After Lafayette beat American University last Wednesday to emerge as champion of the Patriot League, coach Fran O'Hanlon got a text message from Villanova coach Jay Wright. College basketball is a small world, and the tentacles of the game that emanate from Philadelphia sometimes seem to encircle it all.
O'Hanlon, who played at Villanova and graduated in 1970, is in his 20th season at Lafayette, coaching in the same conference as Bucknell, where Wright went to school. It certainly is a small world and both O'Hanlon and Wright knew last week that it might get a whole lot smaller for the two of them very quickly.
"As soon as they won, we texted each other. I congratulated him and he said, 'Good luck in the Big East tournament,' " Wright said Sunday night. "I said, 'I hope we don't play each other,' and he said, 'Me, too.' "
Each coach was whistling past a different graveyard, but they know how the NCAA tournament works, and they know how the selection committee sometimes comes up with the least random of matchups for what are supposedly the most random of reasons. And they knew Villanova had a good chance to be a No. 1 seed and Lafayette, which was only the fourth seed in the Patriot tournament, had a good chance to be a No. 16 seed when the NCAA field was announced.
"I had a feeling," Wright said. "If you're in one of those leagues and you're not the one-seed and you win, you're usually a 16. So we knew these guys were going to be a 16, and if we got a one, well, we all said it. You just knew. It's a tough matchup. Patriot teams are tough for us."
It's fair to say that Big East schools are probably tough for Lafayette, too, but there won't be quite as much pressure to advance on the Leopards when the teams open their NCAA tournaments Thursday in Pittsburgh. That's the flip side of being a No. 1 seed - and the second-highest team in the country - for Villanova. A top seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. It will happen eventually, because everything does.
"You know it's coming and this is the kind of game," Wright said. "This is like when people used to fear getting Princeton in that game. This is that kind of game. Our closest game this year at home was against Bucknell and the next-closest was against Lehigh. And these guys beat both of them. So, it's a style of play that hopefully we learned from those two games."
Lafayette will want to slow the game to a crawl to offset Villanova's superior athleticism, and will be very patient as the Leopards wait for good shots. They will try to frustrate the Wildcats at the other end of the floor with a clinging team defense. The game plan might not work. It probably won't work. But they will execute it.
"They spread the floor, and are very intelligent and they love playing teams like us that are a little bigger, a little more athletic. They try to slice you up. It's going to be a battle," Wright said.
The battle Wright has to win first is to convince his team to buy what he's selling. It wasn't any coincidence he had those Patriot League facts ready. When the players and coaches went to a team meeting right after the bracket was announced Sunday night, you can be sure those "closest" home wins over Lehigh (11 points) and Bucknell (7 points) were mentioned. He probably didn't remind them that both games were played before Thanksgiving, or that the first game was actually played in Allentown, or that the Wildcats forced 21 turnovers in the second to offset a so-so shooting night. (Or that Villanova beat Syracuse in overtime by five points in a Wells Fargo Center game that sure looked like a home game.)
None of that matters when the ball goes up Thursday, anyway. This Villanova team has been very good at focusing on the task at hand, and, having come through disappointments last season in both the Big East and the NCAA tournaments, it is not afraid of the nervous spotlight that could come along with the opener.
"The one-seed is more prestigious than it is advantageous," Wright said. "But there are some advantages that come with it. You get to play close to home and play a 16-seed, but there's pressure, too. That's something we might not have handled well last year. This team has handled the pressure all year. Everywhere we've gone, it was sold out and it was everybody's biggest game of the year and they handled that. I think we're more comfortable to be in this position this year."
Comfortable or not, ready or not, nervous or not, it begins on Thursday. Villanova worked hard and won a lot of games to get this far and be regarded this highly. Now, the Wildcats play in front of the world and start off with a game that proves it can be a small one, after all.