'Nova needs to play better to beat UConn

Posted: March 22, 2014

BUFFALO - Jay Wright has said many times this season that his Villanova Wildcats are capable of two things. They are a good enough team to enjoy a deep run in the NCAA tournament. They are also inconsistent enough to lose anywhere along the way.

After watching the Wildcats snooze though a terrible first half against 15th-seeded Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Thursday night, finally pulling out a 73-53 win in Villanova's NCAA opener, the second assertion is definitely true. The first part of the equation - that the Wildcats could make a deep run - is really open to debate, however.

Mirroring its disastrous opener in the Big East tournament, Villanova came out flat to begin the game against the Horizon League tournament champions, missing 17 of their first 20 shots as they fell behind by five points with less than three minutes to play in the half.

Against a better team, and that's what the Wildcats will be facing in the rest of the tournament, the hole would have been much deeper and the start could have easily been fatal. The Panthers couldn't take advantage, though, and Villanova was able to regain a lead by halftime and eventually recovered to put the game away.

It was a win, but it wasn't a confidence-builder by any means. A team that earns a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament should be able to build momentum with its opener instead of doubt.

There is still time for the Wildcats to prove the first part of Wright's equation. They get a practice day on Friday and then a matchup with seventh-seeded Connecticut on Saturday. But that is all the time they have.

With the win over Milwaukee, Villanova did break one unfortunate NCAA skid - a three-game losing streak dating back to the Wildcats' second game of the 2010 tournament. Villanova is now looking to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since its Final Four run in 2009.

The Wildcats haven't had a chance to get that far since losing a second-round game to St. Mary's in that 2010 tournament. Villanova was also a No. 2 seed that year, but barely survived an overtime game in the opener against Robert Morris before falling, 75-68, to St. Mary's, a 10 seed.

If the recent disappointments were tough to take for the program and for Wright personally, who felt his recruiting didn't always fit the Villanova template of finding players comfortable with four years of college, a win on Saturday would help wipe those away.

Failing to do so, and once again as a high seed, would only deepen the questions, however. Many have felt the Wildcats were a little overvalued this season, getting into the national rankings based on wins from nearly four months ago and then riding the wave with help from a mostly forgiving Big East schedule.

Meanwhile, the rest of the schools ranked ahead of them, mostly from the power conferences, took turns beating up each other. By the final regular-season polls, Villanova was No. 3 in the nation, a lofty status even Wright would never have predicted, and one that looked overly generous when the Wildcats stumbled against a mediocre Seton Hall team in the conference tournament.

The NCAA tournament can heal all that, however. It's ironic that the return trip to the Sweet 16 as laid out by the tournament bracket would require the Wildcats to go through either UConn, their former longtime Big East rival, or St. Joseph's, an even more ancient and bitter opponent. As if Villanova needed more drama on its climb back to postseason success.

So, make no mistake, the game against UConn on Saturday is vital not just for the program, but for the near-term future of the new Big East. If the pollsters and the tournament committee decide the league is a hollow shell of its former self, with teams that can't cash their checks on the court, rankings and high seedings will become much more difficult to obtain.

The postseason started for Villanova on Thursday, and the Wildcats held serve, although somewhat shakily, against an inferior opponent to make sure it didn't end there, too. One more win and a spot among the Sweet 16, and the Wildcats won't have to make excuses for anything.

They've got to get that win first, though, and it has been a while coming.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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