PITTSBURGH– From 2010-15, Villanova made the NCAA Tournament five times.
2010 they were a 2-seed facing the 15-seed Robert Morris. The Colonials took them to overtime, but Villanova escaped by the skin of their teeth with a 73-70 overtime victory. Villanova wasn’t so lucky in the second round, losing to 10-seed Saint Mary’s 75-68.
In 2011, Villanova entered the tournament as a 9-seed and took a loss to 8-seed George Mason in the first round.
They didn’t even make the tournament in 2012 and after a massive roster overhaul in the offseason, Villanova was back in the tournament in 2013 coming in as a 9-seed once again and, once again, lost in the first round, this time to the 8-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels 78-71.
In 2014, they got back to being a 2-seed after having massive success in a newly re-aligned Big East. That’s not saying their success was because of the new league, games are still needed to be won, but this was one of the most successful seasons Villanova has ever had.
They lost in the second round to eventual National Champions UConn 77-65.
In 2015 Villanova went 32-2. They had two losses. The entire year. They were a 1-seed and it looked like nobody was going to stop their dominance.
They lost. In the second round. To 8-seed NC State by a final score of 71-68. At PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
This seemed like a breaking point. How many times is Jay Wright and Villanova not going to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament? How many upset losses will it take? There were questions circulating about Wright’s future, few people even called for his firing.
“The season is broken down into segments.” Wright said in the bowels of the PPG Paints Arena after their loss to NC State in 2015. “The preseason, the regular season, and the postseason tournaments. Last year, postseason tournaments, we didn’t do a good job at all. This year, Big East tournament, did a good job. Here, I always look at tournaments as matchups. I know we have to answer to the fact that we did not get to the second weekend again. We have to own that. But it’s not going to define us within our program. It’s going to define us outside of our program and we accept that.”
“We’re not afraid to fail. We failed here in this NCAA tournament. And we just got to accept it and we’ve got to own it and live with it. But it won’t define us.” Wright added that day.
Of course, it’s cruel to determine the outcome of a fluky tournament as a diagnosis of whether a season is a successful one or not. One cold game and you’re finished, regardless of record (Just ask undefeated Gonzaga last year, who suffered their first loss in the national title game to Baylor).
But that’s how some fans are, and when you’re at a high-level program like Villanova who plays in arguably the best college basketball conference in the nation, (The new Big East is just as good as the old one, save your boomer takes) sometimes fans think it’s going to be dictated by your success in the big dance. Same goes for Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA, etc. All of the blue bloods.
It would’ve been laughable to call Villanova a blue blood after they loss to NC State in the 2015 tournament.
But fast forward seven years, two National championships later, and now after making their third Sweet 16 in four tournaments (Always have to remember there wasn’t one in 2020), Villanova is firmly in blue blood territory.
Not that they weren’t already, but it’s fitting that today’s 71-61 Round of 32 victory against Ohio State happened in the same building where many questions about Wright and Villanova were being asked.
But did Wright change anything from the 2015 heartbreaker and countless other early exits?
“Actually, nothing, really. I get that, and you’re absolutely right.” Wright said. “It’s just part of the journey. You’ve got to accept what your journey is and you’ve got to learn from it. I think we played really good teams in the second round. I don’t think we ever lost a second round game where we didn’t show up to play. So if that was the case, we would have changed some things, but I thought our guys brought it.”
“I can give you a different story for each one but never something that we thought, okay, we gotta change what we’re doing. We just understand that’s the experience of playing in the NCAA Tournament. You can get tough match-ups, you can get a tough night and as long as you’re bringing great effort and great attitude every game you accept what the outcome is. We understand we have to answer to that. We get it.” He added.
During the Ohio State press conference, somebody asked Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann a variation of the question I asked Wright about the not making the second weekend, though this took on a more current tone.
“No, I appreciate the question but, no,” Holtmann said. “listen, it’s hard to win in this tournament. We’ve had four opportunities. We haven’t had — I’ve been here five years, and we have had four opportunities. We performed pretty well in this tournament in three of them. We just haven’t been able to push through to that second round. I believe in what we’re doing and I’m more than confident it’s going to happen.”
“It’s hard to win in this tournament. If you go back and look at the number of years I’ve been a head coach and the number of NCAA Tournament wins, it’s pretty good. We feel good about what we’re doing. We’ve obviously got to do some roster construction here, given some of what we’re losing, but we will deal with that when we get back.” Holtmann added.
It’s pretty fitting that the same city that Wright turned Villanova into a blue blood is the same city where the Wildcats will be taking on their Sweet 16 foe: San Antonio
It’s also fitting that the same program they beat to win that National Championship in the Alamo City is the same program they’ll be playing on Thursday: Michigan.
“I didn’t think about that.” Villanova guard Collin Gillespie said. “We’re just happy to be moving on. We’re taking it one day at a time. We’re just having a growth mindset. We want to go back this week, watch the film. We can get a lot better from it.”
“It’s cool it’s in San Antonio but great to be in the Sweet 16.” Villanova forward Jermaine Samuels said.
The win over Ohio State to propel them to the Sweet 16 was a standard Villanova victory. A lot of guys contributing, after all, four guys finished in double figures today. Gillespie had 20, Samuels had 17, Eric Dixon had 13 and perhaps the biggest shot of the game, a three-pointer to put Villanova up eight with 1:38 to go.
“To have the guts to take that shot.” Wright said. “He had other options that was part of that play. And Collin gave it to him and I think you heard him say this, if Collin gives it to them — I think they have the confidence if Collin is giving it to me that’s telling me go ahead and shoot it. He had other options. I give him a lot of credit, man, that’s guts. And players just have that and if you’re a player you’ve got to have guts and he’s got it.”
“I’ve shot thousands of threes in practice this year and by myself in the gym.” Dixon said. “My teammates expect me to make the shot when I shoot it, so I raised up and shot it.”
Caleb Daniels finished with 11 points to round out the double-digit scorers.
It looked like it would be another ho-hum Villanova wins by 10+ victory, and it turned out it was, but it wasn’t like that in the second half at all. Ohio State woke up and made this a competitive, two-point game at the 5:39 mark of the second half.
But after that, Ohio State only made one more shot in the final five minutes of the game.
“I think we just continued to do what we did the entire game.” Gillespie said. “They had a stretch where they were hitting shot after shot, and we just said attitude, stuck together and came together on the defensive end and told each other, let’s get this next stop, let’s get this next stop and tried to make the next play.”
That’s who Villanova is. Surgical, precise, even robotic at times.
Attitude. Attitude. Attitude. It’s everywhere in the Davis Center.
“When you’re playing great teams in big-time atmospheres like this, there is a lot of pressure there.” Wright said. “When that team makes the run if you haven’t been there before and know that you can withstand that, that this is what happens when you play great teams and it’s happened to you before, and you can fight through it, if you haven’t done it, it’s hard, you can panic. But all these guys have been there. I think the Big East Tournament provides for them.”
If they lose any of those “big-time atmosphere” games remaining in the NCAA Tournament, it certainly won’t be because of a lack of preparation.