According to the schedule, Villanova opens the 2015-16 season Friday night at the Pavilion against Fairleigh Dickinson. Don’t believe it.
As far as anyone who follows the Wildcats is concerned, their season doesn’t begin until mid-March, specifically the date of what would be their second NCAA Tournament game. Yes, that’s the one that advances the winner to the Sweet 16, a bitter gap on Nova’s resume of late.
Anything prior to that is basically part of a 30 or more game “pre-season.” And they know it.
“We get judged on losing in the second round of the tournament,” admitted Jay Wright, who needed most of the summer to get over last year’s 71-68 gut wrenching loss to N.C, State, which wrecked the East’s top-seeded ‘Cats 33-3 season. “We know that, but everything we talk about is what we did consistently over the year and what we have to do this year to be that good of a team again.
“We don’t expect anyone else to look at it that way, though.”
That may be harsh, but after back-to-back second round pratfalls as a No. 1 or 2 seed — falling to eventual champion UConn in 2014 — it’s reality. As much as Nova accomplished last season —winning the Big East regular season and Tournament championships — all anyone remembers was N.C, State.
So now, with two starters returning — guard Ryan Arcidiacono and center Daniel Ochefu — along with valuable holdovers Josh Hart, Phil Booth and Kris Jenkins, plus freshman sensation Jalen Brunson, the Cats are set to begin the long road back.
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Wright can only hope the November/December/January/February portion of their schedule, goes as well as last year.
“It is a definitely challenge,” said Wright, who lost Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston to graduation, while Dylan Ennis transferred to Oregon. “There are a lot of pitfalls. We lost arguably our three best defensive players. We could be a really good team. It’s not just replacing the three great players we lost but it’s the younger guys stepping up.”
Sixth man Hart, second leading scorer (10.1) behind only Hilliard, figures to be best of that bunch, blending offensive skills with great athleticism. Jenkins, who provided a bench spark with his 3-point shooting, now may be called upon to do that from the start.
Booth, who shot 56% from the floor and drew comparisons to Randy Foye, does a little bit of everything. And 6-foot-8 Daryl Reynolds, who saw only limited duty as a freshman, should have more of an expanded role, giving Nova extra size against bigger teams.
But from all reports as skilled as they are, to go with the grit of Arcidiacono and shot-blocker Ochefu, the player everyone will be watching this season is Brunson. Son of former Temple star and NBA journeyman Rick Brunson, the kid from suburban Chicago should make his presence felt almost immediately.
Not that Wright, who sees him much like Arciadiacono, wants to put too much on his shoulders right away.
“He’s really unusual,” said Wright, who also will look for a contribution from 6-foot-7 red-shirt freshman Mikal Bridges. “He’s like a left-handed Arch. But he knows Villanova basketball. He’s followed it. He came in doing the things we do already, just like Arch did. That’s rare.”
As a veteran team last season Villanova stormed through the Big East, the Big Five and non-conference opponents VCU, Michigan and Syracuse, before running into the Wolfpack in the Tournament. While the pain from that one still lingers, the only way the Wildcats can gain a chance for redemption will be maintaining the same kind of level.
Of course, once the tournament gets underway, it’s anybody’s to grab. Tempting as that is, Wright doesn’t want his players thinking about it. He wants their minds on FDU, followed by Nebraska next Tuesday.
The message seems to be getting through.
“We know the expectations other people have for us,” said Hart, a strong defender and solid rebounder despite being just 6-foot-5. “But the only thing that matters is our expectations. We are not going to listen to all the outside chatter. The only thing that really matters at the end of the day is how we measure up to them.”
Then, following all the preliminaries, they’ll finally get to March Madness and the start of the season.