By Peter Gleason
Villanova has the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the nation — take your pick, but I think Gonzaga will fold in the March Madness heat.
And they are coached by the Coolest Cat of them all.
Welcome to life as the defending national champions. Let coach Jay Wright take it from there after Xavier students went wild last Saturday:
“It was a great sight, but it’s intimidating… It kind of hit me today. One of them laid down in the street in front of the bus. It wasn’t bad. They were just wild. And I was thinking to myself, if you’re a young kid – what is (freshman) Dylan Painter thinking about all this? But Josh and Kris and Darryl, they’ve seen everything,” he said, meaning his seniors Hart, Jenkins and Reynolds. “This doesn’t bother them.”
Does anything? The visiting Wildcats blew past injury-riddled Xavier 73-57 last Saturday to go 24-2, with no muss, no fuss and almost no change of expression. They were distracted neither by the noise, nor the Musketeers, nor the news that the NCAA basketball committee had tabbed them as the No. 1 seed overall in their season-in-progress bracket announced Saturday afternoon.
No. 1 in the bracket? Oh, really? Wright hadn’t heard.
“I knew they were talking about it, but I just forgot.”
Saturday was also his 500th career win. He nearly yawned. Just blessed to be working at a place like Villanova, he said.
Doesn’t sound much like they are burdened or shaken by being everyone’s Super Bowl when they come to town, does it?
“I just think we focus on sticking together and control what we can control and play Villanova basketball for 40 minutes and accept the results,” Jenkins said. “Nothing can rattle us as long as we do that. We just keep grinding.”
You remember Jenkins, and his three-pointer to crush North Carolina’s heart in the national championship game. Big, big deal. But not to him. Not at the moment, anyway, when he has other fish to fry.
“Kris told me this, when we retire, we’ll look back at this stuff. I heard him say that about his shot,” Wright said. “But right now, we’re so into it, the next game, it really doesn’t mean that much.”
So the question grows larger about the Wildcats as March nears. Can they do it? Can they join that most exclusive organization, the International Brotherhood of Repeat Champions?
Only seven schools in the 78 years of the NCAA Tournament can say they defended their titles. Since sunset of the John Wooden Empire more than four decades ago, there have been only two – Duke in 1991-92, Florida in 2006-07. The Gators are the only champion in the past 15 years to return to the Final Four the next season. Four of the last nine didn’t even make it back into the tournament.
Here is what you get with Villanova, circa 2017, which is going to sound a lot like Villanova, circa 2016.
The same devotion to the basics. Take care of the ball, get good shots, don’t make mistakes, defend.
“Any team that has a chance of beating them pretty much has to do the same things,” Xavier’s RaShid Gaston said.
The same relentless purpose, done without histrionics. They have the outward emotion of a shark on the attack.
“It’s something that we really value as being competitors for 40 minutes,” Wright said. “When you have these seniors, they teach the young guys how to do it, and demand it of the young guys.”
The same will to win from the elders, no matter their star wattage. National player of the year candidate Hart, for instance. He had a quiet 11 points against Xavier. But also seven rebounds, five assists and four steals.
“And he guards their five man, with no complaints,” Wright said. “He’s 6-5 and the two guard in our starting lineup, and when they started hurting us on the boards, we put him on the big guy and he stood in there and battled. He just did all the dirty work. I want people to know that about him.”
The same steady and sober approach.
Wright again. “There’s a good perspective there. We’re playing well. We can get a lot better, and I think our guys understand we need to get better. Sometimes you get a team, especially with guys back who have had a lot of success, they might think, `OK, we’ve got this.’ But they don’t.”
The same Villanova way of doing things. Freshman Painter didn’t go to the floor after a loose ball in the Xavier game. He was back on the bench in seconds.
“That wasn’t why he was out, but that’s the first thing everybody said to him,” Wright said. “I don’t have to anymore because they will all do it to each other. Everybody jumped on him.”
Not that there aren’t flaws. Villanova is far from deep, with only seven players in the rotation.
“We like to play fast. We haven’t been able to do that,” Wright said. Plus, Hart has seen only 18 minutes of rest in the past five games.
Jenkins has had some tough shooting stretches. He was 4-for-29 in a recent three-game cold snap.
The Wildcats have developed a habit of blowing leads. They were up 17 on Marquette and lost. Up 17 on Georgetown and 13 on Providence,and had the leads cut to two. Up 12 on DePaul and behind three minutes later. That’s a dangerous way to live next month.
But their cool usually gets them through, not only the seniors but the sophomores – Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges — who have already seen much, too. And the team that nobody could beat last March is, according to the current seed thinking, the top team heading for this one.
“That’s probably where we are right now in power rankings. But we just know it doesn’t mean anything,” Wright said. “This is for the media and fans right now. Because we’ve all got to finish the season.”
He mentioned last year, when Villanova was supposed to be a No. 1 seed, lost in the Big East title game and came out a No. 2. Or the two seasons before that, when high seeds could not save the Wildcats from first weekend upsets, attaching a stigma to their name that only last spring could cure.
“That’s in their collective psyche,” Wright said. “They know this can be turned in a second, because we’ve been through it. They’ve lived that, and they get it.”
They play like it and act like it. They know answers to the important questions, such as this latest one: When an opposing fan lies down in front of your bus, w