For the first time in six seasons, Villanova enters the NCAA Tournament as something other than a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. That’s been a remarkable run and includes two national championships, but that was then, and this year’s team is clearly now.
The Wildcats will open against St. Mary’s on Thursday with a pair of rock-hard seniors anchoring the roster, but a whole lot of inexperience everywhere else. The other six rotation players are in either their first or second season in the program. Some coaches might fib a little and say they like that interesting mix, but coach Jay Wright isn’t one of them.
“No, I don’t like that mix. I love it when we’ve got a lot of juniors and seniors. I like that a lot,” Wright said this week. “But I love this team. I don’t like the mix, but I love this team.”
His affection for the team has grown over the season, just as the team has also grown quickly. Now, with the Wildcats earning a No. 6 seed in the NCAAs after winning both the Big East regular season and conference tournament, he looks upon them like a parent whose child has brought home a better-than-expected report card. It doesn’t mean the next marking period will go as well, but it’s a positive.
Back in May, when it became apparent that Villanova would lose not only Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges to the NBA draft, but Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, as well, Wright would have gladly signed a paper guaranteeing what this season’s team has accomplished.
“Oh, yeah. I would sign up for that,” Wright said. “This year was interesting. There were times early in the year when I thought realistically that we might not make the tournament. I was OK with it, but I just thought that’s what it’s going to be. Then, we went on a 10-game winning streak in the Big East and I thought, ‘Whoa. We could win this thing again.’ I was thinking the whole thing at that time.
“Then, we got some losses and I was, like, ‘All right. We better concentrate on trying to win [the conference].’ It has been a lot of ups and downs, but, OK, we’re in the tournament and you have as good a chance as anybody once you’re in it. That’s where we are now, but I would have signed up for that back then.”
That’s quite a mental swing, to go from thinking the team would whiff on the tournament, to thinking it could win it all, to accepting that it is probably somewhere in between.
But it is also a long way from being the team that opened up on Nov. 6 with forward Dylan Painter in the starting lineup, just days before he would transfer out of the program. And it is miles away from being the team that was dusted by Michigan by 27 points before losing at home to Furman.
“It was a smack in the face. We played Michigan and it was shocking … and then Furman confirmed the shock you felt against Michigan, so there was no doubt,” Wright said. “We said, ‘We have a lot of work to do. This is truly a rebuild.’ Michigan was shocking, and Furman was reaffirming. This is what it is. So, let’s get to work.”
The real question to have asked Wright about that fictional secret covenant back in May is whether he would have signed up for the Big East regular-season title, the conference championship, a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament … and a first-weekend exit. The deal would still have represented more than one could reasonably hope, but Wright believes that limited expectations yield limited results. The 2016 and 2018 teams are handy proof that aiming high is the way to go.
To reach the second weekend, and the Sweet 16 round that is a great measure of tournament success, Villanova must keep up its fight against time. These Wildcats are still very much a work in progress. With another week, they will get that much better, but getting another week will require beating two NCAA Tournament teams, with the second one, in all probability, a Purdue team seeded among the top 12 in the nation.
The Wildcats will have scouting reports for guidance, but this team, far more than those of the last five years, needs to be more worried about how it plays than whom it plays.
“That’s the difference. This team has a lot of room to still grow. We’re still concentrating on ourselves in practice more than the opponent,” Wright said. “The last few years, by this time, we kind of knew what we were, and could really dial in on scouting reports and opponents. This year, we very much are still trying to refine what we do.”
It is a race, and Villanova has somehow gotten this far around the track. How much the Wildcats can still improve will determine the finish line. But they have a chance, and that is really the only condition any of them would have demanded before they signed on the dotted line for this season.