By Peter Gleason
Can Villanova repeat as national champions?
That hasn’t been done since 2006 and 2007, when the Florida Gators did it.
And the coach of that team, Billy Donovan, has some simple advice for Jay Wright’s Nova bunch (above.
Avoid distractions like the plague.
“Being able to eliminate the distractions and focus on the things that are important and you can have control over, that’s what really is important,” Donovan, now the coach of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, said of No. 1 Villanova’s challenge that began last night in Buffalo with a win over Mount St. Mary’s.
After winning in 2006, Donovan directed a veteran lineup in 2007 that was loaded with experience and talent, containing future NBA pros Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green, plus D-League and Euro League player Lee Humphrey.
“Our team was different because we had the entire starting five coming back and our team in a very, very small way changed. It was really the same group of guys,” Donovan said Wednesday in a phone interview. “There’s so much attention and focus because people use the terms ‘repeat’ and ‘they’re national champions’ and all those things that can be distractions.”
Donovan explained there was a lot of internal pressure that players put on themselves after bypassing a chance to jump to the NBA because they wanted to “come back to try to do it again.”
But there is one similarity, Donovan sees, between Wright’s Wildcats, led by Josh Hart, and his old Gators: players who truly perform for one another.
“I don’t know if Jay’s team feels that [pressure] but certainly they’ve been outstanding the entire year. They’ve been great,” Donovan said.
“Jay has a very, very unique team. I know [Jalen] Brunson because I had him with the USA Team. … You’ve got a group of kids who have a great competitive makeup. They play for each other and if every team in sports can create that, you’d have the team that Villanova has had the last couple of years.”
A team that Villanova fans want to repeat, maybe even expect to.
Donovan had one other piece of advice for all teams in the tournament: Beware Louisville under coach Rick Pitino, who gets his teams to play an “extreme” style in postseason.“I would say to the Villanova fans, ‘Cherish and enjoy this group of guys because they don’t come across all that often.’ The best teams are the teams that are the most connected and together and play for each other,” Donovan said. “Villanova plays that way.”
So why is Louisville, a No. 2 seed, such a threat under Pitino in the Midwest Region?
“Because of him. I would say this one thing I watched and learned from being with him, when you see a lot of upsets in the NCAA, a lot of it is based on the 3-point line,” said Donovan, who was Pitino’s Final Four point guard at Providence in 1987 and reunited with him on the Knicks. “Some team gets drastically hot from the 3-point line and if you look at it traditionally, the reason Coach Pitino has had so much success in the NCAA Tournament is, I believe, his teams defend the 3-point line as well as anybody in the country.
“The other thing he has is his style of play and his system. It is unique in that he plays to an extreme. And I’ve often felt teams that play to an extreme in the tournament are very difficult to play against. His teams have always defended the 3 at a high level, and then the pace and speed and the pressure at this time are probably something teams haven’t gone against.”