The wheels of March Madness fortune have finally begun to turn again for Villanova University. In the years following Nova’s overachieving, mythical and stunning victory over Patrick Ewing’s Hoyas in the 1985 NCAA Championship game, the Wildcats program has not been able to consistently become a force on the national college hoops landscape.
Since reaching the Final Four in 2009, Villanova hadn’t been able to get past the second round of the tournament until advancing to the Sweet 16 on Sunday with a 87-68 whupping of No. 7 Iowa at Barclays Center. As the final buzzer sounded, you could hear a collective exhale coming from their entire fan base.
Rollie Massimino and the crew immortalized the university with the greatest single-game performance in NCAA Tournament history. Returning to that perfect place has been an unattainable goal for coach Jay Wright since assuming the helm in 2001.
The program is probably as healthy and prosperous as it’s ever been, but Nova fans don’t like being the punchline of a cruel campus college basketball joke.
Villanova Student No. 1: Did you catch the Wildcats NCAA Tournament run?
Villanova Student No.2: Did you?
Villanova Student No. 1: Nah. I feel asleep on Friday night, I went out Saturday night and by Sunday they were back on campus.
Nova’s recent tournament exits had been so abrupt and inconceivable, it made you think Massimino had a deal with the devil that Wright was now paying back.
Truth is, Wright, the 2005 Naismith College Coach of the Year and a three-time Big East tourney champ works as hard at coaching as any sideline stalker in the country. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce in your favor, especially in March.
“You know how hard it is. You look at Michigan State,” Wright said in defense of his team’s past early exits. “It only takes one game (to be eliminated). If you really follow the tournament, you see it happens a lot."
“I really didn’t want (our upperclassmen) to go down as the winningest class in Villanova history (that) never got past the first weekend.”
It’s not like they didn’t have some powerhouse squads, but Nova had a Round of 32 loss to N.C. State as a No. 1 seed last March and fell to eventual champion UCONN as a No. 2-seed in 2014. It was becoming a habit.
After dominating the Big East this season, they were upset by Seton Hall in the final of the conference tournament in Madison Square Garden. Most college basketball fans assumed it was typical Nova preparing for an early NCAA Tournament exit.
Juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins and senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono have suffered through those tough losses and during the postgame press conference, were elated to finally get that monkey off their backs.
“I just think the biggest thing is, I’m honestly just done answering questions about getting past the first weekend,” said Arcidiacono, who scored 16 points against Iowa and has played the most games in school history (140). “I know it was always in the back of our senior minds and our team.”
Hart scored 19 points for the Wildcats, who will meet No.3 seed Miami in Thursday’s South Regional in Louisville. The team leaders came up big for Nova and will have to continue draining threes and shooting with high efficiency to keep advancing in the tournament. Odds, momentum, pressure, luck and destiny, are unpredictable elements that combine with performance, strategy and execution to dictate the results of a contest.
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Wright has survived the constant questions and criticisms over the past five years and although he seems to take it all in stride, he had to be overjoyed on Sunday.
Earlier in the week, Wright referred to “the elephant in the room,” but now he can focus on the task on the court. At 31-5 and having emphatically shed the burdensome albatross of being recognized as underachievers, Villanova is a major player in this 2016 March Madness.
Wright told The Daily News that whatever the outcome was on Sunday, Nova was going to roll with the punches and walk out of Barclays Center with their heads held high.
“The way we looked at it was we were either going to win this game and (the elephant) was going to go away , or we were going to lose this game and they were going to have to deal with it,” Wright said. That’s life. It’s like the Buffalo Bills. They never won a Super Bowl.”
Buffalo did get there four times, however, and Wright would probably love to be in Marv Levy’s shoes and make it to four straight NCAA Finals. In college that gets you a pro job or at least a statue on campus.
For now, Wright will settle for one championship game appearance this season, which would be his first as a head coach.