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For Villanova, success means continuing the March

A program-record 32 wins and a Big East title won’t mean much without NCAA wins

Villanova's Jay Wright addresses fans on campus during NCAA Tournament selections. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Villanova's Jay Wright addresses fans on campus during NCAA Tournament selections. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

IN THE 2007-08 season, a Villanova team that started 13-3 lost five straight games from Jan. 23 to Feb. 4. All were by double digits, two to teams that wouldn't make the NCAA Tournament. The last was a 22-pointer to Saint Joseph's at the Palestra.

Some 5 weeks later, the Wildcats lost in the semfinals of the Big East Tournament to ninth-ranked Georgetown, by 19, to finish 20-12. Then they had to wait to find out if their name would get called on Selection Sunday. It was a tense 48 hours. But they got in, barely, as a 12-seed in the Midwest Regional.

In their NCAA opener, in Tampa, they beat Clemson by six after trailing by 18 late in the first half. In the other half of their bracket, 13th-seeded Siena had already rolled Vanderbilt by 21. In a rare double-digit matchup against Fran McCaffery's Saints, the Wildcats never trailed and won by a dozen.

The unexpected ride ended five nights later in Detroit, against top-seeded Kansas, 72-57, a game in which they never led after the first 2 minutes-and-change. A week-and-a-half later, the Jayhawks would win their first national title since Larry Brown and Danny Manning 2 decades earlier.

The next season, the Wildcats won a program-record 30 games and made it all the way to the national semifinals. Who knows how much the end of 2008 had to to with what happened the following year?

Still, this much remains pretty clear: Ask most folks what they remember about 2008 and it probably won't be that string of lopsided losses that appeared to put a serious dent in those postseason aspirations. Or all the bubble watching that went on until the field was finally announced.

All that matters is that Villanova was one of the last 16 teams playing.

And maybe that's the only thing that really should count, even if that's not the way coach Jay Wright has measured success. He's always judged his program by how it did in the Big East season. Yet he understands that's not how 'Nova Nation sees things. Or very much of the rest of the free world.

For the overwhelming majority, it has become solely about March.

Which means when you go from 21-1 with a No. 2 ranking to losing six of your last nine and getting ousted in the second round of the NCAAs as a 2-seed (after needing overtime to survive your first game), as the Wildcats did in 2009-10 coming off their Final Four appearance, well, that's not good.

Neither was last year, when a team that set a program record for the best regular season (28-3) lost its first game in the conference tourney before again dropping its second game as a 2-seed in the only tourney that's relevant. The fact that the Wildcats fell to a Connecticut team that also beat everybody else didn't do much to appease the sting.

From 2005-09, the Wildcats went 11-5 in NCAA games. Four of the losses were to eventual national champions. Only one was when they were the higher seed (Florida, in a 1-3 matchup in the 2006 Minneapolis Regional final). This, for a program that had gone 3-5 from 1989 to 2004, never making it past the second round.

Since '09 they're 2-4, having also been eliminated in two 8-9 games.

Now here they are once more, having already set a program record for wins (32-2). They've won their last 15, to tie a program record set in 1949-50 and 1950-51. They just won the Big East championship for the second time, and first in 20 years, 69-52 on Saturday night over Xavier (21-13) at Madison Square Garden. And they're a top seed in the four-letter tourney for the second time, and first time in 9 years. On Thursday in Pittsburgh, they will play Patriot League champion Lafayette (20-12), which is coached by former Wildcats standout Fran O'Hanlon, in an East Regional opener.

Which means if this group doesn't make it to at least the Sweet 16, the noise will get loud. And a lot of folks no doubt feel they should go deeper than that.

Maybe even a lot deeper.

The best thing about Wright: He has never shied away from that kind of outside-induced burden.

"It's just part of what comes with having success over a number of years," he said. "So postseason success is expected. And I think it should be, especially when you're a high seed. Sometimes you're successful, sometimes you're not. You don't want the kids to feel it, but I think they definitely want to surpass last year's tournament. But we've got to make sure that's not what drives us. Getting better every game is what should drive us.

"As a coach, we've been here. Players only get four years. What you do over 18 games against your league competition really shows where your program is. I don't want it to mean too much to the players right now. We've got a lot more to do. I have to make sure that doesn't consume their thoughts. We have to stay focused on, how can you go farther?

"Everybody has to deal with it. That's the way it is. I don't have enough time to figure it out, but we accept that. We really do. North Carolina deals with it, Kansas deals with it. Everything's a trade. You don't get 20,000 people come to watch you play [at the Wells Fargo Center] and not get that pressure. Or the criticism. I'm not against it. I'm not upset with anybody for thinking that way. It's just reality."

Last year, none of the kids on his team had ever won an NCAA game. So they at least got that checked off. These guys, if only in the back of their minds, are obviously thinking more long-term.

Once you get to the second week four times in 5 years, perspectives change.

"[In 2008], we won a couple of great games in the NCAA Tournament and got labeled a Sweet 16 team," Wright said. "So we took it. We didn't turn that back. Seriously, we didn't say, 'No, that doesn't count.' If you take that, then you have to take the criticism, too. That's the challenge. You can't have that be a detriment. But we have to let them know it's all out there. They watch TV, they listen to radio. And it's all legit. I think it's fair. You can't have any fear of failure. That's where the leadership comes in. You can't be motivated by the wrong things. You can't be looking down the line to see what would be the rewards for winning.

"Last year, I don't know how much they understood that, the pressure of the NCAA Tournament. Because the year before that, we kind of snuck in. So we were happy to be there. Then we played a great game [against North Carolina]. So they had that experience. Now a lot more is expected. I think all of that is in their consciousness. And I think that's going to help them handle it well."

Want to know why the Wildcats are who they are? With less than 2 minutes to go in Saturday's Big East final, conference co-Player of the Year Ryan Arcidiacono, who was nursing sore ribs, dived into the cheerleaders along the baseline trying to run down a loose ball that he didn't need to be running down at that point. But he did, because it's Villanova basketball. And that's how they play. And talk.

While it might sound cliche to those of us who've heard it a zillion times, it means everything to them. And maybe that's why they figured out a way to win Friday's semifinal, by two over Providence on a pair of late free throws by Arcidiacono after having blown a 13-point second-half lead.

It's exactly the kind of game they're probably going to have to survive at least once if they're going to go far in the Madness. So we'll see. They're playing well enough, and they seem hungry enough.

Now it's largely up to them. Unless maybe they run into the eventual national champ again.

"I love this time of year," Wright said. "Every team's different. I love this team. I love the leadership. I love the pressure. I think they do, too.

"It's easy for me to love the pressure. I've been in it a long time. I don't know if they loved it last year. It might have been too big. But I've seen how they've handled so many situations this year. Out at Xavier [where they clinched the regular-season title] on Senior Night. Out at Creighton, when things were getting crazy at the end. At Butler, where we made a shot to win on the last play.

"The thing about this group that's really impressed me is their mental toughness. They respond in a positive way to anything that happens in a game."

But not on this level. At least not yet. The last great unknown is about to be answered.

It's the part of all this that is destined to be remembered the longest.