Now it really is "just the next game."
All season long that’s been Villanova’s mantra. Whenever asked to look at a particularly tough stretch and project what it might mean down the road, invariably their response would be, "We’re just looking at the next game."
Well, Lafayette is the next game for the 32-2 Wildcats, winners of the Big East Tournament for the first time in 20 years and a consensus NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed. Thursday night in Pittsburgh they’ll take on the 20-12 Pioneer League champions, coached by former Wildcat, Fran O’Hanlon.
And before anyone starts looking beyond that — say to a Saturday matchup against the N.C State-LSU winner, a trip to the Eastern Regionals next weekend in Syracuse or perhaps even to Indianapolis and the Final Four — Jay Wright will make sure Lafayette is the only thing on his players’ minds.
"We’re gonna stick to the same thing," said guard Dylan Ennis. "One game at a time. Rankings don’t matter. Any team can play and they have a good team."
The Wildcats have actually seen virtually this same lineup of Leopards before, taking out Lafayette 75-59 in last season’s opener, where they led just 29-27 at the half. Not only that, but two of Villanova’s biggest scares this season came against Patriot League squads Lehigh and Bucknell back in November.
"They're a great team," said leading scorer Darrun Hilliard, who grew up not far from Lafayette in Bethlehem, PA. "It's going to be a tough matchup."
Especially if O’Hanlon, who’s in the Villanova Hall of Fame and once coached Nova’s Ryan Arcidiacono in the alumni game, can figure out a way to contain his frequent texting buddy’s team.
"He knows all of our guys," said Wright, whose sister and brother-in-law both attended Lafayette. "He follows every game and knows everything about us, inside and out. He's a great coach and we'll expect nothing but the best from him."
Still, it would asking too much for Lafayette to become the first team ever to beat a No. 1 seed, though there have been some close calls. One came in 2006, the only other time Nova was a No. 1. The Wildcats struggled most of that day before finally pulling away late from No. 16 Monmouth, 58-45.
Is there anything Wright can draw from that?
"Not really, because we had such a different style of play with that team," said Wright, whose 2006 club would make it to the Elite Eight, where it lost to eventual champ, Florida. "That team was small and didn’t have the inside game this team has. This team is more balanced. They’ve been here before."
Which, of course, doesn’t mean a thing now. Since getting beaten — and beaten up — at Georgetown, 78-58, back in mid-January, the Wildcats have won 15 straight. But they know better than to take anyone — even Lafayette — for granted.
"We have to be on our ‘A’ game, because anybody can beat us," said shot-blocking center Daniel Ochefu, one of six players averaging at least 9.2 points a game. "We hadn’t been jumped like that in a while, so after that Georgetown game we all re-committed ourselves to defending and rebounding better. We started off games with the mentality we had to throw the first punch and be the enforcer instead of taking the beating. If we don’t do that a night like Georgetown can happen.’’
If it doesn’t happen this week, already the Wildcats are making strides. Despite twice being a No. 2 seed they haven’t been to the Sweet Sixteen since their upstart 2009 team made it all the way to the Final Four. But Wright & Co. are confident things will be different this time.
"The tournament is all about the higher seeds handling pressure and the lower seeds not being intimidated," said Wright, whose team has already set a school records for win. "It’s a great challenge. You feel the pressure and the expectations. But you only worry about pressure if you don’t feel you have what it takes to accomplish the goal. And I feel like we have what it takes, so the pressure’s a good thing for us."
Once they start playing “the next game’’ we’ll find out soon enough.