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Wildcats: Big East champs and top contenders

32 reasons why Villanova has something to prove

PITTSBURGH - So how many teams in the NCAA Tournament have any more to prove than 32-2 Villanova, which has already set a program record for victories?

Maybe not within its locker room. Because the Wildcats have never measured themselves by how far they go at this time of the season, even though Jay Wright has had more than a few teams that acquitted themselves rather well. It's just that none has done so recently. So be it. The Wildcats have always taken the most pride in how they did against the rest of the Big East, be it the old-school version or the current one.

Which certainly seems fair enough, even if bracketologists everywhere might not concur.

In the first 2 years in their reconfigured conference, they've absolutely been the face. But last March, after winning 28 of their first 31 to set a program record for best regular season, they lost to eighth-seeded Seton Hall in the Big East quarterfinals. Then they lost in their second game of the Madness, to seventh-seeded Connecticut. So who figured the Huskies were going to win their next four as well? In case you're keeping tabs, that was the fifth time in a decade that they'd been eliminated by the eventual national champion. And also the earliest.

"I thought we were playing really well against UConn, when we went up [10] in the first half [after 9 1/2 minutes]," Wright said. "And Shabazz [Napier] has two fouls, so he's sitting on the bench. Then the freshman [Terrence Samuel], who doesn't do anything, goes crazy. Then Shabazz comes back in and goes crazy on us."

It happens. But when you're the 2-seed, it's not supposed to. And it was the second time it had happened to them in 5 years. Which probably made at least some folks start to forget about those four trips to the second week or beyond from 2005-09.

Whatever. The reality is they haven't been past the first week since making it to the Final Four 6 years ago. A year ago they advanced past their first game for the first time since 2010. This time they're coming in as the Big East champions for the first time in 2 decades. Maybe there is a difference. Although back in 1995 they did lose their opener, in a 3-14 matchup, to Old Dominion in triple overtime. At the time Wright had just completed the first of what would become a seven-season run at Hofstra.

Now they're back, as one of the four top seeds for the first time since 2006. They'll open tonight at the Consol Energy Center in the East Regional against Lafayette (20-12). The Leopards just became the first team to win the Patriot League tourney as a 4-seed under former Villanova standout Fran O'Hanlon, who's in the Madness for the first time since 2000. No 16, of course, has never beaten a 1. But this bracket is obviously about way more than that.

The winner gets either North Carolina State (20-13), which beat Duke, Louisville and North Carolina, or LSU (22-10), which nearly beat Kentucky, on Saturday.

If you've been paying attention to all the TV talkers and such, who've got a lot to say, more than a few have Villanova not getting past that second game. Again. Hey, opinions are what they are, but where's the love? Perhaps it has something to do with last year. Or what they haven't been able to do in the last 6. Maybe it's the fact that the Big East is no longer the Big East, even though it was still the second-best conference according to the RPI and put five other teams into the field. Or that it doesn't have a marquee player or a go-to guy per se or one who at this point looks like a high NBA draft pick. At this point, though, none of the rhetoric or perceptions matter. Unless they're not playing in next Friday's Sweet 16 in Syracuse. Then, well, Wright might have some explaining to do.

That's simply the way this stuff works. And for all the success, nobody understands that better than him.

This is the first time Wright's Wildcats are coming into the four-letter tourney off a win. Fifteen in a row, actually, which ties another program record going back 65 years.

"When you lose in the Big East, you've got to go back and fix some things before you get going again," Wright said. "I did think we got it fixed last year. This year is different. We played three games in a row, and played them well. We talked about that as a team. How do you keep that going? That's definitely the challenge. To play at that level, like we just did for three nights in a row, we know we've got it. We have to make sure we're at that level against Lafayette. We want our next game to be our best game [yet] . . .

"We're not fearing disappointment, because it's happened. They lived it. We're really concentrating on putting it all on the line. I think we've learned the process. What could we do, and how could we do it? It's a really good place to be, in our mindset. If you lose, there's going to be a lot of pain. We're not afraid of that."

Still, it sure does seem like they have some unfinished business.

"We don't feel any pressure," said fourth-year junior Dylan Ennis, who was good enough to start ahead of Big East Sixth Man of the Year Josh Hart. "We have to play the next game the same way we played our first game against Lehigh.

"I'd be lying if I said we don't hear the things some people are saying. But we've all been playing with each other for another year. There's definitely a different vibe. But people are going to say what they're going to say. It has nothing to do with us preparing for what's ahead. That's what we believe. It's [about] us.

"Coach talked to us about it. If we need that for motivation, then what are we going to do for the next game?"

At least President Obama picked them to get to the title game against Kentucky.

"He's definitely got a vote," Ennis acknowledged, with a smile. "He's got us losing, though . . . Having him backing us doesn't help us on the court."

Duly noted. Time to play away.

"It keeps us humble, as always," said assistant coach Baker Dunleavy, referring to the doubters. "If that stuff bothers you, the only way to change it is to win games."

As in plural.