AT THIS time a year ago, for the second straight year, Villanova coach Jay Wright was still trying to explain how his basketball team had somehow lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a top-two seed.
It was something the Wildcats had to live with for an entire season. Or at least until they made it past the second round this March.
"It's funny," Wright said recently, during what's become an annual late-spring sit-down to look back at whatever just happened and maybe glance ahead as well. "Actually, I honestly felt worse for you (media) guys, that you had to keep asking (the same question). Because I could see that you felt worse for me. And we didn't like talking about it. But things don't work out for you all the time in life.
"The interview we did with the local writers after our practice before (this year's second-round) Iowa game, I have never in my life sensed a bunch of media people almost begging me, 'Please don't make me write this story.' It was one of the strangest things. Even though you have to be unbiased, I felt like every one of you was rooting for us so hard. I said to (sports information director Mike Sheridan), 'I can tell those guys are almost nervous that we could blow this. They're like dying.' "
It was also the day before the Iowa game when someone asked him if he was going to change anything. And his answer said it all: "If I did that now, how could I tell them that everything we'd done before was right? You have to stay with what you believe."
So they did, and a little more than two weeks later the Wildcats were hoisting a trophy in Houston. And it's been a completely different offseason. Soon, they'll be visiting the White House.
They can own that too, just as they owned the burden of those premature exits. But they will own this moment forever. The early departures are now forgotten.
"This is another lesson," Wright said. "What this year's team learned is that last year's team could have done this. They just didn't get the opportunity. They gave the same effort as this year's team. Things just broke right for us this time. It's a fine line. That's the way to keep some humility right now.
"We talked about it so much. We even talked about it before Iowa. I told them, 'If we don't (advance), it doesn't mean you're not great guys. It doesn't mean you're not great players, or not a great team. It just means you're not going to get the recognition.' And that's not what we play for . . . This isn't something we've done before. It's not something I'm comfortable with. I don't know if you ever get comfortable with it. It never was our goal. Now that we've won, you realize even more how many things have to happen for you to win it. One thing we learned is it can happen even if it's not your goal, as a part of the process. We always thought that. But we didn't really know it until it was over.
"We were playing our best basketball in that championship game (against North Carolina). We might not have been the best team, but by the last game we were the best in that tournament. We really were."
And they'll start next season as one of the top-ranked teams. Even though almost nobody repeats, and even if Josh Hart opts to enter to the NBA early, and even if the losses of Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu might have more impact inside their circle than anyone on the outside can accurately gauge.
Their universe has changed, tangibly and from a perspective standpoint. It's a nice dilemma to have. But how do you keep that from altering who you are? There are those who would suggest that when Villanova won the title in 1985, that's exactly what happened. And now, more than ever, everyone will be paying attention to see if that part of history repeats.
Nobody gets that more than the man in charge.
"If we'd lost to Iowa, we still would have believed in what we were doing," Wright said. "But it wouldn't have been proven."
His Wildcats got to the Final Four in 2009, the fourth time in a five-year span that they'd made it to at least the Sweet 16. Three years later, they tied a program record by losing 19 games. That's how fine the line can be.
"It's still just a basketball game," Wright said. "If all they take away from it is the ring, it's going to be harmful to them. I really worry about it. We've seen it happen to other people. We've had more team meetings at this time of the year than I can ever remember. And I think maybe one of them was about next year. We have a season to prepare for. I keep reminding them. It's hard for me as an adult. I know it's got to be hard for them. They have to understand the difference between what we accomplished and all these accolades. The kids coming in, they don't know how hard it was. They just see the parade. Hey, this is great. Enjoy it. But we still have work to do to be ready for what's next.
"The first time we had a meeting without Ryan and Daniel and the walk-ons, it wasn't normal. They were a voice for the other guys, even though three of them didn't play much. So not seeing their eyes looking back at you is strange.
"This is a completely different challenge. Even coming off the Final Four, it wasn't this magnitude. As a coach, I'm real excited to take that on. But how do you handle success? We have to figure that out. It's not going to be easy. We've spent so much time dealing with how to handle (the celebratory hangover)."
If nothing else, the first thing he will have to address at next season's opening press conference won't have anything to do with making it past the first week of the tourney. But maybe getting past such a conversation-dominant obstacle helped fuel this team - which had to replace three starters, including two who'd done so for four years - to such elevated heights.
So what pushes the ones coming back and the ones coming in, including big-time power-forward recruit Omari Spellman? Can sophomore guard Jalen Brunson, who came in as a big-timer himself, do for those around him everything that Arcidiacono did? Can Hart, if he returns, and Kris Jenkins, who emerged in the second half of the season, along with Darryl Reynolds provide the same kind of senior leadership as they just had? Can Phil Booth, who was the MVP of the final game coming off the bench, emerge as well? Can Mikal Bridges, who went from somewhat of an afterthought to a first-year guy who was getting as many or more minutes than Brunson by March, make the next jump?
And those are merely your starting points. October is still five months away. It's a fresh growth chart.
"We have a trip planned to Spain (this summer), and we've already talked as a staff that it's going to be really a lot of time spent just talking," Wright said. "Even if it's (while) sitting on a beach, what's next takes on a whole new meaning. They have to have their own identity. They're not national champs. If those five seniors came back, then we're defending national champs. This is a new team. But people will compete against them like they're national champs. So how do we attack that? That'll be as important as what kind of offense we're going to run, who plays what position or who starts. We know that. We have to make sure they know that. We've got the pieces, but man, a lot of things need to go right for us to be really good next year.
"Faith comes from believing in the unseen. When you see it work, it gives you a lot more confidence. I hope that's what they take from it. In sports, when everybody doubts you, that mentally is a lot more comfortable to all of us. Now everyone's saying how great they are. We didn't want our guys to listen when they said we weren't good enough.
"If Josh leaves, I think it's going to imprint in our guys kind of a willingness that everybody has to step up. Because they respect him so much, they'll realize it's a big loss. If he stays, then we have to find a way to say, 'Hey, this doesn't make it automatic that we're going to be that good again.' Even if you have the same guys back, each journey's unique. We have to find our hunger, and our humility. We've never had to do that from this position."
Ah, the view from the top. There are only about 350 programs that would swap situations. In 2010, right after the Wildcats also lost in the second round as a No. 2 seed, Wright talked at length about how at certain places he would be subjected to a lot more criticism, in large part because they'd built up enough credibility in the five preceding years. It was a notion that would be tested even more when they lost in the first round as a nine seed in 2011 and then didn't make the field in 2012. Regardless, here they are, having won 97 of their last 110 games. Who else has done that? Which means if they lose in the second round next March . . .
"It's not like I had (this run) figured out," Wright said with a knowing smile. "And we're not going to have it figured out in the beginning (of next season). We might be ugly early. Maybe we can get there again by the end. One thing we learned is not to panic. If we're not there in December, we can still do it. It's hard to play your best at the end. It all comes down to the team creating a chemistry. We had to go through a lot of little things with this team. So what do we need to develop to make us a great team next year? I don't have the answer for that yet. Hopefully, we'll be sitting here next spring saying we did a pretty good job of that.
"One thing we're trying to do is just keep our priorities in order. Can it overwhelm you? Hell, yeah. Sometimes you've got to say no . . . I think what happened actually created more patience for all of us. I don't know about the fans."
Just in case, he now has the ultimate cred card on his side. And that can change most everything.