VILLANOVA WON the Big East Tournament once, 20 years ago, an anniversary celebrated Saturday when the team was honored at halftime of the final regular-season game against St. John's at the Wells Fargo Center.
The Wildcats have been in the title game four other times, but not since 1997. The last time they won more than one game in New York was 2004, when they reached the semifinals as an 11 seed before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut.
Last March, as the top seed, they lost to Seton Hall in the quarters.
"There's been a lot of good Villanova teams that have not won," acknowledged coach Jay Wright, who yesterday was named Big East Coach of the Year. "It's been a challenge for us. I don't know why. We're always confident going up there. It's nothing that's uncomfortable. We play at the [Madison Square] Garden a lot. We played great at the Garden this year [against Illinois in December and St. John's in January]. I don't have any explanation. But we're going to bring it. It's not like we go up there and say, you know . . .
"For us, it's the next step. For me personally, I love it. It's my favorite tournament, it really is. It's a lot of fun. But it happens in such a short time frame, you don't really get to enjoy it. If you lose, you've got to move on and forget about it. Even if you win, you've got to forget about it and get ready for the NCAA Tournament."
The fourth-ranked Wildcats are 29-2, the best regular season in program history. At this point last year, they were ranked third at 28-3, which was then the best regular season in program history. But Seton Hall hit a final-play jumper in the quarterfinal for the shocking win, 64-63. Nine days later, the 'Cats lost in their second game of the NCAAs as a 2 seed to Connecticut, which won the national championship.
"That [Seton Hall game] probably helped us," said senior guard Darrun Hilliard, a first-team Big East selection. "It gave us that experience. Who can get a chance to be a [top] seed and get knocked out in the first round? You learn from it. We know what happened last year. Still, we've moved into this year.
"You can say it's [unfinished business]. I mean, we don't really want to have that revenge mindset. It could happen again. You don't get too high on [where we are]. It can go away real fast. I think we all know that. With all the accolades we're getting, it's really humbling. We know what comes with that, and how to take it now.
"It's pretty cool that we kind of kind of lived up to [the preseason expectations]. But we can get a lot better. That's the biggest thing. I have a feeling we haven't reached [our full potential] yet. That's a great thing."
Whatever happens, next week, they'll start playing maybe the only games that most people will really remember the longest.
"It's kind of crazy, isn't it?" Hilliard said, smiling. "You put all that work into the regular season, but that's the way college basketball is. We'll be 0-0. That's fine with us. We'll take it all in stride, enjoy it while we're doing it."
This time, the first obstacle is Marquette (13-18), which soundly beat Seton Hall (16-15), 78-56, last night. The Wildcats beat the Golden Eagles at the Pavlion on Feb. 4 by 18 and won in Milwaukee by 11 some two weeks later.
The only time the Wildcats were a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament was 2006, when they got to the Final Eight, before losing to eventual national champion Florida. But they're projected to be one of the four top seeds, provided they're lifting a trophy on Saturday night. If that's the case, they'll probably be placed in the West Regional in Los Angeles (March 26 and 28), should they make it to the second week for the first time since 2009. If they don't win the Big East tourney, there's every chance they could drop to a 2, depending upon what Wisconsin and Arizona do, which could put them in the East bracket behind Duke or Virginia. Those second-round games are in Syracuse (March 27 and 29).
Either way, because of the pod system, their first and you would hope second game will be in Pittsburgh next Thursday and Saturday.
"We kind of divide our season up," said junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono, who was yesterday named co-Player of the Year in the Big East, along with fellow point guard Kris Dunn from Providence. "There's the preseason, the Big 5 season, the Big East regular season. We try to take it one at a time. At that time, that moment is our biggest time of year. Each part is what's next. So that's most important.
"We're not afraid to lose. We've lost games we probably should have won. As long as we go down playing the way we can play. That's how Villanova values its program. We've experienced ups and downs. But we always have the belief that we'll find a way. And after the season we'll think about what we've accomplished. I mean, who thought we'd have a better record than last year? I was thinking maybe we'd have a better team, but maybe we'd lose a few more games here or there."
It didn't unfold that way. Now, the next-to-last season is finally upon them. They've obviously been here before. So maybe it's time to start orchestrating some different endings.