The Lafayette Leopards were always going to be up against a wall if they managed to qualify for the 2015 NCAA Tournament -- after all, Fran O'Hanlon's men finished just fourth in the Patriot League regular season standings. However, after a thrilling run through the conference tournament, Lafayette has arrived and will face the top-seeded Villanova Wildcats in the East Region first round on Thursday evening.
The Leopards enter the Big Dance with a 20-12 record, but nothing about their resume screams "first-round upset." They faced just two teams in the RPI top 50, losing games to the Kansas Jayhawks and West Virginia Mountaineers by 27 points. Even extending their resume through the top 100 leaves Lafayette without a leg to stand on, as its only other top 100 opponent was Ivy League runner-up Yale, who failed to even make the NIT.
But all of this should be thrown out the window because; you know, momentum - right? Lafayette has won six of the last seven games it has played thanks in large part to a late-season surge by sophomore point guard Nick Lindner and the continued excellence of seniors Dan Trist, Seth Hinrichs, and Joey Ptasinski.
Those four players provide the firepower that could spark an upset. Given a slightly better matchup, things would actually be looking up for the Leopards. Unfortunately they have been given a matchup with one of the least mid-major-friendly outfits in the country.
Villanova boasts a 32-2 overall record and have six players averaging at least nine points per game. JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu stand 6-7 and 6-11, respectively, and the guard foursome of Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard, Josh Hart, and Dylan Ennis all shoot better than 36 percent from three.
Jay Wright's team moves the ball well, shoots the ball better, and can hurt you from anywhere at any time. The question isn't so much whether or not Villanova will score on you, but how.
But this is the NCAA Tournament, where Holy Cross almost beat Kentucky, Kansas, and Dwyane Wade in consecutive tournaments, Lehigh beat Duke, and Bucknell beat Kansas. So what can Lafayette do to push the Wildcats in their first round matchup?
Nick Linder Hot Streak, Continued
Lindner didn't carry Lafayette single-handed through the Patriot League Tournament, but he certainly earned the Most Outstanding Player award. The Leopards' sophomore point guard averaged 21.5 points per game and posted a 25-to-8 assist-to-turnover ratio in the four games, including a monster performance in the championship game against 2014 champion, American.
Lindner is a dynamic guard with the ability to freeze a defense with his dribble to create space for either a pass, shot or drive. He will be up against one of the best guards in the country in Arcidiacono and winning that matchup will go a long way towards keeping Lafayette in this game.
Trist, Hinrichs, and Ptasinski, have all scored 1,000 points in their careers, but this will be the first time they have played in an NCAA Tournament game. Trist and Hinrichs are versatile forwards who can score from just about anywhere on the court and Ptasinski is one of the sharpest shooters in the country (40% 3PT).
While Lindner has proven to be the team's engine over the last few weeks, it is this trio that will ultimately keep the team grounded in the moment and focused on the job at hand. I could throw more clichés at you, but I want you all to actually watch this game.
Each will have their own problem matching up with Villanova, but if they can hit their combined season average of 40.1 points they will have done their part in giving Lafayette a puncher's chance at this game.
An Out of Body Experience
Let's be honest: if you've gotten this far in the article I have probably convinced you that Lafayette has a much better shot at this game than it does. Thank you for buying into my reasoning, but really the only way this game doesn't go chalk is if someone has an out-of-body moment and carries the Leopards in a way that will probably become its own "30 for 30" documentary.
In the Patriot League Championship, little-used junior guard Zach Rufer buried a three and grabbed a crucial defensive rebound to help seal the game for Lafayette. Contributions from guys like Rufer or a 30-plus point game from one of the aforementioned stars would make this game an instant classic, but still might not be enough to get Lafayette past these juggernauts.
Unless Lafayette can channel 1985 Villanova and make 78 percent of their field goals, this game can only end one way: with the Wildcats on to the Round of 32.