Villanova, for better or worse, is what is known in the college basketball world as a "four-year program." The Wildcats recruit players who, with few exceptions, are going to be around that long. Jay Wright wants to teach a system and impart a culture, and that doesn't happen in the space of a single season or even two.
If that philosophy can be a drawback in terms of attracting the most elite talent from the high school ranks, it can also be an advantage sometimes.
March is one of those sometimes.
As far back as Selection Sunday, Wright began to predict that this NCAA tournament, which continues Thursday evening for the Wildcats in the Sweet 16 against Miami, might belong to a team that is older and more experienced. This season has been defined, in the absence of a truly dominating team, by an overall parity among the top teams. With just 15 games left to be played, the ultimate survivor could gain its edge from experience.
"We're a pretty mature group, and very good at handling excitement and expectations," Wright said. "The thing about the NCAA tournament is that the first time you go there, it's so big that it can be overwhelming. You learn how to handle that."
Villanova brings a starting lineup of two seniors, two juniors and a freshman, a lineup that has played a total of 15 post-high school seasons. That's ancient compared to some recent top teams. Last year, Duke won the national championship with a lineup of three freshmen, a sophomore and a senior.
A year ago, 13 freshmen became "one-and-done" players taken in the first round of the NBA draft. Eight of them had played at least as far as the Sweet 16. This season, about the same number of freshmen are expected to be drafted in the first round, but only two or three are still alive in the tournament. (Brendan Ingram of Duke and Diamond Stone of Maryland, for sure. Possibly Cheick Diallo of Kansas, but he isn't even in the Jayhawks' regular rotation.)
This has been a season and a tournament in which experience has mattered.
"I think we're an example of that," Wright said. "We seen a lot of older teams do well. Iowa was an experienced team. That Oregon-St. Joe's game was a 1 versus 8, but St. Joe's is a veteran team and Oregon is young. St. Joe's could have won that game."
The new draft eligibility rule that passed in January as a result of collaboration between the NBA, NCAA and the National Association of Basketball Coaches could keep some players in school longer in the future. Starting with the coming draft, players who declare their eligibility can opt to return to college after the draft combine in late May. Previously, players had to rescind their eligibility by the end of April, before NBA teams could give borderline first-rounders a solid thumbs-up or thumbs-down. The intent of the rule is to encourage the players to come out at the right time, but a side benefit could be a more experienced college field.
That probably won't affect Villanova very much. In Wright's 15 seasons, the Wildcats have had only two players who entered the draft ahead of their class (Kyle Lowry, sophomore, 2006, and Maalik Wayns, junior, 2011) and only two who were taken in the first round (Randy Foye, 2006, and Lowry). The Wildcats will mostly remain a "four-year program," and that's been a very solid philosophy. Heading into the Sweet 16 matchup, however, the experience advantage isn't theirs for a change.
"When you get to the Sweet 16, you're not getting any easy ones, but these guys are tough and they are old," Wright said of Miami. "It's kind of a bad break for us that we're playing one of the oldest teams in the tournament, because those are the guys who do well in these situations. But I think we'll do well also."
The Hurricanes start three seniors and two juniors, and three of the starters were transfers who sat out a redshirt season and have even more experience playing under coach Jim Larranaga. The starting backcourt of Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan are both redshirt seniors, and they keep Miami, the third seed in the South Regional, settled at both ends of the floor.
"Jim's a very good coach and when he gets guys in his system for several years like that, they're really effective," Wright said. "They're intelligent and a connected defensive team. Usually, when you play a team that has young guys, they can be a little disconnected defensively, but Miami has so many veterans their defense is amazing."
These are teams that have pretty much seen it all before, but only Miami's players have seen a Sweet 16 before. The Hurricanes advanced to this round in 2013 before losing.
Speaking of experience, Villanova would like to give Miami the same experience this season.