BUFFALO, N.Y.- Last year, after three disappointing first weekend losses in NCAA play, no one expected Villanova to cut down the nets in Houston. This year, it seems like everyone expects the Wildcats to repeat as national champions.
It is not an easy place to be on the night before top overall seed Villanova plays 16th-seed Mt. St. Mary’s the opening round of the tournament here at Key Bank Arena.
“There was a big monkey on our backs with the first weekend thing,” senior All America guard Josh Hart admitted. “It was kind of weird not having to answer that question that I answered the last three years. But, you know, it is what it is. You’re a No. 1 seed, you’re expected to win. Both are challenging. We just know we’ve got to be focused and ready to play.
“I think the hype will be a little bit more. You know, if we’re lucky enough to advance far into the tournament, it could become a distraction so we just got to focus on each other and playing basketball for 40 minutes. If we do that, we’ll take the outcome.”
The Cats are one of a handful of teams capable of winning six games. They are 31-3 and sit at the top of the AP poll. They have won four straight Big East regular season championships and two the last three Big East tournaments. They have coaching, talent and chemistry.
But repeating isn’t easy.
It has happened just once since the Wooden era when UCLA won seven consecutive championships between 1967 and 1973. The Bruins had two of the five best players in college basketball history– Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton– for six of those title runs. Florida did it in 2006 and 2007.
Unlike the NBA, where the finals are a best of seven, the best team doesn’t always win. The hot team usually does. One mistake could be your last.
But Villanova does have one quality that could set it apart from most elite teams. They are a program built around upperclassmen, players like Randy Foye, Scottie Reynolds, Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Darrell Hilliard and current seniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins who have all gotten better during their careers because of the individual development they experienced by remaining in the program for four years.
Villanova has never had a one and done. They only had one key player — sophomore point guard Kyle Lowry– declare for the NBA draft as an underclassmen since coach Jay Wright arrived on the Main Line in 2001. Lowry left in 2006 and has since become an NBA All Star and an Olympian with the Toronto Raptors.
“I hope our experience is really valuable in this,” he said. “Usually what gives you a chance to repeat is a lot of returning players, a lot of good returning players. When Florida repeated, the entire team came back to repeat. Our team didn’t come back to repeat and we lost two great seniors (Arcidiacono and Ochefu). But we do have a number of key quality players returning. Because of the one and done rule, if you’re going to lose a lot of those guys, you’re not going to have the quality players returning.”
The Wildcats, who only have one McDonald’s All America on their roster, won a national championship last year without a draft pick.
This year, there are five players in Wright’s thin seven man rotation — Hart, sophomore guard en Brunson, sophomore wing Mikal Bridges, red shirt freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo and Jenkins who have a shot to make an NBA roster.
Hart– a first team All America and Big East Player of the Year who is a candidate for national Player of the Year– is arguably the best two way player in school history. Brunson, who is the smartest point guard in the Wright era, has emerged as the second best player in the Big East. The slimmed down Jenkins ,made the biggest shot in the history of the NCAA Final Four. The active 6-7 Bridges could be a lottery pick if he stays through his junior year. And DiVincenzo, who made the game winning tip in against Virginia in a game earlier this year at Wells Fargo Arena, has made a huge impact with his athleticism.
The Cats had to go through a brutal path to the title last year, beating Iowa, Miami, Kansas, Oklahoma and Carolina.
This year’s journey could be more difficult with potential match ups against Wisconsin, Virginia and Duke in the East Region.
The Cats do not have overwhelming size, a limited rotation and must hope Jenkins heats up from the three the way he did last year to give them the perimeter threat they need. But all teams in this tournament are flawed. The Cats are playing with great confidence and have devoured opposing teams with their best defense since 2009, when they suffocated UCLA and Duke en route to a Final Four appearance.
No matter what happens, Villanova will show up.
And that gives the Cats a chance.