NOT ALL teams are created equal. But every one of the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament is starting out fresh again at 0-0.
Villanova, as expected, will be starting out as one of the four top seeds for the first time since the 2006 team made it to the Final Eight. The number next to your name, of course, means nothing once you start playing. Last year the Wildcats lost their second game as a No. 2 seed, the second time that had happened to them since they reached the Final Four in 2009. This time they'll start playing on Thursday, in Pittsburgh, against Patriot League champion Lafayette (20-12), which won its conference tournament as a No. 4 seed. The Leopards are coached by former Villanova standout Fran O'Hanlon.
"All I know is, they beat Bucknell, and we nearly lost to Bucknell," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose Wildcats (32-2) won their first Big East title in 2 decades Saturday night in New York, 69-52 over Xavier (21-13), and have already set a program record for victories. "I just texted [O'Hanlon] today or yesterday. We were both hoping we wouldn't have to play each other. He's a very, very loyal Villanova guy. He comes to all the alumni events, and is truly one of the most loved players.
"It's funny. He played on the Final Eight team [in 1969-70] the year before they went to the Final Four. Yet no one even talks about that team. He was a senior, and arguably the best player. Everyone knows Chris Ford and Tom Inglesby. They've got their numbers retired. But they look up to him. I'm sure it'll be a great story and all that, but . . . "
A No. 1 seed has never lost to a 16. In 2000, the last time O'Hanlon got in, his team lost its opener to second-seeded Temple, 73-47.
The Wildcats have won 15 straight, which ties another program record that had stood since 1950. Right now they're playing about as well as any team not named Kentucky. But now it's a new season. The one they'll be judged on most, especially after what happened last March.
"We feel good, but we know we still have to keep getting better," said senior guard Darrun Hilliard, their leading scorer. "We've had expectations all year long. And we've handled it well. Last year's experience helps us. We didn't handle our business and it came back to bite us. Now we know we're in an even greater position.
"People will be looking to see what we do now. The regular season is over. So is the Big East Tournament. That's fine with us. We just want to come out and continue doing what we're supposed to do."
The Wildcats have struggled in opening games before. In 2009 they were trailing American by two touchdowns early in the second half at the Wells Fargo Center before rallying for a 13-point win. The next year in Providence they were life-and-death against Robert Morris before barely surviving in overtime.
"The only thing we care about is Lafayette," said junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono, the co-Big East Player of the Year, who's had two turnovers in the last 152 minutes he's played. "We played them last year [in the opener]. It was a tough game.
"I just think we're a completely different team. We were kind of hesitant last year. There was a fear of losing. It was the first time we were expected to win. We know anything can happen. We know if we don't play our game, it's going to be hard to win. We know how hard we've worked to get here. We can't stop now.
"We definitely accept [the challenge]. We had some goals. This is the next step. It's something we've had to deal with, because we went through it."
The selection committee didn't do them many favors. The East Regional looks like it's loaded. Virginia is the No. 2 seed, followed by Oklahoma. If you're looking ahead to possible matchups, the 8-9 game is North Carolina State, which beat Duke, and LSU, which almost beat Kentucky. And the 4-5 is Louisville, which knows how to win at this time of year, and three-loss Northern Iowa, which some seem to think was underseeded. Providence, which almost beat Villanova in the Big East semifinals, is a six seed. And Michigan State, which almost beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten final, is a seven.
Nobody ever said it's supposed to be easy.
"We're not that freakishly talented that it doesn't matter how we play," said Wright, whose guys have won 12 of their last 15 by double digits. "That's just the way we are. But I could not feel better about the way we're playing. And I'm usually their biggest critic.
"It's all about a progression. It's been a great year. We are not done. We're dedicated to finishing strong. It's time to live up to even more expectations."
If Villanova gets to the Sweet 16, that game will be played in Syracuse on March 27.