Villanova at a loss in tournament

RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jay Wright talks with Darrun Hilliard in closing seconds vs. UConn.
RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Jay Wright talks with Darrun Hilliard in closing seconds vs. UConn.
Posted: March 25, 2014

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Villanova did not get a single vote in the Associated Press preseason poll. The Wildcats rose all the way to No. 3 in the same poll. The team's reality was obviously far north of the preseason prediction, but south of No. 3.

There are likely no NBA players on the roster. They were simply a group that played about as well as they could have against the schedule they had.

They won the Battle 4 Atlantis, dominated the Big 5 as it had never been dominated and won the first regular-season championship in the new Big East. There was also the 2014 reality that the Wildcats played three games against two transcendent players, one the national Player of the Year, the other the Player of the Year in the American Conference, and they were overwhelmed each time.

It was Doug McDermott and Creighton twice during the regular season, Shabazz Napier and Connecticut in a round-of-32 NCAA game late Saturday night and early Sunday morning at the First Niagara Center.

Villanova could not deal with Napier's rushes to the rim or shotmaking in the second half, nor were they able to open up a huge lead when Napier missed the final 12 minutes of the first half with foul trouble. In fact, the Wildcats lost ground over 16 brutal possessions - 10 consecutive misses (including a few easy layups), five turnovers and one lonely point.

When a rested Napier went off to start the second half, the six-point deficit felt like more. The Wildcats quickly retook the lead by making two of what would become 11 threes before Napier hit from deep, deeper and Niagara Falls. There was no coming back from that.

If you ignore the rankings and the seedings, the reality is that the better team won the game, 77-65.

Villanova seniors James Bell and Tony Chennault were part of much winning the last two seasons. Guards Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono return, along with JayVaughn Pinkston, Daniel Ochefu, a solid freshman class and more excellent recruits.

The foundation is solid. Hilliard and Arcidiacono made some big shots against UConn, but they had 10 of the Villanova's 16 turnovers and seemed rushed late trying to overcome the kind of deficit the Wildcats rarely faced this season and had to handle in a game that could have, and did, end their season.

And it was the ending Hilliard said that he will probably remember longer than all the success.

"Going out like this and the Big East Tournament, it's hard to get a hold of that," Hilliard said. "We had a great regular season, but it all counts at tournament time and we didn't deliver."

Beyond the brilliance of Napier and too many missed first-half layups, the other killer was 'Nova losing the points-off-turnovers stat, 20-4. The Wildcats' pressure, so effective most games, was neutralized by the speed of Napier and Ryan Boatright.

"It's hard to get the ball out of their hands," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We knew we didn't want to be down late."

Bottom line, it was a bad matchup, just like Creighton, but for different reasons. If you don't believe matchups matter, consider that Villanova and Saint Joseph's were 0-5 against UConn and Creighton. The Hawks lost in overtime to UConn and on a late game-winner from McDermott. The 'Cats lost the three games by a combined 61 points and beat the Hawks by 30.

The tournament is as cruel as it is exhilarating. In a forgiving world, Villanova's body of work would be enough. In this world, the exit before the Sweet 16 is the final memory.

"I feel like over the course of a season, that's how you should be evaluated, not just one game," Chennault said. "This tournament is totally different than the regular season. It's about who's playing hot at that particular moment."

That is reasonable, but Wright knows the 2014 reality.

"[The tournament] is the way we get judged," he said. "We all know that. It's fair. 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 . . . Amongst our team, we take pride in all the other things we did and we'll build on that."

I am not sure Villanova was the same after that buzzer-beater from Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament. It was a shocking end for a team that had won every close game. The Wildcats never seemed to recover their edge, their greatest attribute.

Perspective has become lost in today's sporting world, but any rational look at this Villanova team would conclude it overcame some talent deficiency with coaching, chemistry and toughness. The regular-season title, 10 road wins and 29-5 stay on the résumé forever. It might not be enough for some. It should be for most.


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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