Villanova got an early start in defending its national championship while its first-round opponent was still a step away from the Big Dance.
The Wildcats, seeded No. 1 overall in the NCAA Tournament, arrived in Buffalo on Monday ahead of the snowstorm snarling travel throughout the Northeast. The Big East Conference champions practiced in western New York on Tuesday before even knowing who they would open up against in the East Region.
"You're a 1-seed playing a 16-seed, so there's nothing to complain about," Villanova coach Jay Wright told CSNPhilly.com before leaving Philadelphia.
Villanova (31-3) learned it will meet Mount St. Mary's (20-15) on Thursday night at Buffalo's KeyBank Center after the Northeast Conference champion narrowly defeated New Orleans 67-66 on Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio.
The Wildcats are trying to become the first repeat national champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. If they can beat the Mountaineers on Thursday and also get past No. 8 seed Wisconsin or No. 9 Virginia Tech in the second round, they advance to the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden, where they won the Big East Championship on Saturday night with a 74-60 victory over Creighton.
No defending champion has ever entered the NCAA Tournament with more wins than Villanova and no No. 16 seed has ever defeated a No. 1.
"This starts a new season," Wright said. "Whatever our seed is, whatever we did in the regular season doesn't matter. We're one of 68 teams. That's it. And we get beat in the first round, we're done. Let's enjoy the finality of this, the pressure, let's enjoy this, let's embrace it."
Villanova won last year's national championship game against North Carolina on Kris Jenkins' last-second 3-pointer. National Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart said this year's Wildcats team has a higher ceiling than last year's.
"The difference between this year and last year is we are a little bit younger this year, so there's still room to improve," Hart said. "I don't know if we're better. I just know that we're playing just as well at the end of the season."
This is the third time Villanova earned a No. 1 seed. In 2006, the Wildcats advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual national champion Florida. In 2015, Villanova lost in the second round against North Carolina State.
Wright led two teams into NCAA Tournament games in Buffalo and doesn't have fond recollections from either experience. Villanova played there in 2014, as a No. 2 seed, and lost to eventual national champion UConn.
"Great disappointment," Wright said. "But not just in losing, but we didn't really play Villanova basketball either.
"My first NCAA Tournament game ever (in 2000), where we were at Hofstra, was at Buffalo, same place. And it was St. Paddy's Day and there was a blizzard. I was thinking, 'My whole life, I waited to coach in the NCAA Tournament and it was miserable. ... It was a horrible first experience as a coach, and it was in Buffalo."
Mount St. Mary's started the season 1-11 but went 19-4 since.
The Mountaineers are making their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance and second under fifth-year coach Jamion Christian. This is the first time since 2008 that Mount St. Mary's plays in a regional. In 2014, Mount St. Mary's lost to Coppin State in the First Four.
Upsets are always a possibility, but not when it comes to this one. No. 1 seed Villanova are looking to repeat last year's national championship win, and it won't be Mount St. Mary's that spoils that dream.