In April 2012, Jay Wright sat in his office and explained his view of how Villanova had fallen to 5-13 in the Big East that season. He talked about recruiting mistakes, decisions on style of play, about how development of some players had fallen short. He didn't leave himself out of any of it.
"We tried to play big and play more of a power game, without a lot of ball movement and spacing," Wright said, since the Wildcats had kept losing to teams in the NCAA tournament that had that kind of overpowering style.
When that plan crashed and burned, Villanova went back to looking for the kind of players Wright was used to winning with, and got the character guys he was looking for to do it. Here's the problem - it worked.
Villanova won this year with its guard play, with the ability to create mismatches, without usually paying for it at the other end. It all worked so well Villanova rose above the new Big East and earned a top NCAA seed . . . until the usual shots didn't fall against North Carolina State, and the mismatches at the defensive end proved to be glaring.
That is the way it goes in the NCAA tournament. I've seen this scenario so many times from so many teams, I've almost come to expect it. Early shots don't fall, the basket begins looking smaller, the anxiety increases, the opponent is playing free and easy. Villanova should compare notes with the 2000 Temple squad that broke its own heart with a loss to Seton Hall. Those Owls and these Wildcats have more in common than both beating Lafayette in the first round.
Was Villanova jittery early in Saturday's 71-68 loss? Maybe, but to my eye some early missed shots caused anxiety and increased pressure more than were the result of them. At the first TV timeout, I wrote down that Villanova would be ahead if the game were being judged but were down one on the scoreboard. Then North Carolina State scored on an easy dunk inside. Quickly, the judging points moved to N.C. State's side, too.
Make no mistake, we'll be revisiting all this next March. Losing Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston is huge. Both those guys were trying to will their team to a victory down the stretch. (Going back, it reminded me of the Wildcats' Alvin Williams pouring his heart, soul, and considerable ability into an NCAA second-round game against California in 1997, also falling short.) But with top national recruit Jalen Brunson, a guard, coming in and all the returners maturing another year, expect similar regular-season success in 2015-16.
If I had any real quibble with Jay Wright's decision-making, it's with the 14 minutes next to freshman Phil Booth's name. I'd have to go back and look at film to determine how those 14 minutes played out at the defensive end. Down the stretch Wright was basically substituting Booth's offense for Dylan Ennis' defense. I'd argue Booth's shooting ability was worth more than Ennis' defense at the very end but you go with what brung you.
At the end, Ennis was still on the court after a turnover at the other end. For those who say Ennis shouldn't have taken that wide-open, go-ahead three with 15 seconds left, I'd only say: wrong. You get that shot, you take it. Ennis had the guts to not hesitate.
My bigger quibble with Villanova is on the scheduling front. There's no question that during all the realignment craziness Wright saw the value in playing in the toughest league he could. That's why he was so outspoken about moving up in football. When that didn't happen, 'Nova ended up in the best-case scenario, a Big East full of committed basketball schools.
Can you get what you need from a Big East schedule? Certainly the Power 5 conferences dominate the Sweet 16, but Wichita State and Gonzaga are there too, plus Xavier from the Big East.
Nevertheless, if the question is whether the Big East prepares you well enough and the answer is not sure, then I'd suggest Villanova get rid of its guarantee games against the likes to NJIT and Delaware and throw itself on the mercy of the networks to produce great matchups. I'd make sure the word "at" is on the schedule another couple of times. Neutral-site tournaments are great, but there's nothing like the road to test a team.
How many times did Villanova leave Philadelphia for a true nonconference road game this season? If you guessed zero, you win the prize. At La Salle and at Penn, that was it. (OK, the Lehigh game was in Allentown, but still was a neutral site, technically a 'Nova home game, a chance for Hilliard to play in his home area.)
What we're really talking about is taking a two-for-one deal with Duke, something like that. One at Wells Fargo would offset any budget loss for giving away home games to go to Duke twice. Otherwise, those home games literally do nothing for your team. And if you're going to play kind of an underdog style, with more guards on the court, you need to understand what it feels like to be an underdog.
I imagine the schedule is set for next season, so this isn't a short-term answer. But after losing as a top-2 seed on the first weekend for the third time since 2010, Wright and 'Nova should attack this problem just as hard as it did 5-13.