By Harry Allison
What began last October in a gym on the Main Line continues this week on the biggest stage in college basketball.
For Villanova, the first practice at its Pavilion was simply a foundation for the regular season just concluded and its date with destiny that starts in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
The Wildcats thought they were ready a year ago. Entering the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 seed in the East Region, Villanova had already won a Big East Conference regular-season title and 28 games. The thinking went: Breeze through two games in Buffalo, make it to New York for the regional and then on to the Final Four. Except its season ended on Saturday of the first week.
“That group had achieved so much,” assistant coach Jason Donnelly told the New York Times. “I don’t think it was a disappointment as much as it was that they weren’t sure how to win yet at this level.”
Fast-forward to this March, and the Wildcats — champions of the Big East regular season and conference tournament — are now a No. 1 seed. They have amassed a 32-2 record, yet there are still some who wonder if this year’s team is just a polished-up version of last year’s.
Those inside Villanova’s locker room said they were not worrying themselves with such thoughts, insisting that this was a different team.
“It’s the confidence coach puts in us,” the junior guard Dylan Ennis said. “We trust in what he does. They’ve been doing this for a long time. We have the confidence in each other, as well as coach. We just stick together.”
Since Villanova made its surprising run to the Final Four in 2009, the Wildcats have had dreadful results in March. There was a second-round exit in 2010 and an opening-game loss in 2011. Then came the 2011-12 season, in which Villanova lost the most games in program history, finishing 13-19. The Wildcats returned to the NCAA tournament in 2013, but they were again eliminated in their first game. Then there was last year’s tournament loss to Connecticut — nine days after a quarterfinal loss in the Big East tournament to Seton Hall.
During the past year, coach Jay Wright drilled into his team that winning at this time of year had to be earned. No matter how many wins the Wildcats had or what seed they were awarded, it was meaningless once play began.
“We can’t change the past,” senior forward JayVaughn Pinkston said. “Plus, we lost to the national champions, so that was a learning experience.”
Villanova has not beaten opponents like Kentucky, Duke or Wisconsin, but it has not needed to. It has plodded along, winning all but two of its games. “They really have a chance,” Wright said. “We’ll see how they do in this next tournament, but this does have a chance to be the best team I’ve ever had.”
The injury bug seemed to bite Michigan State for a second consecutive year, and the Spartans even entered Big Ten play unranked for the first time in eight seasons. But Coach Tom Izzo and his team again found a way, battling Wisconsin in overtime in the Big Ten title game. Michigan State is capable of being one of the toughest defensive teams in the tournament and is an excellent rebounding, passing and 3-point shooting team as well.
Dayton played more than half the season without a player taller than 6-foot-6 after coach Archie Miller kicked two big men off the team in mid-December. That also trimmed the Flyers’ rotation to seven players. No matter. The Flyers are among the First Four, but they play in Dayton, which should be cause for concern for Boise State.
It is hard to pick against Coach Rick Pitino, but Louisville has been shaky since dismissing guard Chris Jones in February. Scoring could be problematic. UC Irvine often plays a 2-3 zone with its 7-foot-6 center, Mamadou Ndiaye, in the middle.
1 Villanova (32-2) versus 16 Lafayette (20-12)
8 North Carolina St. (20-13) versus 9 Louisiana State (22-10)
5 Northern Iowa (30-3) versus 12 Wyoming (25-9)
4 Louisville (24-8) versus 13 U.C. Irvine (21-12)
6 Providence (22-11) versus 11 Boise State (25-8)/ Dayton (25-8)
3 Oklahoma (22-10) versus 14 Albany (24-8)
7 Michigan State (23-11) versus 10 Georgia (21-11)
2 Virginia (29-3) versus 15 Belmont (22-10)