Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
BUFFALO, N.Y.– This season was the most successful regular season in Villanova men’s basketball history–and for now, it’s still mostly meaningless.
Twenty-eight times over the last four months and change, Jay Wright’s squad walked off the court victorious, against just four losses. So this is a team that knows what it takes to win basketball games, and win them against quality competition.
What the Wildcats haven’t done lately is win when it really counts: in the NCAA Tournament.
In 2011, Villanova drew a 9-seed and was bounced by 8-seed George Mason in the Round of 64. The following year, a 13-19 regular season ensured that there wouldn’t be postseason games to be had. Last season, it was another 9-seed, and another first-game loss, this time to North Carolina.
Villanova hasn’t fared much better in the Big East tournament, where the program is just 2-4 over that time span, making it no further than the quarterfinals. This year, the Big East’s regular-season champions were bounced in the quarterfinals on a buzzer-beating shot by Seton Hall’s Sterling Gibbs.
“I think one of the things that happened in the Big East Tournament is I forgot how special this is to the kids because we’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Wright, who’s guided the program to a Final Four (in 2009) and three other Sweet 16s in his 13 years at the Main Line institution. “But it helped remind me that no matter how many times we’ve been here to the tournament, to these kids, they want to win games.
“I think it’s far more important than any of us know.”
Only one scholarship player on the roster has been there for all of it–senior James Bell. And he’s itching to finally walk off an NCAA Tournament court the way his teammates have done so many times at the Pavilion and Wells Fargo Center this year.
“It means a lot to me to get a win in the tournament,” said Bell, a 6-6 forward who’s leading the team in scoring (14.5 ppg) and rebounding (6.1 rpg). “Being my senior year, you never want to go out. Somebody has to lose the last game, but you never want to go out like we have in the past. But for us, if we play the way we’re supposed to play, win or lose, that’s good enough for me. We’ve just got to go out doing it the way we do.”
For the players on the team who haven’t been here quite as long as Bell, this year marks a steady improvement in postseason seeding and preparation.
Darrun Hilliard, a junior shooting guard, missed out on the tournament as a freshman. Last year, he scored 18 points in the loss to North Carolina, in which Villanova trailed by as many as 20 in the first half, eventually took the lead and then lost by seven points.
Though the result wasn’t what the Wildcats wanted, they took solace in the fact that they’d turned what could have been an embarrassing loss into a close-knit contest, and used it as fuel for this season.
“I think we learned most about each other, being down 20 against North Carolina, it was just fighting back and showing our resilience and our heart that we had in that game,” Hilliard said. “We just learned a lot, going into this year we just kept getting better and we just hope that that early exit doesn’t happen again.”
For the sophomore class, this game is a chance to take last year’s brief experience and extrapolate that over the course of an entire tournament.
Wright relies almost as heavily on his underclassmen as his junior and seniors, starting two sophomores (Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu), utilizing a third (Dylan Ennis) in the rotation as well putting two true freshmen (Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins) out on the court for key minutes as well.
“It’s great to be back for a second year just because we know what preparation is like the day before a game and the day of a game,” said Arcidiacono, who’s been the starting point guard since his first collegiate game. “As for the game, anything can happen. We were down 20 to North Carolina and came back in the second half, and we were fighting till the end.”
This year has Villanova in a much different position. After that 28-4 season, they were given the No. 2 seed in the East Regional, facing off against surprise Horizon League champions Wisconsin-Milwaukee (21-13) in the Round of 64.
Historically, the 2-seeds have dominated the 15-seeds since the tournament expanded to 64 teams back in 1985, compiling a 109-7 record in such games. Things have been a little different lately, with three 2/15 upsets in the last two years–Lehigh over Duke and Norfolk State over Missouri in 2012, and then Florida Gulf Coast’s win over Georgetown last year.
Recent history aside, Villanova knows what the expectations are for this first game.
“Most people expect us to win and win big,” Hilliard said. “That’s just what people think, and that’s all good, but we know what we’ve got to do, we know that we’ve got to take it a game at a time. We saw that against Seton Hall that we can’t talk anybody for granted, we’ve just got to come out and play every second like it’s our last.”
In three years, this is a team that’s learned how to win again. Now they just need to learn how to do it when it matters most.