HARTFORD, Conn. – Villanova’s race against time, hoping a young team could keep improving during the NCAA Tournament, came to an abrupt end on Saturday night, as the Wildcats fell badly to a Purdue team that beat them thoroughly on both ends of the court.
Learning on the fly during single-elimination tournaments isn’t a mission for the faint of heart, but coach Jay Wright and the Wildcats did their best before running into the third-seeded Boilermakers in the second round of the South Regional. The final score of 87-61 is telling enough but almost doesn’t do justice to the one-sidedness of the game. Purdue led by 19 at the half and then scored the first 16 points of the second half to remove all doubt from the outcome.
“We did not have them ready from the start,” Wright said. “It became an ugly game.”
This was the seventh straight NCAA tournament for the Wildcats, and while that run included two amazing trips to the Final Four that resulted in championships, the other four appearances – three of them with teams seeded either No 1 or No. 2 in their region – also ended in the first weekend of the tournament.
Getting the current team to the second weekend and the Sweet 16 round would have been a great accomplishment, and would have made an argument that it was the best coaching job of Wright’s career. The Wildcats were caught with a short roster when their 2018 Final Four spree cost them Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman in the NBA draft, along with Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. They scrambled to fill those spots, struggled early in the season, and hit another serious slump just before the Big East Tournament. Before losing to Purdue on Saturday night, they had won four in a row and, for long stretches, were playing their best basketball at exactly the right time.
“We’re surprised every time we come out. We don’t know what the hell’s going to happen this year,” Wright said before the game. “It’s totally different in that we’re learning about ourselves every day in practice and trying to get better every day. We’re really still a work in progress this year.”
Wright and his staff would have liked having the better part of a week to continue that progress. With a little more time, who knows? But the Boilermakers didn’t provide them with that. During 'Nova’s two NCAA championship seasons, the work in the tournament was about fine-tuning the team so that it could match styles with any opponent. As this season came to a close, it was still about determining how the Wildcats could best play together, regardless of whom it happened to be against.
“When you’ve got a young team, you just make sure you do what you do well,” Wright said. “That’s kind of where we are. We can’t make the kind of adjustments we used to make, but that’s all right. It still comes down to doing what you do well.”
Some in the Villanova community thought the Wildcats, who were a 6-seed, didn’t get the proper respect from the tournament selection committee. Seedings are never perfect, and the Big East championship might not have carried the weight it normally does. In any case, the Wildcats didn’t return to this tournament as anything approaching national college basketball royalty.
“We’ve been a 1- or 2-seed for a while,” Wright said. We’re a 6-seed. You’re in a different kind of hotel. The hotel’s nice, but it’s just different, you know?’’
Even though it wasn’t a seeding booster, the Big East Tournament should have been good preparation for these opening matchups in Hartford. In both tournaments, the Wildcats had to contend with some teams that had more size in the paint and forced them to work for every rebound and every interior shot.
In the opener here against St. Mary’s College -- a big, deliberate team -- Villanova struggled on the glass. St. Mary’s doubled its offensive rebound total, took six more shots from the field in a low-scoring game, and forced Villanova to be ultra-efficient on the shots it did take. The Wildcats responded, led by seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, who combined for 34 of the team’s 61 points.
Against Purdue, which patrols the basket area with 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms, the mission was much the same, but the result wasn’t. Haarms got loose on the inside and finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. Forced to pay attention to the paint, Villanova lost track of guard Carsen Edwards, who made nine three-pointers and had a career-high 42 points. The Wildcats were badly outshot and outrebounded, and they were just unable to keep up.
“The game’s humbling, you know? And it’s good for us sometimes,” Wright said. “You don’t choose to be in this position. But when you win, you’ve got to realize that there are guys on the other side working just as hard as you, and you’ve got to be respectful of them and understand you could be on the other side of it, and today we are.”
The large deficit and Purdue’s momentum was too much to overcome, and so the improbable season came to a close earlier than hoped. All good things do come to an end, and so do some things that might have turned out to be very good if they had just a little more time.