Villanova learns it's not who you play, but how you play

Shabazz Napier leads the Huskies in points, rebounds,and assists. RON CORTES / Staff
Shabazz Napier leads the Huskies in points, rebounds,and assists. RON CORTES / Staff
Posted: March 24, 2014

BUFFALO - The schools are in different leagues now, each seeking out a new beginning for their basketball programs, but the game they played in the third round of the NCAA tournament last night was as familiar as a deep scar from an old wound.

Villanova lost, 77-65, to Connecticut in the First Niagara Arena to end a season run that turned into something more than originally expected, but then ended up being less than hoped. There were the usual handshakes afterward; the usual sense of having lost to a rival too close to either embrace or ignore; and, for the Wildcats, the sense of leaving too soon again.

After getting off to lousy starts in its previous two games - a Big East conference loss to Seton Hall and the NCAA opener against Wisconsin-Milwaukee - Villanova finally took control of a game at the start on Saturday night against UConn.

Unfortunately, the Wildcats didn't keep control, even though the opportunity was certainly there for the taking. Villanova made six of its first 12 shots to hold a 19-9 lead midway through the opening half. Even better, UConn star guard Shabazz Napier picked up his second foul during that stretch and went to the bench.

UConn coach Kevin Ollie had the luxury of keeping Napier there, and out of further foul trouble, because Villanova suddenly went stone-cold on offense, and the Huskies were able to climb back into the game and hold a 25-24 lead at the half.

In the second half, Napier, who finished with 25 points, hit some big three-pointers to allow the Huskies to build a lead that would grow to more than 10 points midway through the half. The Wildcats didn't crumble, but time ran out before they could mount the comeback that would have kept their tournament alive.

"It's a tough way to end the season," coach Jay Wright said. "Napier was just awesome. That stretch where he made those three-pointers allowed them to get some separation, and in a game as close as that it was probably the biggest difference."

Whatever the outcome had been, the Wildcats could hardly claim the opponent snuck up on them. That might have been the case in the opener against lowly seeded Milwaukee, when Villanova came out flat, but the "UCONN" on the chests of the other guys on Saturday night was more than familiar.

"For a coach, when you play Milwaukee, you know how good they are," Wright said before the game. "But young kids who are 18 and 19 . . . don't realize it until they're 10 minutes into the game, no matter what you tell them. UConn, they know."

It gets back, as did many questions this week, to the old Big East and the days when conference affiliations were more than just handy resting places before sneaking off to grab the next lucrative opportunity.

Three of the four teams that survived until Saturday in Buffalo - Villanova, UConn, and Syracuse - were a large part of the old conference. Now Syracuse is in the ACC; UConn is in the American Athletic Conference; and Villanova is in the new, slimmed-down Big East. Those three leagues, which often have members of convenience rather than conviction, have had results just as mixed in the NCAA tournament.

With Villanova's loss, the Big East has only Creighton alive in the tournament from the four teams that were included. Syracuse is one of four ACC teams knocked out of the six that were included. UConn's win means the AAC has three of its four teams still in contention, the best percentage, heading into Sunday's games, of all the conferences that entered more than three schools.

The Wildcats have now gone five seasons without advancing as far as the Sweet 16. Failing to do so this season after earning a No. 2-seed in the East Regional is particularly painful, and it will add fuel to the very real question of whether the new Big East is capable of toughening a team for the NCAA tournament. Earning a two-seed after a full season of the old Big East usually meant something more.

The bottom line is that winning is euphoric and losing stinks at this time of year, and the joy isn't really greater or the pain easier to absorb depending on one's conference affiliation. As much as the coaches and athletic directors might hope otherwise, it doesn't appear to really matter, anyway.

Villanova had recent trouble advancing despite playing in a great conference. The Wildcats didn't do any better this time around despite playing in a lesser one. Strip it down and the old adage is still true. Take away the glitz and the TV contracts and reputations, and it's still about how you play, not who you play.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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