Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Jay Wright is used to Villanova being in the Top 25 during his 13 years at the Main Line institution. He’s had the Wildcats ranked as high as No. 2 in the country, with appearances inside the top 20 in six out of seven years between 2004-05 and 2010-11.
However, since that No. 19 ranking on Feb. 28, 2011, the Wildcats had not seen their name in the weekly poll. That 2011 season ended with six consecutive losses, setting the table for that 13-19 season the following year. Last season was certainly getting back on the right track, but though the Wildcats’ 20-14 record was good enough for an NCAA bid, it wasn’t good enough for anything more than a few scattered votes in the AP poll during the season.
What that all means is that when Villanova’s name came up as the No. 14 team in the country in Monday’s polls, for only Wright was it a familiar feeling. Only senior wing James Bell was on the team the last time it was ranked, and he played 9.0 minutes as a true freshman that year.
“It was fun when everybody told us about it, I can’t lie,” sophomore guard Dylan Ennis said. “But it’s not going to make us win any more games, it’s not going to put more points on the board for us, if anything it’s going to put a target on our backs, we’ve got to play harder now.”
This group of ‘Cats certainly earned this ranking, knocking off then-No. 2 Kansas and No. 23 Iowa in consecutive days to capture the Battle 4 Atlantis this past weekend, getting them off to their best starting since opening up the 2009-10 season 9-0.
“What’s nice is these guys are creating their own legacy,” Wright said. “You wish they would just be following in a legacy, you wish you had been in the top 20 all this time, but it’s all part of it, it’s all part of being a program, so I’m happy for this group of guys but they still have a lot of work to do, I think they understand that.”
From what the various Villanova players were saying before practice on Tuesday afternoon, a day before the 7-0 Wildcats are to take on the Penn Quakers (2-4) in their first Big 5 game of the year, they are not fazed by the ranking.
(Previewing Penn: For more on the matchup with the Quakers, click here)
And although the only game that could cause the Wildcats to overlook a Big 5 matchup is this Saturday, when they travel to Saint Joseph’s for the Holy War, point guard Ryan Arcidiacono made it clear that there was no such issues when he almost forgot who the follow-up opponent was.
“We know it’s so early in the year, every single day come out and practice hard, play hard and prepare for Penn and then…Saint Joe’s, I think? Honestly, I’m focused on every single day, so today I’m hoping to have a good practice and play for Penn, which is tomorrow.
“I didn’t even know we were ranked, they told me yesterday after a couple of hours, I didn’t even look for it or anything like that,” he added. “It’s going to have to stay the same, or we just wouldn’t be the same team.”
It’ll actually be three consecutive Big 5 games for Villanova, as they play La Salle the following Sunday. After that, a game against Rider and a nationally-televised battle at Syracuse are all that remain between the Wildcats and their Big East slate.
Though all the advanced metrics as well as the simpler ones have Villanova amongst the top teams in all of Division I basketball, there is something to be said about acting like the hunter instead of accepting the role as the hunted. The way the Wildcats have been playing–and winning–has been with high-intensity defense, sharing the ball well and playing aggressively, things that can all slack off if complacency hits.
This isn’t exactly a young team, with two seniors (James Bell, Tony Chennault) and two juniors (JayVaughn Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard) all major contributions, with Bell, Pinkston and Hilliard the three leading scorers on the squad. But they’re not exactly old either, considering two sophomores (Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu) are in the starting lineup, another (Ennis) comes off the bench and two freshmen (Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins) are both playing double-digit minutes as part of the rotation.
Have they proved they can win? Yes. But unlike the Villanova teams of Allen Ray and Kyle Lowry to Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher, this group has had to get used to winning without those same prior seniors there to show them how.
“We talked about the fact that we have to define ourselves from within our program and rankings can’t define us, in the same way when we’re bad we can’t let outside criticism define us,” Wright said. ”There’s nothing negative about being ranked, nothing. It’s just a new challenge.”