A year ago today, Villanova was ranked No. 9 in both the AP and USA TodayESPN Coaches polls. The Wildcats were 21-6 overall, 9-5 in the brutally tough Big East, coming off back-to-back road conference wins at Seton Hall and DePaul.
They werent quite at the top of the college basketball world, but they were close. Two years removed from a Final Four, seemingly on the way toward another deep NCAA tournament run.
Since then? Disaster.
Villanova is 11-22 in 33 games in the last 365 days, and a team that a year ago Monday was nationally ranked in the top 10 is now tied for 13th in the Big East and sputtering toward the end of the season for a second straight year.
Last year, Nova lost its last six games. This year, the Wildcats have lost six of their last seven. The circumstances are different last years team was a senior-laden group with great expectations, this years team is loaded with freshmen but the results are similar.
Theres no choice but for us to say were going to learn from this, were going to get better and there will be a point where this is something we draw upon, but right now theres no question its tough on our guys, Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
Were battling, were in games ... I just think were just going to learn from this. This is part of the process of an inexperienced team. Its obviously painful, but its what sports is all about.
With its 73-70 overtime loss to UConn Monday, Villanova fell to 11-16 this year, virtually clinching the programs first losing season since 2003 and first season without an NIT or NCAA invitation since the 1998 team went 12-17 under Steve Lappas.
Villanova has conference games remaining against Georgetown, Rutgers and Cincinnati combined record 51-28 and at least one game in the Big East tournament. This is a school that has never lost more than 19 games in a season in the programs 92-year history.
The Wildcats are playing without two starters, including all-conference guard Maalik Wayns, and the injuries have forced Wright to go deep on his very young bench. Freshmen played 112 minutes against Connecticut Monday, and at one point in the UConn game, four members of Villanovas prized five-man freshmen class were on the court at the same time.
Several of the freshmen have shown great promise notably forward JayVaughn Pinkston and point guard Ty Johnson, who combined for 27 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists against the Huskies. But the Wildcats youth doesnt make the losing any easier.
We always come in the locker room after the game and just look at each other in the eyes and we know we gave it up for each other, Johnson said. We have two starters not playing right now, but weve just got to keep coming to practice, learning and continue to get better.
One recurring problem for Nova both this year and last year has been squandering huge leads.
After blowing an 18-point lead against Connecticut, the Wildcats have lost three games in the span of 24 days in which they led by 18 or more points. They also blew a nine-point lead in the final 3:01 against Santa Clara, a 10-point lead over St. Louis and eight-point leads against South Florida and Cincinnati.
Last year, Nova blew a 10-point lead with less than three minutes left against Rutgers, a 16-point lead in the Big East tournament against South Florida and a 10-point second-half lead in the NCAA tourney vs. George Mason.
Youve got to just look at the positive situations in those tight games to show them, Wright said. For instance in the Notre Dame game (Saturday), you show them at the end of regulation, end-of-game situation ... Notre Dame had the ball, tried to run a play, couldnt, called timeout, couldnt get a shot off, we got a stop, we came down and scored.
Youve just got to do that one or two possessions more and not look at the results. The results hit you right now, so everybodys hurting, so its what can we learn from it.
Villanova has averaged 24.6 wins over the last seven years, reaching the NCAA tourney each year. The most losses in Nova history is 19, by the 1974 and 1993 teams.
The last time a Wright-coached team didnt reach the postseason was 1998, when Hofstra went 19-12 but didnt get an NIT invite. Last time he had a losing season was 1997, when Hofstra went 12-15.
I feel more for the players because being a coach youve been through this and you know this is part of the process to being successful, he said. Youve got to earn it. This group really hasnt ... our juniors havent been in a leadership position to learn this yet, our young guys havent even been here.
So were earning this, and youve got to go through these situations and youve got to take the heat and stay strong through it and make sure it pulls you together.
E-mail Reuben Frank at firstname.lastname@example.org