Villanova deals with postseason letdown

Villanova head coach Jay Wright talks with Darrun Hilliard in the closing seconds of Saturday night's loss to Connecticut. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Villanova head coach Jay Wright talks with Darrun Hilliard in the closing seconds of Saturday night's loss to Connecticut. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 25, 2014

BUFFALO - Jay Wright has been coaching college basketball long enough to know that a team isn't judged as much by what it does during the regular season as by how it plays - and how far it advances - in the NCAA tournament.

So, despite a 29-5 record that exceeded the limited expectations placed on Villanova in the preseason, the lingering memory of the 2013-14 Wildcats in the short term will be their inability to make it to the second weekend of the Big Dance.

Seeded second in the East Regional, Villanova was soundly outplayed in the second half Saturday night by Shabazz Napier and seventh-seeded Connecticut, and dropped a 77-65 decision. It marked the second time in five seasons that the Cats had gone out in the round of 32 as a second seed.

The Wildcats broke the school record for most wins in the regular season. They went 16-2 and won the regular-season championship of the Big East, impressive even without the power teams that left the conference. They were ranked in the Associated Press poll for the last 16 weeks, 14 of them in the top 10, with their highest rating No. 3.

In the end, however, the immediate feeling was one of emptiness. The Huskies (28-8), not the Wildcats, will make their return to New York's Madison Square Garden for the Sweet 16 and to reminisce about past Big East championships.

"It's the way we get judged, we all know that," Wright said in the wee hours of Sunday in a hallway at the First Niagara Center. "It's the way college basketball is. You get judged by what you do in tournaments - whether you win a conference tournament, whether you advance in the NCAA tournament.

"So we are what we are. We are what our record is. But among our team, we take pride in the other things we did, and we'll build on that."

With only two scholarship seniors, the Wildcats figured to do well reaching 20 victories and an NCAA berth with no one knowing how the Big East would shake out minus departed members Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and UConn. But their only regular-season losses were to ranked opponents - the Orange and Creighton, which defeated 'Nova twice.

However, a shoddy first half that led to a buzzer-beating loss to No. 7 seed Seton Hall in their first Big East tournament game was a cause for concern entering the NCAAs. The Wildcats' three-point shooting was off against the Pirates and in the NCAA second-round win over Milwaukee, in which they hit a combined 8 of 42.

Against the Huskies, they knocked down 11 threes - the 16th time this season they connected on 10 or more - but the Cats faltered in other areas Saturday night.

They turned the ball over 16 times, four above their average, and were outscored by 20-4 in points off turnovers. Their bench, a strength all season, did not score a single point until the final minute of the game. After halftime, the Huskies shot 56.5 percent and scored 52 points, the most allowed in a second half by Villanova all season.

And 'Nova had to deal with the magical Napier, who sat out the final 12 minutes of the first half in foul trouble and had to shake off a shin injury late in the second. Napier had 25 points on 13 shots, and scored 21 in the second half. The rest of the Huskies were similarly inspired, and the Wildcats were unable to match their intensity at both ends and on the boards.

It was an atypical performance for Villanova, which displayed hustle and grit and togetherness all season. Wright repeatedly said his group was "just easy to coach, fun to be around. They play unselfishly. It's been a thrill."

One day before the UConn game, Wright talked about how much he wanted his players to experience the thrill of the Sweet 16.

"You feel like the kids deserve it, you want to see them experience it," he said. "But it doesn't happen that way all the time."

In the 2014 NCAA tournament, it didn't for the Wildcats.


jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq

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