PITTSBURGH

- In 2010, after Villanova lost to St. Mary's in its second game in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed, Jay Wright talked about how that wouldn't be such a good thing at a lot of schools.

But by that point, he'd certainly banked more than enough credibility chips on the Main Line: four trips to the second week in the previous five seasons, including one run to the Final Eight and a spot in the national semifinals in 2009. And all four times, the Wildcats had been eliminated by the eventual champion. St. Mary's obviously ended that streak.

Still, as unexpected as that early exit was for a team that had started 20-1 and been ranked No. 2, it was mostly viewed as one of those things that can, well, happen.

Now, maybe not as much.

That's because the Wildcats haven't been to the second week since 2009. Last March they lost in their second game as a 2 seed, to Connecticut, which also would win it all.

At 33-2, they've already set a program record for wins. They won their first Big East Tournament title in 2 decades. They've won their last 16 straight, another program best. They're the top seed in the East Regional. They just beat Lafayette by 41, their 27th double-digit win.

Tonight, at the Consol Energy Center, they'll play North Carolina State (21-13), which rallied late to beat LSU literally at the buzzer on Thursday. The Wolfpack has beaten Duke and won at Louisville and North Carolina. It also has lost to Clemson, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College. So who knows? It's the Madness.

But one thing seems pretty apparent: Fair or whatever, the Wildcats really have to win this game. Or else they're going to have questions to answer, despite all the historic stuff that came before. It's that simple. And nobody gets that more than the guy in charge.

"I know to everyone at Villanova, the people we care about, it's important," Wright acknowledged. "They expect it. And so do we. We've been in this long enough. You can't fear failure. We're the No. 1 seed. So yeah, it would be devastating if we didn't go on.

"I don't think it has as much to do with last year and just being a 1 seed. That's all part of the tournament. Every other 1 seed has the same expectations. We can't run away from that. We've got to live with it, because it's there. That's fine. You want to be in this position. That's what you work all season for. If we don't get it done, we'll hear about it. We accept that."

The only other time they were a 1, in 2006, they won three games before losing to a Florida team that would hoist the trophy that year and the next. This group has won 62 of its last 69 and yet somehow still has something to prove. Getting to Syracuse for next Friday's Sweet 16 would figure to rectify a bunch of that.

Villanova and NC State, which won titles 2 years apart in the 1980s that were equally magical, have played once since 1973. That was 8 years ago, Villanova lost by one. The Wildcats last beat State in 1959. The Wolfpack is 2-3 all-time against 1 seeds. This is its first such opportunity in 26 years.

"We've had our ups and downs," said coach Mark Gottfried. "But our ups have been really high."

Duly noted.

The Wildcats don't seem to be motivated by anything going on outside their locker room. But that doesn't mean they're totally immune to the noise, either.

"We watched the second half [of the Wolfpack's LSU game]," said senior guard Darrun Hilliard, who as a freshman was part of a team that went 13-19 to tie a program record for losses. "They were relentless, kind of like us.

"For sure, there's people expecting Villanova to go down, that we're not going to go where we're supposed to go. They can doubt us. It's not like we're into that. You can agree or disagree. We're going to do what we've done all season and hope that's enough.

"One of the reasons I came here was to go far in the tournament. It just didn't happen. We had to start over, from the ground up. And we've continued to grow. The only ones we have to answer to are each other. We know how good we are, and how good we can be. If we don't [advance], it'll be more disappointing just to know the season's over. If we do, we'll play the way we have all year and if somebody beats us, then they'll deserve that."

The reality is that only one team can really go as far as it wants. Yet not all success is created equal. The Wildcats look to be as good as anyone but one. There's only one way to back that up.

"We've been dealing with that all year," said fourth-year junior guard Dylan Ennis, who might be their most overlooked player, the guy who consistently makes so many plays that make a difference. "We have a mental toughness about us. We know the feeling [of losing this game].

"I think no matter what, people are going to say things. That's just the way it is. We can't let that affect us. That's not going to mean a thing when we're on the court. We have so much confidence in ourselves. Like coach says, we're good enough to win the national title. And anyone can beat us. Everyone's entitled to their opinion."

Maybe, it was suggested, the fact that Villanova plays a somewhat unique style has created that doubt.

"When something's different, it is scary to people," Ennis went on. "We're not like a lot of teams. But we stick with what we do. We're not going to change up. It's worked so far.

"We don't see it as pressure. We treat it like it's a game we played in November."

Except it's not. Neither are the ramifications.

On Twitter: @mikekerndn