Villanova's bid to repeat as national champs ends after being 'stunned' by Wisconsin

Villanova's bid to repeat as national champs ends after being 'stunned' by Wisconsin

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- They were up seven with five minutes to go and in those nightmarish final five minutes, everything that could go wrong went wrong.

The Villanova Wildcats committed bad turnovers. They missed shots. They didn't box out and allowed follow shots. They committed fouls.

Against some teams, against most teams, Villanova could have gotten away with the mistakes and moved on. Against a tough, veteran, talented Wisconsin team, it meant the end of Villanova's reign as national champions.

"They made a lot of plays down the stretch and we give them all the credit," Kris Jenkins said. "I don't think we did anything wrong, they just did everything right."

Wisconsin outscored Villanova, 15-5, over those final five minutes, turning a seven-point deficit into a 65-62 win and for the fourth straight year a berth in the Sweet 16 (see Instant Replay).

For Villanova, it was a shocking end to another phenomenal season.

"This one is more stunning to these guys and crushing," coach Jay Wright said. "Me included. Till the last second of that game, I thought we had a chance to win the game so I wasn't thinking about this or dealing with this. I don't think any of this were prepared for this. I think all of us are still stunned."

Villanova won 32 games this year and 129 games over the past four years, the 10th-most ever by a NCAA Division I program in a four-year span.

The Wildcats won the Big East regular-season title and the Big East Tournament. They weren't just ranked No. 1, they earned the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Then they drew a team that was just as talented, just as experienced and much deeper in the second round of the East Regional.

Wisconsin, ranked as high as seventh this year, is a 27-win team out of the Big Ten and really shouldn't have been an eight seed. But you play who you play, and in those last five minutes, Villanova simply was not the best team on the court.

"They're a heck of at team, they're really experienced, four starters who are seniors, Final Four experience," Villanova freshman Donte DiVincenzo said.

"Great teams make great plays. We executed, they went on a little run, and there were some little things we slipped up on. But credit to them. They're an amazing team and they executed well at the end.

"We slipped up. They never slipped up."

Villanova trailed by eight early but battled back and used a 24-13 run keyed by Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and DiVincenzo to build that 57-50 lead.

Then disaster.

Nigel Hayes made a layup. Five-point game.

Hayes blocked Hart's shot. Brunson missed a three. Bronson Koenig made a three. Two-point game.

Hart made one of two foul shots and Ethan Happ made a layup.

Just like that Villanova's cushion was gone.

The game was tied at 62 when Hayes faked out Mikal Bridges and drove for a reverse layup with 11 seconds left.

Hart -- who else? -- drove the lane looking for the equalizer, but he was stripped by Vitto Brown. Brown got fouled, made one of two and that was it.

"You're going to make mistakes, and we've been very good this year responding to mistakes," Wright said.

"Down the stretch, we tried to find a way to respond to each bad play and we just didn't find a way to respond at the end. We didn't have that final response that Wisconsin did."

It's hard to imagine the No. 1 team in the country being unable to protect a seven-point lead in the final five minutes of a game.

But this team just wasn't quite as deep, talented or explosive as last year's national champs. That team knew how to finish an opponent off when it had them down.

"Definitely, any type of lead like that you should be able to finish it off," said Hart, who finished his brilliant career with 19 points.

"But you have to give them credit. They played well. They made some incredible shots at the end. It's an experienced team that's been to the Final 4. Just have to give them credit."

Villanova has now lost as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed four times to opponents seeded seventh or lower in the last eight years.

The Wildcats, who got a combined eight points from three of their starters, made just one basket in the final 5 1/2 minutes.

"This is what NCAA Tournament games come down to," Wright said. "Down the stretch, they made two great offensive plays, two great defensive stops, and that was the difference in the game.

"From 57-50 the game really got shortened. They had a couple of possessions where they got an offensive rebound. They had another possession where the shot clock went down to zero, and then there was a foul called at the shot clock, so they got a whole other possession. So there weren't that many possessions.

"I think that's what the game came down to. We had a couple empty possessions at the end, and they had two great possessions. That's what close games come down to.

"We've been on the other end of that a lot. And when another team steps up and makes those plays and two great players like Koenig and Hayes make those plays, you got to give them credit."

Villanova made just five of 16 threes, just one of five in the second half. They missed six foul shots, including three in the final 3 1/2 minutes.

DiVincenzo scored 15 off the bench and Brunson scored 11, all in the second half. But Bridges was scoreless and Jenkins shot 2 for 9 for just six points with no threes.

"I hate to lose so I take every loss tough," Hart said. "This one's the same. It sucks, but we've had a great four years here, something we can definitely hang our hats on.

"We're going to go off and we'll be successful and the guys who are coming back, now they know this feeling. I just told them, make sure you don't feel this feeling again."

With depth coming, 2018 looks bright for Villanova basketball

With depth coming, 2018 looks bright for Villanova basketball

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- If you're still bummed about the way Villanova's season ended, there's some hope for you.

Just think about next year.

"I’m trying to do it now so I don’t have to watch these games," Jay Wright said.

"I really am. I sit there with my pad and look at our roster and write out plays so I can’t watch the games that are going on right now.

"It’s kind of cathartic to think about next year."

Because Villanova, the winningest team in NCAA Division I over the last four years with 129 wins, should be very good again in 2018.

Yes, the Wildcats will lose Big East Player of the Year Josh Hart, 2016 championship game hero Kris Jenkins and post presence Darryl Reynolds.

But if Jalen Brunson returns to Villanova for his junior year, the Wildcats will return four of their top six scorers -- Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall. Brunson could very well be the Big East preseason Player of the Year.

They'll also potentially add as many as six new key pieces -- highly regarded post presence Omari Spellman, ruled ineligible by the NCAA before this season; sharp-shooting guard Phil Booth, who scored 20 points in the title game win over North Carolina but missed all but three games this year with knee pain; big man Tim Delaney, who missed the last two years with hip injuries and remains a question mark; plus incoming freshmen Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels.

Will the 2017-18 Wildcats have the potential to make a deep run? Maybe get to a Final Four?

"Absolutely," Jenkins said. "They're going to be real good. I’m excited to see how things unfold for them.

"You’ve got guys coming in, new guys stepping into different roles. They’re going to be fun to watch and they’re definitely going to do some special things and we’ll be cheering for them, for sure."

How does it all break down?

Assuming Brunson comes back, the likely starting five will be Brunson in the backcourt with Booth, with DiVincenzo, Bridges and Spellman in the frontcourt, and DiVincenzo obviously able to play the 1 or the 2 as well.

That leaves Paschall, who improved steadily as the year went on, coming off the bench in what will be the Wildcats' deepest frontcourt in years. And don't forget 6-10 Dylan Painter, who made great strides as the year went on.

Then factor in possible immediate contributions from the incoming freshmen -- Samuels, a 6-6 wing who should get immediate playing time, along with 6-8 Cosby-Roundtree and 6-2 combo guard Gillespie.

After going just seven deep this past year, Wright will have tremendous depth at his disposal next season, along with three guys who averaged at least 20 minutes per game on a national championship team.

There will likely be a redshirt or two, but even so, Wright should be able to go nine deep this coming season.

No wonder then that college basketball metrics site has already ranked Villanova as the No. 1 team in NCAA Division I … in 2018.

Obviously, the Wildcats will miss Hart tremendously, but DiVincenzo is clearly the heir apparent. Whether he'll be as good as Hart remains to be seen, but Wright didn't hesitate to compare him with Hart halfway through his freshman season, and DiVincenzo's late-season performance really did hint of future greatness.

Reynolds was a solid rebounder but not a scorer, and Jenkins struggled badly the second half of the season.

So maybe replacing those seniors won't be as difficult as you might assume.

As it stands now, Villanova won't have a senior on the floor next year, but leadership shouldn't be an issue.

Although Paschall, Booth and Bridges will be academic seniors, all should have two more years of eligibility. And Wright said earlier this week Brunson is actually already close to graduating, even though he'll be a junior on the court next year.

The Wildcats should be a better shooting team with Booth returning, a deeper team with all the additions, a stronger post team on both ends with Spellman patrolling the paint and a better defensive team, simply because Wright will be able to substitute more and go deeper.

See you in mid-November.

"Only thing I say to them is be coachable," Hart said. "They’re great basketball players but even better people. Their character is through the roof, and a lot of times it’s not about who’s the most talented, it’s not about who has the best physical gifts, it’s about character, it’s about heart, it’s about will, and that’s something that these guys have and that’s something that you guys are going to see next year.

"They're all going to have new opportunities, and I guarantee you’re going to see them grow up as people and as basketball players."

Villanova's Josh Hart signs with Jay-Z's Roc Nation Sports

Villanova's Josh Hart signs with Jay-Z's Roc Nation Sports

Villanova guard and NBA draft first-round hopeful Josh Hart has signed with Jay-Z's Roc Nation Sports.

Hart will enter the draft after participating in the NBA combine last year and subsequently pulling his name out to return to Villanova for his senior season.

Hart and the rest of the 'Cats didn't repeat as national champions -- they were upset by 8-seed Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA Tournament -- but they still finished the year with a 32-4 record and a Big East Tournament title.

In his senior year, Hart led Villanova in scoring and rebounding with 18.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. He was named Big East player of the Year on March 8.

Hart was also named one of four finalists for the James A. Naismith award, given to the nation's best player. Kansas' Frank Mason III, UCLA's Lonzo Ball and Purdue's Caleb Swanigan join Hart as finalists (see story).

Hart joins a Roc Nation Sports basketball family that now consists of 13 athletes, including Kevin Durant, Justise Winslow, Rudy Gay, Caris Levert, Jeremy Lin, Willie Cauley-Stein, Wilson Chandler, Ty Lawson, Henry Ellenson, Mike Gbinije, Skylar Diggins and James Young.