Wildcats shooting for April

Posted: March 18, 2014

EXPECTATIONS. They can work both ways.

Villanova didn't start the season with many. That's what happens when you're picked to finish fourth in a reconstructed Big East, and aren't ranked. So getting back to the NCAA Tournament and winning a game for the first time in 4 years probably seemed like a reasonable enough objective, at least to outsiders.

Then the Wildcats went 28-4, which was three more regular-season wins than they'd ever had, and got to No. 3 in the nation. And the perspective turned understandably different. Now they're supposed to do something in the Madness. Even losing to Seton Hall in the conference quarterfinals on Thursday - their only loss to a team not in the NCAA field - doesn't alter that.

The assumption is that more often than not, a 2-seed should still be hooping come the second week of the tourney. And regardless of whatever came before, these are the games that are going to linger the most.

Forget fair, or right. That's reality.

In 2008, the Wildcats lost five straight games in late January/early February, all by double digits. Then they got into the 65-team field as a 12-seed and ended up in the Sweet 16. So how many folks do you think ever bring up that losing streak?

Two years later, coming off a Final Four appearance, the Wildcats won 20 of their first 21. They would drop five of their last seven, but still got a 2-seed. They lost to 10th-seeded St. Mary's in the second round after nearly losing to 15-seed Robert Morris. And that 20-1 faded into an afterthought.

It's always about March.

Now, a group of Wildcats that to many has overachieved for the first time finds itself in a position where winning at least a couple of games becomes almost imperative. Otherwise, the 28-4 figures to lose much of its meaning. Not that this team feels the need to justify anything.

"It's always the same," coach Jay Wright said. "The regular season is what we are, what our program is. That's how we evaluate ourselves when it's over. Whether it's good or bad. And we can live with that.

"We don't evaluate our program like others might. And our [athletic director] and president don't evaluate the program that way either, which is nice when you think about it. It's the quality of how you did in the conference. We really talk about that a lot. And if we don't do well, we're upset-emphasized.

"Now we're in a six-game tournament. So let's go win this thing. This regular season, I'm telling you, will be legendary within our program. No matter what happens in the tournament, this is a memory. We don't live in the world everyone else does."

OK, the Big East isn't the same Big East now that the Louisvilles and Syracuses and Connecticuts of the food chain are playing elsewhere. And they did lose twice to Creighton by 49. And they haven't beaten a ranked team since November. If you've watched them grow, you appreciate their worthiness. Wright often uses the word unique to describe them. Georgetown coach John Thompson III lauded their unselfishness. The bottom line is they have a three-headed star in James Bell/JayVaughn Pinkston/Darrun Hilliard. And there's been times when Ryan Arcidiacono or freshman Josh Hart was that guy. Perhaps that's the beauty of what they have, even if some see that as a serious flaw.

"I've never been on a team with this kind of chemistry," said senior guard Tony Chennault, who spent his first two seasons at Wake Forest and is one of four players Wright brings in off the bench. "The closest thing is probably my senior year at Neumann [High]. This team is special. No one cares who gets the credit. Tahj [Bell] had zero points [in a 17-point win over Marquette on March 2] and he was one of the happiest guys in the locker room. That lets everybody on the team know it's not about points.

"Everybody just wants to play hard and play for each other. Good results come from that. Any time we get another opportunity to get on the court with one another is exciting."

One of these times is going to be their last, whether that means one more game or six. They've lost once in each of the last 4 months. Maybe they'll get the chance to lose in April as well.

From 1989 - the year after the last of Rollie Massimino's five Elite Eights - to 2004, Villanova played 10 NCAA games. It won three, all first-rounders. From 2005-10 the Wildcats went 12-6. They made it to the second week four times. Once, of course, they made it to the final week. But it might be a long time before they put together another such run. They've gone 0-for-their-last 3, the first time they've lost that many in a row in 33 dances going back to the first one.

Bell, Pinkston and Hilliard were on the team that tied a program record by losing 19 times 2 years ago. The one thing they haven't experienced is four-letter magic.

Last March in an opening 8-9 matchup, they fell behind North Carolina by 20 but came back to take the lead before losing by seven. Hilliard has pointed to that as providing the impetus for everything that has happened since then. All that's missing is a proper closing statement.

"You're like a parent, you know," said Wright, who can get emotional when talking about this team. "They make you so proud. They can make you mad, too, drive you nuts. But when they do the right things . . . they're such good kids. Not that other guys weren't. You love them all, and you're happy for them.

"This group is easy. You don't have to fight with them. I'm always trying to find ways to fire them up, but I really don't have to because the ownership comes from within. And that's always the best thing any coach can ask for."

So they've already exceeded certain barometers. They have the next week and beyond to work on the one monitored by bracketologists everywhere.


On Twitter: @mikekerndn

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