The ghosts of UCLA’s John Wooden, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp and Oklahoma State’s Hank Iba can rest easy now. They won’t be disturbed by any interloper from Philadelphia’s Main Line. And Mike Krzyzewski can stop looking over his shoulder waiting for Nova Nation to show up.
The Wildcats, just like everyone else who’s chased the dream of going back-to-back (except Coach K’s 1992 Duke Blue Devils and Billy Donovan’s 2007 Florida Gators), won’t be attending next weekend’s Madison Square Garden party at the East Regional. Jay Wright’s gang is done, falling victim to Wisconsin Saturday 65-62, exactly the kind of team everyone knew could pose problems for the defending champs.
Clearly under-seeded, the No. 8 Badgers’ size, poise, experience and ability to execute at both ends of the floor when the game was on the line proved the difference. And when Nigel Hayes drove past Big East co-Defensive Player of the Year Mikal Bridges to break a 62-62 tie with 11.4 seconds left, then Josh Hart was engulfed by two red shirts preventing him from getting the equalizer, Villanova found itself in an all-too familiar position.
Out in the second round.
With the notable exception of last year when Kris Jenkins buried the championship winner — ironically the final NCAA Tournament 3-pointer he would make in his career — this has been usually their fate. Since the 2009 Cats made their way to the Final Four, this was the fourth time Villanova has been upset on that first Saturday as either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
St. Mary’s (No. 10 seed in 2010 in Providence ), Connecticut (No. 7 seed in 2014 — who went on to win it all — also in Buffalo) and N.C. State (No. 8 seed in 2015 in Pittsburgh) also prematurely broke their hearts. Add in first round eliminations against George Mason in 2012 and North Carolina in 2013, and clearly getting to the Sweet 16 has usually gone sour.
This year, though, was supposed to be different, especially after the 31-3 Wildcats roared to the Big East title and became the first local team to be the No. 1 overall seed since Temple in 1988. But there were warning signs this might not end well when they stumbled out of the gate in their opener, before finally disposing of No. 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s 76-56 Thursday.
Still, few were prepared for what happened Saturday. While Wright lauded Wisconsin as the kind of team that presented matchup problems, the general assumption was Villanova would find a way.
After overcoming a ragged first half to seize a 57-50 lead on Donte DiVincenzo’s 3-pointer with just over five minutes remaining, it appeared the Cats had figured things out and survived a scare. Instead, Wisconsin, which has been to the Sweet 16 each of the last four seasons and twice to the Final Four, had all the answers.
Unlike most teams, the Badgers didn’t panic once they fell behind. They simply went back to their game, patiently running their offense deep into the shot block until finding an opening, grinding it out defensively to keep Hart and Jalen Brunson from getting to the basket.
Within minutes, Villanova’s lead disappeared, as the Wildcats managed only one Brunson basket the final five minutes. The team the folks on TV kept calling the best foul shooting team in America added three free throws — but also missed three — DiVincenzo coming up short from the stripe with a chance to put Nova up 63-62 with 36.5 seconds left.
That meant his team was still tied rather than behind when Hayes drove baseline for the reverse layup that marked the beginning of the end for the Wildcats. This time there would be no Jenkins’ heroics, no Hart or Brunson to save ‘Nova.
And, of course, no championship repeat, as Player of the Year finalist Hart, Jenkins and center Darryl Reynolds’ careers came to a screeching halt. They leave with a gaudy 129-17 record, 32-4 this year, having never lost two in row, four Big East regular season titles and, oh yeah, one National Championship.
Not a bad legacy to set for those who’ll return, which should include Phil Booth, last year’s sixth man who missed all but three games with a nagging leg injury. Joined by DiVincenzo, Bridges, Eric Paschall, high regarded big man Omari Spellman who was ruled ineligible this season and presumably Brunson — assuming he doesn’t decide to turn pro — Wright figures to have another juggernaut.
But that’s for later. For now they’re all hurting, all wondering how could it all go so wrong so soon.
It’s a pain that, for all they’ve accomplished, may never completely go away.