The Villanova basketball team that will begin its tournament season Thursday night in the Big East quarterfinals is young by the program’s standards and lacking in the kind of postseason experience that often separates teams at this time of year.
That might cut two ways for the Wildcats. The inexperience can lift the burden of expectation and — to the extent that an 11th-ranked, 24-7 team can fly under the radar — Villanova will get that benefit. Of course, the other possible outcome is that the inexperience will result in getting bounced sooner than later in both the conference and national tournaments.
“I don’t know,” coach Jay Wright said this week, asked how it would all play out. “I love this team. I’m so proud of them, but we are what we are. We pulled out some games coming down the stretch, and that’s who I think we’re going to be. We’re going to fight and scratch and claw and see if we can pull out some games. We’re young. I have to see how these guys react to Madison Square Garden. It’s a big thing.”
It is worth mentioning that the Wildcats do return three starters from last season’s team that won a third straight Big East Tournament. In the past five seasons, only the 2016-17 team had that many starters back.
So, it isn’t as if the lights of the Garden will blind juniors Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, or sophomore Saddiq Bey, but they are joined in the lineup by freshmen Justin Moore and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
“We knew we were going to be young this year … and I think we have some great futures, but we’re just inexperienced,” Wright said.
The starters combine for 29 games of postseason experience and a total of 599 minutes. That’s not nothing, but take a look at that 2016-17 team that was coming off the first national championship in the recent run. For the 2017 postseason, there were a combined 65 games of postseason experience, and 1,432 minutes, in the starting lineup. On the bench, the Wildcats also had Eric Paschall and Donte DiVincenzo.
Compared to the current team, that 2016-17 team was loaded with experience, loaded with help off the bench, and had three seniors among the starters. But how did all that institutional memory about the challenges of March translate into the postseason?
Villanova won the Big East Tournament that year but didn’t get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, losing to Wisconsin when shots didn’t fall against a clinging Badgers defense.
Experience is great, but it’s no guarantee. In fact, aside from this season, the two seasons in the last five years when the starters had the fewest minutes of postseason experience — 924 in 2015-16, and 1,041 in 2017-18 — were the two national-championship seasons.
Given his druthers, Wright would take the experience and the seniors, but he’s coached long enough not to discount the possibilities for the current team.
“They’re getting better,” Wright said. “It’s just a matter of whether someone is going to be better than us.”
Matchups are everything this time of year. That Wisconsin matchup was bad for the Wildcats, as was last season’s second-round NCAA game against Purdue when a lack of team speed caught up with Villanova.
This year’s team is quicker and more athletic but struggles against physical opponents. Villanova was able to prepare the same way this week, not knowing if the first Big East challenge would be Xavier or DePaul. Both teams have size and length and present a problem in the basket area when they play well. Neither is very proficient at perimeter offense.
“We’re still tinkering with what we’re doing,” Wright said. “The message is the same [this year], but we handle them as a coaching staff with a little more patience, a little more teaching going in. With our experienced teams, this time of year was just more about keeping guys fresh. We’re still teaching a lot.”
The real lesson of the conference and NCAA tournament season is that nothing beats having been there before. The Wildcats don’t necessarily have that going for them, but history can be a faulty guide, too.
At its best, this Villanova team is capable of beating any team in the country and standing alongside the other successful recent Wildcats teams. A Big East Tournament championship would be the fourth straight for the program.
“We specifically don’t talk about that,” Wright said. “I don’t want to put that pressure on them; that they have to live up to what those other guys did. I want them to understand that whatever they do accomplish is theirs. It’s not a fourth or fifth or whatever the number is. It’s theirs.”