Kern: You know what Villanova's latest loss means? Nothing
OK, so Villanova got outscored 19-4 down the stretch and lost by two Tuesday night at Marquette, in a game in which Josh Hart played 19 minutes and the Wildcats shot 6-for-34 from the arc. It's been known to happen.
In case you missed it, at the same time it was also happening to Kansas and Kentucky. I'm pretty sure the diehards at those two places aren't thinking that their long-range aspirations are now kaput. Nobody's world ended. Even the best teams go down, especially on the road.
The defending national champions are 19-2. They're been ranked No. 1 for most of the last two months. Those are really good things, right?
In 2005-06, the Wildcats started 22-2. In 2009-10, it was 19-1. And 16-1 the season after that. The three seasons before this it's been 22-2, 17-2 (en route to 33-2) and 17-2 again. They only won 14 of their first 18 in 2008-09, when they got to the Final Four. I'm not sure what that all means, other than the fact that they've won a whole bunch of games for Jay Wright. And folks who maybe anticipated that might change just because they'd lost Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu and had a broader target on them and are reduced at least for the moment but possibly for the duration to a seven-man rotation, well, it might be time to re-think that.
Obviously, only one of those above-mentioned seasons ended with the ultimate trophy, though another did lead to a Final Eight. The regular season and the postseason are distinct journeys. And the vast majority only remember the latter. So be it. It's still a testament to what this program has been about not only in the last decade but particularly with this senior class, which never lost a Big Five game (and never won one by less than double digits) and has yet to lose at the Pavilion. Chances are you won't see that again any time soon, if ever.
Only two teams have repeated since the UCLA dynasty came to a close just over four decades ago: Duke in the early 1990s and Florida in the mid 2000s. Not Kentucky, which under John Calipari has as many titles as Wright despite having a few more lottery picks. Not Kansas, which also has won it all just once under Bill Self. Not North Carolina, which like Duke has gotten two rings since Wright first got the Wildcats back to the tournament in 2005. Ponder that if you're one of those people who think Villanova should maybe be in the Final Four like every other year or so.
I didn't figure the Wildcats would be the last team standing again. Just because. But I thought they'd win somewhere around 30 games for the fourth straight time. Why not? And that was before Hart became a Player of the Year candidate. They've won at Purdue, beaten Notre Dame in North Jersey and won at Creighton when the Bluejays still had Philly point guard extraordinaire Maurice Watson Jr. and were unbeaten themselves. They crushed Xavier and Seton Hall at home. Their previous blemish was at Butler, four days after the trip to Creighton, and they were up one with 3 1/2 minutes to go. Sue them.
I'm not smart enough to predict how this is going to play out come March (or April). I think we tend to look at them differently because we see them all the time. We know the flaws, perceived or otherwise: the lack of size, the shortened bench, the fact that much of the country probably doesn't give them their due because they're not Kentucky or Duke or Kansas or Carolina. And that's OK. Flying under the radar worked for them a year ago.
If they had a healthy Phil Booth, which remains a possibility if not a probability at this juncture, their chances would go up. And if freshman forward Omari Spellman was eligible, they might have as good a chance as anyone. For all I know they still might. We'll find out soon enough. Sunday's game against Virginia in South Philly will be like another NCAA Sweet 16 or Final Eight preview. And you can never have enough of them. Last year's run was an upset only in the Vegas sense. They were the best team in the only tournament that matters. Trying to replicate those three weeks could be Wright's biggest challenge yet. And isn't it funny how nobody brings up the second-round losses any more.
This team could lose early, too. That's why it's called Madness. But it shouldn't be a surprise if they make it to the third or fourth round or even beyond. It's hard to envision the Selection Committee giving them a path more difficult than Miami, Kansas, Oklahoma and North Carolina. And they could be playing in the East Regional, which will be in Madison Square Garden. Of course that would have been the scenario in 2014 but they never got that far, losing to eventual national champ Connecticut in their second game.
Of the last nine defending champs, four made it to the third round. Another lost in the first. The rest had to settle for the NIT. While I wouldn't necessarily put my 401K on it, these Wildcats might have another prolonged ride in them. Marquette happened. It might happen again. But by now we should have learned to underestimate them at our own risk.