That was the reasonable expectation, but it hasn't happened exactly that way for the Wildcats, who have been ranked in the top 10 all season. Perhaps they were the beneficiary of an overly generous early ranking, thanks to last season's success, but this group has scurried to live up to the billing.
Now, with three Big East games left on the schedule and the conference tournament and NCAA tournament looming, the question is whether the downturn, which once seemed inevitable eventually, will arrive quickly - or not at all.
"There's a side of me that's fighting the temptation to just ride it and enjoy it," coach Jay Wright said after Villanova beat South Florida on Senior Night at the Pavilion to run its record to 23-4. "I say that because I know these guys are going to be really good in the future, and whether they succeed or fail this time, it is going to help them."
Wright will not only fight that temptation, however. He will beat it, partly because that is what coaches do, and partly because, well, you never know.
"I've got to drive them and put expectations on it this year. This team has a chance," Wright said. "The young guys, it's all fun for them and they think they're going to be here forever. For them, it's like, 'Whatever.' I've got to drive them. It's a great challenge."
Helping out with the driving, of course, are seniors Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding, the two remaining starters from the Final Four team and the two guys for whom next season isn't a fallback position.
Reynolds and Redding held a team meeting before the Wednesday win over USF, a wakeup lecture following losses to Connecticut and Pitt. They encouraged Wright to show the film of Villanova's regional final win over Pitt last season. Not once, but twice.
"We wanted them to see the intensity and how together that team was," Reynolds said. "We're trying to duplicate that intensity and pride. We're not going to be the same team, but we can have that same intensity and pride."
Being the same team, with a 10-man regular rotation that includes five players in their first seasons on the court for Villanova, is asking a lot, probably too much. The freshmen and transfer sophomore Taylor King are getting there, although the most important of them, 6-foot-10 center Mouphtaou Yarou, lost nearly half the season to a hepatitus infection and is still struggling to catch up.
The uncertainty that comes with having a young team, and the need to blend in those players among the veterans, presents a difficult task, and Wright is still trying to determine the right blend.
"We're still tinkering a little bit, and that's my fault," Wright said. "I think we're starting to get a little feel and the substitution patterns are getting a little more consistent and not interrupting our rhythm as much. This is one of those teams that when we play our last game, we might be playing our best basketball."
The journey won't be easy. Villanova is at first-place Syracuse tomorrow night, with a record 35,000-plus fans in the Carrier Dome for what could be a preview of the Big East championship game. Then, the regular season ends with a road game in Cincinnati and a home finale against a very good West Virginia team looking for revenge.
The conference tournament is the following week with, hopefully, another three games, and then comes the single-elimination madness of the NCAA tournament. How long can it last? Until it doesn't.
"I've done this enough to know from experience that the only thing we can do is just go out there and let it all hang out and see what happens," Wright said.
It will be interesting, and perhaps moreso because this wasn't supposed to be The Season. It is the one they happen to be playing, however, so the Wildcats might as well see what it holds.
Contact columnist Bob Ford
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