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Brooky: Villanova must take game to yet another level

Before Villanova beat Kansas, it was fair to wonder if the Wildcats could dial up their game to the level needed to beat the nation's elite. Sure, they had looked impressive in plowing past UNC-Asheville, Iowa, and Miami, but Kansas represented another kind of beast that would require an increase in intensity and focus.

Before Villanova beat Kansas, it was fair to wonder if the Wildcats could dial up their game to the level needed to beat the nation's elite. Sure, they had looked impressive in plowing past UNC-Asheville, Iowa, and Miami, but Kansas represented another kind of beast that would require an increase in intensity and focus.

It was like jumping from algebra to trigonometry. If you were good at the former, you should be able to conquer the latter, but it is going to take more effort.

Jay Wright believed his team could do it and hoped the players had learned from the past.

"I think we learned from the year before," Wright said. "We played Lafayette in a 1-vs.-16 game, and a lot of times you don't show up for teams like that, but we played great. We were dialed in on every play. I think we came out of that game and felt like, 'We got this. We're good.' It wasn't that we thought we were better than N.C. State, but I think we thought we were going to play that way again. And we didn't focus in enough on how hard it is to prepare to play that way again. I think we learned a lesson from that."

The lesson was reinforced when Villanova lost the championship game of the 2016 Big East tournament to Seton Hall. Yes, Villanova is tough and talented, but if the Wildcats show up with anything less than their 'A' game they can be beaten by good teams, and there is no shortage of them in the NCAA tournament.

"We didn't play Villanova basketball in that first half [against] Seton Hall," junior guard Josh Hart said. "We picked it up in the second half, but it was a little too late. That's the last game we didn't play Villanova basketball, and it is still kind of fresh in our mind because it was two or three weeks ago. And we all felt that heartbreak. We definitely learned from that game."

That has been evident to Wright.

"There was no celebration after the Asheville game," Wright said. "They knew we had work to do to get ready for Iowa. After Iowa, I didn't have to say anything to them. You could see, 'We're not making this mistake again.' "

The reward for that focus was a third straight blowout win, over Miami, and a brilliant defensive effort in a close win over Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the entire tournament. You could see against Kansas that Wright's players had zoned in on what needed to be done to beat the first team they played in the tournament with more talent than they have.

Defensively, the Wildcats rotated their looks and held senior forward Perry Ellis, the Jayhawks' leading scorer, to just four points. The 59 points scored by Kansas was also a season low.

It is clear that Villanova knows what level it must play to win the school's first national championship since 1985.

"You can't take any possessions off," Hart said. "Everyone is just doing everything as hard as they can, and you notice it when you're out there. You could be watching film on a team early in the season, and there might be a ball rolling that a player doesn't dive after. In the NCAA tournament, I'll bet you $100 that they would dive on the same ball because you never know what play could change everything around."

Villanova's two senior leaders - guard Ryan Arcidiacono and forward Daniel Ochefu - have definitely played each game of this tournament as if it could be their last. It's a message they have sent to their young teammates without saying a word.

"We're used to being intense, and then you add in it could be your last game, and it's natural to become more intense," Ochefu said. "We take pride in letting the younger guys know that, but we really haven't had to talk to them about it. Everybody has stepped it up to our level as well."

The numbers on Arcidiacono and Ochefu reveal how they have elevated their games during this magical run. In his five tournament games before this season, Arcidiacono had shot 32.5 percent overall (14 for 43) and 29.1 percent (7 for 24) from three-point range. In this tournament, he has connected on 62.5 percent of his shots (20 for 32) and 57.8 percent (11 for 19) of his three-point attempts.

Ochefu, meanwhile, has made 22 of 33 shots and is averaging 12.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He has also blocked seven shots. In his five previous tournament games, he made just 8 of 29 shots and averaged 5.2 points per game.

"We've just stuck to Villanova basketball and put our trust in Coach Wright and his staff," Arcidiacono said. "That has brought us to another level."

It has, in fact, brought Villanova to the Final Four in Houston. Now, according to Wright, the Wildcats' intensity and focus must be better than ever as Villanova prepares for its semifinal game Saturday night against Oklahoma.

"We have to keep that same focus with all that's going on . . . and it's hard," Wright said. "But we have to find a way to do that."

It's like going from trigonometry to calculus. We found out for sure against Kansas that Villanova is one of the best teams in college basketball this season. We are about to find out if it is the best.

bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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