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Big East tournament shows Jay Wright some love

Villanova coach Jay Wright begins every March by restating his love for the Big East tournament, the annual Madison Square Garden stroll through the history of a conference that helped transform the program into a true national player.

Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

Villanova coach Jay Wright begins every March by restating his love for the Big East tournament, the annual Madison Square Garden stroll through the history of a conference that helped transform the program into a true national player.

"I like this tournament better than any other tournament," Wright said on more than one occasion this past week. "I just love being in New York, love being in the Garden."

It had been a while, but the tournament loved him back this time, and the Wildcats captured their first conference championship since 1995 with a 69-52 title-game win over Xavier on Saturday night. It was Villanova's first appearance in the final since 1997, and the first time the Wildcats had won more than a single game in the tournament in more than a decade.

As much as Wright enjoyed his first conference title in 14 seasons as Villanova's coach, there is another tournament to consider now, and, truth be told, he sort of likes that one, too.

The win over Xavier assured the Wildcats of receiving a No. 1 seed when the NCAA tournament bracket is announced Sunday evening. Nothing is ever really certain once the tournament committee closes the door and starts its figuring, but Villanova was a consensus No. 1 seed going into the Big East tournament, and beat two teams, Providence and Xavier, with RPI rankings among the top 30 in the country.

Where they will be placed is another matter. The various rising and falling fortunes of Duke, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Virginia during the weekend jumbled the top of the rankings and ping-ponged the Wildcats between potential regional assignments in Los Angeles, Houston, and Syracuse - if they advance past two opening games in Pittsburgh. That's fine. The only race that matters this season is avoiding the Midwest Region and the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats as long as possible.

And while it is a nice bit of prestige to be a No. 1 seed, advancing in the NCAA tournament has a lot more to do with matchups than it does with where the game is played, or what the teams are seeded, or even which team is wearing white.

Villanova has been on all sides of that in its nine NCAA appearances under Wright. The Wildcats advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed one year, and they twice failed to emerge from the opening weekend as a No. 2 seed, including last season. They got to the Final Four as a No. 3 seed in 2009.

Luck can have something to do with it, too. Five times in those nine appearances, Villanova was knocked out of the tournament by the eventual national champion, which means a good team playing its best at exactly the right time of the year.

Sometimes, luck has nothing to do with it. In 2010, No. 2-seeded Villanova barely survived an overtime opener against Robert Morris before losing to St. Mary's and simply didn't play well in either game.

This season, Wright brings a mature, balanced team to the tournament, one that might be even better than the Final Four team and could be the equal of the 2006 team that reached the Elite Eight before running into eventual national champion Florida.

As usual with this program, it is an older team by the standards of true NCAA contenders. The six players who form the core of the rotation include two seniors, three juniors, and a sophomore. By comparison, Kentucky's top six are three freshmen, two sophomores, and a junior.

The experience makes Villanova less prone to panic in tough situations, as evidenced by its Big East semifinal win over Providence, when the Wildcats lost a sizable lead and needed to score on their final possession to avoid overtime.

Where Villanova will be vulnerable is in a matchup against a team that is either quick enough to cover the perimeter effectively with man-to-man defense, or strong enough inside to play an expanded zone and dare the Wildcats to drive the middle. And, of course, the ultimate vulnerability for any jump-shooting team is a game when shots decide not to fall.

Where Villanova will have a great advantage is against any team unprepared for the level of defense the Wildcats bring. It is almost entirely man-to-man, and it is suffocating. In the NCAA tournament, there will be teams that simply haven't seen anything like that. Those are the teams the Wildcats would like to match up against.

All the answers to the bracket questions arrive Sunday evening. The rest of the answers take a while longer. To be awarded a No. 1 seed is always nice, but at least three of them won't win a national championship again this season.

To get far, being good is a given. Being lucky in the bracket matchups is a necessary bonus. Being both is the real trick.