Jay Wright says you can do what you like with your office pools filling out your brackets. He’s learned — both the hard way and also when everything clicked on Villanova’s way to the 2016 National championship — it rarely plays out as expected.
“That’s one thing we’ve learned over the years,” said Wright, whose 30-4 Wildcats, fresh from winning the Big East Tournament 76-66 in overtime over rugged Providence, will again be top seed in the East and face Radford Thursday night in Pittsburgh. “One year we went to the Final Four (2009) the bracket was UCLA , Duke and Pitt and it looked daunting. We beat them all and get to the Final Four. Then there was the year when Connecticut looked like they were down (2014) and we had them in the second game. You think got a team that’s struggling and they go on to win the national championship. So I don’t even look at that stuff anymore. You’re going to play great teams in every round, so you have to be ready.”
That’s the message he’s drummed into his players who repeat it like a mantra. Play “Villanova basketball.” Take it game by game. Focus more on yourselves than the opponent. Worry about defense and rebounding because your shot’s not always going to fall.
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Considering how well that formula’s worked not only throughout this season, but going back before all of his current players arrived on campus, why change now?
“Every team knows how to win,” said junior power forward Eric Paschall. “We know it’s the NCAA Tournament. At the same time we have to control what we can with our attitude, so just prepare like we do every other game.”
Of course, one loss doesn’t send you home unlike every other game. But that’s not Nova’s mindset.
“We’re definitely expecting every game to be a battle,” All-America guard Jalen Brunson, whom many consider the favorite for Player of the Year said. “The tournament has a lot of talented, well-coached teams who’ve been through a lot. So we just have to go out and stick to our core values and keep getting better at it.”
Assuming the Wildcats don’t become the first ever No. 1 seed to lose to a 16, their first test should come in the second round against the Virginia Tech-Alabama winner. This traditionally has been Nova’s stumbling block, falling to Wisconsin last year and in recent seasons to Saint Mary’s (2010) UConn (2014) and N.C. State (2015).
Va. Tech (21-11) will certainly be dangerous, having knocked off No. 1 Virginia in Charlottesville and also beaten Duke and North Carolina at home. Besides that, Hokies’ coach Buzz Peterson, knows Wright and his tendencies well from his years at Marquette.
The 19-15 Crimson Tide, on the other hand, led by former NBA standout Avery Johnson, came into the SEC Tournament on a five-game losing streak, before winning three in a row to squeeze into the 68-team field. Bama’s explosive freshman Collin Sexton, a potential NBA Lottery pick, could pose problems.
If they can get past that one — clearly a big IF considering their track record — the Wildcats might draw tenacious West Virginia or rugged Wichita State in the Sweet 16 in Boston. Bob Huggins’ 24-10 Mountaineers, who were ranked No. 2 behind only Nova in early January, are noted for pressing fullcourt the entire game and trying to wear down opponents. The Shockers, who completed their initial season as runners-up in the American Conference, are battle tested as well.
And for those who dare look ahead to the Elite Eight game a week from Sunday, where Purdue or Texas Tech might be waiting, Villanova’s recent tests against physical teams like Seton Hall and Providence where each possession was crucial might bode well.
At least they’re willing to take their chances.
“It was intense,” said freshman Omari Spellman, who downplayed the fact he’s never gone through the NCAA ringers “Definitely a gut check to play a tough, hard scrappy game like that and prove to ourselves we can win that kind of game. If we play as hard as we can we can live with the result. It’s worked for us so far.”
Which might mean nothing at this point. Or perhaps everything.