WHEN IT ALL ended so ugly and suddenly for Villanova in Providence last March, Jay Wright looked back on December and January like a kid looks at an empty, candy-stained pillowcase a few days after Halloween.
What had once been so sweet, an attack on the senses really, ended as one big bellyache at the end. The Wildcats were 15-1 to start last season, too, their national ranking in single-digits.
We're not that good, Wright told anyone who would listen, even as the record ballooned to 20-1, even as the ranking rose to No. 2.
No one listened.
Not the media who gave the Wildcats that ranking. Not 'Nova nation.
Most dangerously, not his players. At least not enough of them.
And so came the indigestion that March day in Providence when St. Mary's gunned them down and ended their hopes for another Final Four run.
It was the first time Wright had lost to a team seeded below his in the NCAA Tournament. And it begged this question, after the No. 7 Wildcats' 88-74 victory over 18th-ranked Louisville last night at the Wells Fargo Center.
What's different this year?
"Last year we were just outscoring people at this point," Wright said. "We were playing games like we played in the first half tonight."
The box scores bear that out. The Wildcats scored 99 points against DePaul in an early-January game last year, scored 92 against Louisville in Freedom Hall 5 days later. Eighty-two against Georgetown, 81 against St. John's, 94 against Rutgers - they even scored 90 in a losing effort at Georgetown (103-90) after reaching 20-1 and that No. 2 national ranking.
Stops? Who needs stops?
The formula was poisonous, but the toxins did not take hold until mid-February. Then the big scores started landing on the other side of the ledger and 'Nova's numbers started dropping. A 20-1 record became 25-8. The Wildcats had lost five of their last nine in the regular season, then lost to Marquette in their first game of the Big East Tournament. The Wildcats squeaked past Robert Morris in overtime in their first-round NCAA game, then lost to St. Mary's. Scottie Reynolds, who had carried them during much of their ascent in the rankings, seemed gassed by the end.
Four Wildcats scored at least 15 points last night, including a career high of 18 from Mouphtaou Yarou, their 6-10 sophomore center. Antonio Pena added eight in 31 minutes. More significant, though, was what happened on the other end. Breaking Villanova's press almost at will, Louisville had made eight of 15 threes in the first half and trailed just 42-41 at the break.
Facing a more tenacious and responsible half-court set in the second half, Louisville made four of 10 threes, and found little else. After struggling in successive victories over two big teams, South Florida and Cincinnati, the Wildcats outrebounded Louisville, 41-25.
"I really liked what our senior leadership did," Wright said. "Just get these guys together and say, 'Look, let's play Villanova basketball in the second half. We've got to defend and rebound.' And they got them together and we were able to do that.
"We weren't able to do that at this point last year."
Corey Stokes is one of those seniors. He scored a team-high 23 points last night, only seven in the second half. He was out there for 35 minutes though, on a tender left hamstring that had his coach anxiously monitoring every loose ball, every scrum, every contested rebound. and there were a ton of them.
"I'm a Villanova basketball player," he said. "We play through stuff like that. So I wasn't thinking about it. I was just thinking about going out there and leading this team."
"I was thinking about it," Wright said. "I was watching it the whole game. I was thinking a lot about it."
Stokes is an early candidate for Big 5 Player of the Year not just for his numbers, but for his approach, his mentality. He lived through last year, was a significant piece of the Final Four run the year before. He gets, said his coach, the subtle difference between good players and a good team, which is really the subtle difference between the last two seasons.
"I don't think about last year," Stokes said. "This is a new year, new players, new team, different league. last year is last year. That's in the past. We can only focus on this year. We just have to go in, watch film tomorrow, and focus on the next game. That's how we want to approach it. We don't want to think about past that."
And Wright? Well, yeah, he thinks about last year. Talks about it, too.
"I don't belabor it, though," he said. "I don't hang it over their heads. I use it as a reference point. I don't threaten them with it or anything.
"But when there's comparisons - never in a game. but when I'm talking about our growth, I'll say, 'Look, these are things we couldn't do last year.' And today was a good example."
Good enough for the coach to see a different end? Well, it is only Jan. 13. Maryland, Connecticut and Syracuse are straight ahead, with Georgetown in the horizon.
"You know this league," Wright said. "It's crazy. Everyone's going to keep getting better. No one's going to relax. So we've got to keep getting better, too."
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