Too many long and winding miles stand between New Year's Eve and the road to the Final Four in Indianapolis, so Villanova had to be satisfied with taking on a gritty and prestigious program from Indianapolis in its Big East opener Wednesday afternoon at the Pavilion.
When the sixth-ranked Wildcats completed their businesslike, 67-55 victory over Butler, there remained every reason to believe that this was just one in a series of special moments that coach Jay Wright's team will encounter between now and April 4, the night the NCAA semifinal games will be played.
Wright and his players know there are no Final Four guarantees, but you get the sense from watching and listening to them that they also know they have the potential to make some history. They made a little bit, in fact, with this defense-inspired victory over a 10-4 Butler team that already had claimed wins over North Carolina and Georgetown.
Villanova improved to 13-0, matching the 1937-38 Wildcats for the best start in school history. When you have to go back to Franklin Roosevelt's second term as president to find the last time a team did something that you did, it's worth mentioning.
"Anything we do to match the bests in this program means the world to me," Wright said. "We know there are a lot of great players and a lot of great teams, a lot of great coaches, and to match that means a lot to us."
Winning a dozen nonconference games to start the season is always a terrific accomplishment even if the early portion of the Wildcats' schedule did not include a team that is currently in the top 25. Winning the reconfigured Big East regular-season title for a second straight year is next on Villanova's agenda and the Wildcats showed against Butler why they are the overwhelming favorite to do so.
This Big East does not have the same sex appeal as the one that included Syracuse, Louisville, and UConn, but Butler, just a few seasons removed from consecutive appearances in the Final Four, is one of the newcomers that can get the juices flowing.
"Good Big East game, man," Wright said after his team pulled away in the second half by holding Butler to just eight field goals on 31 shots. "I say it every time we play Butler. If I didn't have to coach against them I'd be a fan of them. They're tough. They execute extremely well, and in the first half they were executing a little bit better than us, a little bit harder than us."
Wright did not mention that even as he thought Butler outplayed his team, the Bulldogs still trailed by four points at halftime. That's an indication that the Wildcats had superior talent.
"I thought the second half we were just really good defensively," Wright said. "It's a simple thing. You just go in at halftime and . . . you just tell them, 'This is what they're doing.' JayVaughn [Pinkston] and Arch [Ryan Arcidiacono] and Darrun Hilliard go out and they make sure everybody [adjusts]."
Those three are the leaders on a team that goes eight deep. Hilliard, who scored seven of his eight points at the start of the second half when Villanova pulled away, is a senior. So is Pinkston, the team's best player. Arcidiacono is a junior and the floor leader.
Chris Holtmann, the Butler interim coach, called Villanova "clearly one of the elite" teams in the country, and you won't find anyone willing to argue that point.
Better than Kentucky? No.
As good as Duke, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Louisville? Definitely.
Good enough to run the table in the reconfigured Big East? That's the most intriguing question of all.
It never happened in the old Big East, but if you look at Villanova's schedule, the only ranked teams left are No. 15 St. John's, which lost at Seton Hall on Wednesday, and No. 25 Georgetown. Villanova is more talented than both of them.
In all likelihood, Villanova will stumble somewhere along the way, but the ability to duplicate what St. Joseph's did a little more than a decade ago in the Atlantic Ten is there, especially if the Wildcats maintain their businesslike approach.
"Butler is one of the toughest teams in our league, but every team in our league is tough," Arcidiacono said. "It's not like we're going in there expecting to win big in a pretty game. It's going to be ugly. That's what today's game was about - tough, scrappy. It didn't look like pretty basketball, but that's just the way we want to play and make it like a Villanova basketball game."
The ride is just beginning for the unbeaten Wildcats. More special moments lie ahead.