against UNC.).
Ok, that's not exactly true. This team has been much better offensively than defensively, at least during conference play:
In Big East play, the Wildcats would simply outscore opponents. The only thing that was "working" for Nova defensively was forcing turnovers - in every other category they were average, or even bad (FT Rate). But it's been a different story in the Tournament. Offensively, this team is still solid, and not much has changed there. However, two major things have changed which have led to a much improved defense. The first, as Gasaway noted, is the defensive rebounding. It appears the Wildcats have added DeJuan Blair to the roster. But I have my doubts that can continue against UNC.
The second thing that has gone right for Nova is opponents' three point shooting. Generally speaking, their opponents like to shoot 3 pointers (42.3% of their FGA are 3s). And in Big East play, they made them at a 33% clip. Not great, but not bad either. But over the last 4 games, opponents have dedicated 45% of their shots to 3s, and have only made 29% of them. Combined with the rebounding, that explains the sudden defensive prowess.
What's the reason for this? Well, from looking at Nova's tournament opponents, with the exception of American (who gave the Wildcats all they could handle, by the way), there isn't a POT among them. UCLA, Duke, Pitt - none of these teams is particularly inclined to shoot buckets of 3 pointers in a game, but they did against Villanova's defense. The results were not pretty. The Wildcats seem to have harnessed the ability to relegate opponents to perimeter shots - which can be accomplished with some old-fashioned zone - but (and here's the hard part) do so without sacrificing perimeter defense or rebounding. Against a team that doesn't like to shoot 3s, that approach has been kryptonite in the Tournament.
And whaddya know - UNC, MSU, UConn - they all hate shooting 3 pointers.
Look, I'm not saying the Wildcats ought to be favorites here. But they're not plucky underdogs, either.