INDIANAPOLIS — The Wildcats have been carrying it around with them since Kris Jenkins’ three-pointer cemented his place in Villanova and college basketball history for all of eternity.
Through the offseason, and in each of the 15 games thus far, the 'Cats have lugged it around with them.
To Villanova, its fans, alumni and students, it’s the No. 1, proudly placed right next to the school’s name in the college basketball rankings, exactly where Jenkins and the 2015-16 ‘Cats left it nine months ago, on that historic night in Houston.
But to everyone else, it’s a giant target, peppered with each of Villanova’s opponents' best shot, its bullseye barely noticeable from all the abuse.
On Wednesday night, Butler fans at Hinkle Fieldhouse might as well have been salivating when the top-ranked ‘Cats took the floor.
Fans of the No. 18 Bulldogs started in early and often, and nobody was spared. For the entire 40 minutes of Wednesday night’s Big East contest, Butler fans poured it on Villanova’s players, the referees, and most of all, Jay Wright. And it didn’t go unnoticed.
As Wright addressed the media after the 66-58 loss (see Instant Replay), a slight grin grew on his face when comparing the Butler crowd to that of Villanova’s most recent opponent prior to Wednesday night, Creighton.
“[Creighton’s and Butler’s arenas] are tough, but there’s a great passion for basketball [at Butler],” Wright said. “Creighton is a little more euphoric. This place, this is a little more tactical in their cheering.”
“Tactical” is putting it lightly. After a disagreement with a call by one of the referees midway through the first half, Wright spun into a manic state of anger, having to be held back by players and coaches, earning a technical foul.
From that moment on, the Butler student section just 12 feet from the end of the Villanova bench chanted “Jay Wright sucks” at every opportunity throughout the rest of the game.
The student section’s effort to get into Wright’s head was hardly the highlight of Butler’s sellout crowd. The 'Cats entered on a 20-game winning streak, the longest in school history, accompanying Villanova’s No. 1 ranking. The energy inside Hinkle Fieldhouse made every Butler basket feel like it had the magnitude of Jenkins’ three-pointer in Houston. Whether Butler was chipping away at a six- or eight-point lead, tying the game or taking the lead, the reaction to every make was indicative of what was truly at stake — taking down No. 1.
“It was an unbelievable environment. It was the loudest I’ve ever heard Hinkle in my short time here,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “Our guys fed off that. We always do. Our crowd and the energy it brought, it was major. I think we only had eight assists — [the crowd] deserves at least one of them.”
The crowd took the noise to an even higher level in the final 1:50 when sure-handed Villanova committed two of its six turnovers on the night. Kris Jenkins attempted a cross-court pass that was intercepted and Josh Hart grabbed a rebound before having it swiped by Kamar Baldwin, who followed with an up-and-under layup for a six-point Butler lead with 57 seconds remaining.
“You have schools with great basketball tradition that expect to win. When they play at home, they really expect to win,” Wright said. “When you look at the results, they played really good team defense. I was very impressed. Wasn’t one of our best night’s defensively. They run some good stuff. They all share the ball, you can look at the balance. That broke down our defense a little bit."
As the clock hit zero, the crowd was so loud that it masked the sound of the buzzer. Students from each of Butler’s cheering sections stormed the court, meeting at halfcourt to jump up and down with the Bulldogs, emphatically celebrating the victory.
Afterward, Hart was asked whether being the defending national champions, the No. 1 team in the country and riding a 20-game winning streak felt like a giant target on the back of every Wildcat thus far throughout the season.
“No. Not really … we don’t really feel … um, no,” Hart said, trying to find a way to explain it best.
“I don’t think there’s any added motivation that we’re No. 1 and defending champions,” Hart added. “We knew before this year that we were going to get every team’s best shot.”
On Wednesday night, the Wildcats got the Bulldogs’ best shot on the court and from all angles of the crowd. But make no mistake of it, while Butler left its mark on the bullseye of that giant target on Villanova’s backs, it isn’t going anywhere. And the Wildcats should want it that way.