La Salle's Giannini a Villanova fan

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER La Salle coach John Giannini (left) embraces Villanova's Jay Wright at Coaches vs. Cancer Tourney Tip-Off Breakfast at the Palestra yesterday.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER La Salle coach John Giannini (left) embraces Villanova's Jay Wright at Coaches vs. Cancer Tourney Tip-Off Breakfast at the Palestra yesterday.
Posted: March 19, 2014

JOHN GIANNINI noticed the difference immediately. It was that striking.

His La Salle team, with almost everything back from an unexpected Sweet 16 run, went to Villanova on Dec. 15. The Explorers lost by 21. And he knew why.

"I think those guys had the best offseason in the country," Giannini reiterated yesterday at the annual Coaches vs. Cancer Tourney Tip-Off Breakfast at the Palestra. "I know they rave about their strength coach [second-year man John Shackleton]. I know they rave about their kids and their work ethic, and their leadership. Whatever they did, when you put all those things together, every single one of them is playing better basketball than they did 12 months ago. Not one, or some, but as a team.

"Villanova didn't win the game that night, or even that week. They won it in the 8 months before that. What they did behind closed doors I have no idea. I just know they got significantly better. I had players who were their equals. Our previous three games all went into overtime or the last play. This year they were two to three levels better. And it's not like we didn't work in the offseason."

The Wildcats (28-4) finished with three more regular-season wins than any team in program history. And despite getting upset by Seton Hall on a buzzer-beater in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament, they've been seeded second in the four-letter tourney, where they haven't won a game since 2010, when they were also a two. They'll open Thursday night in the East Regional against No. 15 Milwaukee (21-13), the Horizon League champion. The winner gets either Connecticut (26-8) or Saint Joseph's (24-9) on Saturday.

Giannini has nothing but admiration for the Wildcats' growth chart. "Kids have to want to do it on their own," he said. "They clearly did all the extra stuff. That's what makes them special.

"Those guys wanted to get better. They didn't need anyone to tell them that, or make them do it, I guarantee you. Great teams, great players, all have their own will, above and beyond what the coaches asked of them."

Jay Wright believes it all started last March, when the Wildcats lost their 8-9 matchup to North Carolina by seven. But not before they came all the way back from a 20-point, first-half hole to take the lead with 12 minutes remaining. And after falling behind again, this time by nine, to make it a one-point game down the stretch.

"This is a team of bright guys," Wright said. "I think they realized we had some good heart, character, toughness. We never quit, but I think they realized we also had to improve. It's always more effective when the players recognize it themselves rather than having the coaches try to convince them. So our spring and summer was about these guys really wanting to be coached and get better. For young guys on a lot of teams, that's unique. They'll do what they say out of respect, but it's not like they're asking for it. This group is.

"I honestly don't remember what I said afterward. I have heard in press conferences where Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard, James Bell, different guys, say that after the Carolina game we knew we were going to be good. That came from them. I think that's what it took. For most of them, except James, it was their first tournament. I think most of them got it. They felt proud of their effort, but maybe not the result. I think that had a bigger impact on them than regular-season wins."

That included three in South Philly over top-five opponents, which was the only reason they got back in the field after tying a program record by losing 19 times in 2011-12. But they also had some bad losses, like an 18-pointer at home to Columbia and a late giveaway at Seton Hall. They also got swept by Providence.

This season, they hadn't lost a close game or lost to an inferior opponent until last Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

"Of our 10 scholarship guys, there's not one who didn't fulfill our expectations," Wright said. "Now that never happens. Somebody will get hurt, or maybe has a down year or doesn't really feel comfortable in their role. Even on a good team. When you get a team where everyone embraces their role and everybody improves, you get a special year."

This is the fourth time in 9 years that Villanova is a top-three seed. In 2006 the Wildcats went to the Elite Eight as a 1. In '09 they got to the Final Four as a 3. The following March they lost their second game as a 2, after getting extended to OT in their opener. Every group has its own DNA, and story to tell.

"All these guys know is hard work and humility, because they've had to earn everything," Wright said. "James was the only guy who was here in 2011, when all the hype around the program was still out of control. We were still in the Top 10 [at midseason]. When the next group came in, they had no idea about the Final Four. Then they went through a rough year. They went through it together. There's a lot to be said for that.

"I think it's a testament to this group, how they handled the 13-19 season. They all learned from it. Then they taught that to Arcidiacono and [Daniel] Ochefu when they came in. And now all of them are teaching the [three freshmen]. This [28-4] just doesn't happen. Hell no. There has to be so many good qualities that go into it."

The only thing left is to see how long they can make it last. It wasn't that long ago that the Wildcats got to the second week four times in 5 years. Now they're riding a three-game NCAA losing streak, another program first.

"You have to have a certain level of talent, and a certain level of mental toughness," Wright said. "That's what this team has. We only have one 4-year senior, but we've got a lot of guys who've played a lot."

All three of his previous highly-seeded teams struggled in their opener, even though two of them were at the Wells Fargo Center. He's not going to bring that up in the pregame meal.

"We leave it go unless we have guys on that team who were a part of it," Wright explained. "Then you have to address it. If not, you can't put it on these guys. And last year we played pretty well in the first round. So you have to be careful with that."

They're a 17-point favorite. Only Virginia and Arizona, both ones, are favored by more. Still, the Wildcats seem to be about as under-the-radar as a 2 can be. Blame Seton Hall. Or Creighton. But what came before doesn't matter anymore. Now they have to be even better.

"That's a good thing," Wright acknowledged. "I would rather win the Big East, absolutely. But we all get so much attention now. The only thing that can happen negative is you get too much. You can't get too little, because we're so exposed. But we love [the low profile]. It doesn't bother us at all . . .

"The most important thing is the time you spend together as a team, doing the things that are going to help you win."

The kind of stuff this group has been doing all along.

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