NEW YORK - Tournament college basketball, whether at the conference or NCAA level, is all about winning when you don't play your best. Any significant run is going to last long enough to see hot hands go cold, matchups become unfavorable, and bad bounces accumulate.
A year ago, Villanova lost its opening game of the Big East tournament on a day in which all those things conspired against the Wildcats. It took a buzzer-beater of a shot by Seton Hall to complete the upset, but Villanova still went home.
Had Villanova survived that final shot, coach Jay Wright could have talked about the value of advancing in the face of adversity and building confidence by winning despite an off game. That speech stayed in his pocket, however.
This time around, in the same quarterfinal game of the tournament, the Wildcats faced Marquette and not adversity. It actually didn't matter the identity of the opponent Thursday because Villanova shot the ball ridiculously well, tying a tournament record with 17 three-point field goals, and played defense well enough to force 22 turnovers and transform the game into a rout.
So, which is better? Playing really well and winning easily to start tournament season, or gaining battle scars that will look beautiful eventually?
"I like it better this way," Wright said after the 84-49 dismantling of Marquette was complete. "Guys are feeling good. They're making shots in this arena. They feel good about it. I like it that way."
If the Wildcats continue to shoot as well, Villanova might be in position to win its first Big East tournament in 20 years. (Or at least make the final game for the first time in 18 years.)
"I don't know if they could play much better," Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. "Certainly, I don't think they could shoot much better than they did."
As has been the case for much of the season, the not-so-secret offensive weapon was swingman Josh Hart, who came off the bench to lead all scorers with 20 points in a performance that included hitting 5 of 7 three-pointers. The Big East's sixth man of the year is a sophomore and he won't be a substitute next season, but, for now, and for however long the tournament season lasts for Villanova, the Wildcats will ride him in that role.
"I can't say I was ever not a starter. It was new," said Hart, who played high school ball in suburban Washington. "Definitely weird, but the coach trusts in me and that's all that matters. When games are close at the finish, up one or down one in the last minute, and I'm out there, I know I have his trust."
Finishing is always more important than starting and trust can be measured only in minutes. Hart played 26 of them against Marquette. Only starting guard Dylan Ennis played more. Hart wouldn't have been on the floor, however, if he didn't also complement what was a very tight defensive effort for the Wildcats. That was the aspect of the overall game Wright liked even better than the shooting barrage.
"You can never count on making shots, but you can count on defense," Wright said. "If we can play defense like that, it will give us a chance in any game."
While Villanova's offense gets plenty of attention - the Wildcats led the conference in scoring, scoring margin, and three-point percentage, and were second in overall field goal percentage - it is the defense that will make the difference this month when one-of-those-days happens to fall on game day.
"I think Villanova is a team that could win a national championship. I think they have all the ingredients," Wojciechowski said. "They play like they did [Thursday], I don't know how you beat them."
By advancing to the Friday semifinal round against Providence, Villanova took another step toward ensuring it will receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats also made a nice start to tournament season by shooting well in a dark, cavernous arena like Madison Square Garden, which isn't always easy. And from now on, they won't be playing any games in small gyms.
"Every gym is good if there's a basket," point guard Ryan Arcidiacono said. "We play in the Wells Fargo Center, and they made it darker this year, so we're used to it. We're used to playing in NBA gyms. We know we can all make shots."
For Hart, whose three-pointers were from NBA range and forced Marquette to abandon a zone defense intended to save energy, the bigger the arena - and the bigger the shot - the better for him.
"I wish I could play every game here," Hart said.
With luck and defense, he'll get two more.
So, Villanova's tournament season is off to a very good start. But it isn't who starts that matters. What matters is who is still playing at the end. Josh Hart can confirm that.