Wisconsin too good for an 8-seed, but Villanova takes blame for another early NCAA Tournament exit

Wisconsin too good for an 8-seed, but Villanova takes blame for another early NCAA Tournament exit

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Jay Wright started shaking his head before the question was even finished.

"Isn't it unfair for you guys to have to face a team like Wisconsin in the second round?"

Everybody knows Wisconsin should have been seeded higher than No. 8. Everybody but the NCAA selection committee.

The Badgers were ranked as high as seventh in the country as late as mid-February, they won 25 games in a highly-regarded conference, they beat three ranked teams and they have a roster loaded with experienced veterans of three Sweet 16s and two Final Fours.

They could have been a five seed, like Minnesota, which Wisconsin beat twice and won fewer games both overall and in the Big Ten.

They could have been a six seed, like Maryland, which Wisconsin beat by 11 and also won fewer games both overall and in the Big Ten.

They should not have been a No. 8 seed. Should not have been Villanova's opponent Saturday in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32.

After earning the overall No. 1 seed, Villanova's reward was a second-round meeting with an opponent with tremendous depth and experience.

After Villanova lost, 65-62, at KeyBank Center in Buffalo, Wright was asked several times about the seeming unfairness of it all.

"I don't think there should be anything negative about this tournament, especially from the players and coaches," Wright said. "It's a tourney, they make the bracket. Our job is to go play.

"You want to play great teams. You want to go to the tournament and play great teams and beat all the best. I think (you can't) worry about where you get knocked out. … I just worry about how our guys play and I was proud of how our guys played.

"We could have played better, but proud of how well they stuck together. We love this tournament. We love being in it. I'll take being in it every year, give us whoever you want. Give us a 1 seed, I don't care. We love being in it."

But the reality is that Villanova has now lost as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed four times in the last eight years to opponents seeded No. 7 or No. 8.

According to Sports-Reference's NCAA Tournament Game Finder, No. 1 and 2 seeds are 255-52 against opponents seeded No. 7 or lower since 2001, when Wright became head coach at Villanova.

But Villanova and Kansas are the only schools that have lost four times as a No. 1 or 2 seed against an opponent seeded seventh or lower.

And it's now happened to Villanova three times in the last four years. It's only happened to every other school combined 10 times the last four years.

Three years ago, very similarly, Villanova lost as a No. 2 seed to No. 7 UConn on the same court. UConn went on to win the national title.

"This is the greatest, I think, sporting event in our country," Wright said. "You know, just being in it, I say this every year to our team, we can't take it for granted. It's so special to be a part of it.

"Every time you win and you get a chance to advance, cherish it. You're playing the best teams in the country. You're going to come down to games like this, you know? We had a game like this against Kansas last year and we came out on the good side of it. We had a game like this against N.C. State (in 2015), and we had a shot to win it and we missed it.

"To me, there's no dishonor in losing in this tournament but I do know that -- and we've lived through it -- you are judged by how you play in this tournament and that's the reality of it. So you have to accept it."

It's only fair that part of the legacy of this senior class -- Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds -- is that they were eliminated early in three of their four years.

Their 129 wins are 10th-most in NCAA Division 1 history over a four-year span, and of course their national championship last year is what will be remembered the most.

But three early exits from the tournament do have to be considered alongside the celebration in Houston, the parade down Market Street and meeting President Obama.

Hard to believe, but Villanova has only reached one Sweet 16 in the last eight years after reaching four the previous five years. It's just that the one Sweet 16 turned into a national title.

"It's the reality of this tournament and it's great lesson in life," Wright said. "When you're getting a lot of accolades, you're going to get some heat too.

"Everything in life is a balance, man, and you've got to be prepared for it, and when you're getting all the accolades and you're a No. 1 seed you know you're going to win it or you're going to be crushed, it's part of life, and it's a great lesson for those guys."

In the end, this Villanova team didn't shoot as well as last year, didn't have nearly the post presence of last year, didn't make clutch foul shots like last year and certainly didn't have the depth of last year.

And it all caught up to the Wildcats in the final few minutes Saturday afternoon, when a seven-point lead turned into a three-point loss.

But in a way, what Villanova did with just seven players -- only three who were really offensive threats by the end of the season -- won 32 games and both the Big East regular-season title and Big East Tournament.

"I'm most proud of the team that we became after losing Omari (Spellman) and Phil (Booth) and Tim Delaney, we lost Tim for the year as well," Wright said in the hallway outside the Villanova locker room Saturday evening.

"When that happened we figured, 'Let’s see how good we can be.' And we became a hell of a team. But not good enough to get past this Wisconsin team. But still a hell of a team. But not a national champion.

"And I thought we had a chance. It's such a fine line between being a national champion and losing at any point in this tournament. That's a hell of a team. That team could go to the Final Four. They've got Final Four experience.

"I know we get judged on how far we get, and that’s fair, I get it. But on the inside, we look at it like this: 'We played a great team, we played great, we didn't get it done. We're OK, we're OK.'

"Not right now, we're not. We're disappointed. We're going to hurt for a while, till the tournament's over. That's how long we'll hurt."

Highly ranked 2018 recruit Brandon Slater verbally commits to Villanova

Highly ranked 2018 recruit Brandon Slater verbally commits to Villanova

The future of Villanova basketball just got brighter.

Brandon Slater, a 6-foot-6 wing and highly touted 2018 recruit, told Scout.com on Wednesday night that he has verbally committed to the Wildcats.

He later made the announcement on Twitter.

Among the 2018 recruiting class, Slater, a product of Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, Virginia, is ranked in the top 30 by Scout.com and top 50 by ESPN.com. He's slated as a four-star talent by both media outlets.

Per ESPN, Slater had offers from Louisville, Maryland, Miami, Syracuse, USC and Virginia Tech. He is Villanova's first commitment for 2018.

"Going up there it just feels like a second home," Slater said, via Evan Daniels of Scout.com. "It gives me a good vibe. It's nothing like all the other schools. I just feel like a Villanova guy. It feels like PVI. It's already home."

Slater and Villanova head coach Jay Wright expressed their excitement on Twitter.

With another Penn Relays win, Villanova's Siofra Cleirigh Buttner aims to keep pace with greats

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USA Today Images

With another Penn Relays win, Villanova's Siofra Cleirigh Buttner aims to keep pace with greats

Siofra Cleirigh Buttner was on the shoulder of Stanford's Elise Cranny, and then she wasn't.

Once again Villanova's middle-distance dynamo had found a gear few possess. Once again she powered to the front of the pack and led the Wildcats to a Penn Relays victory — this one, in Friday's 4-by-1,500 relay, was their second in as many days — and once again she was at a loss to explain it all.

"It seems like I get the same question every time," she said. "For me, I just listen to my legs."

And so she did, anchoring the victorious relay with a blistering 4:11.03 leg. The Wildcats, clocked at 17:25.85, won this race for the second straight year and 11th time in all. They also gave fifth-year senior Angel Piccirillo her eighth career victory, a women's record for the Relays.

The performance by Buttner, a junior, was nothing Wildcats coach Gina Procaccio hadn't seen before. After she ran a strong 800-meter leg to key the 'Cats to a victory in Thursday's distance medley relay (see story), Procaccio talked about her "amazing turnover, to go from zero to 60."

"I've never had an athlete accelerate like she has," she said.

Surely that burst comes in part from her homeland. A native of Dublin, Ireland, she talked about running lush, green hills as a teenager.

"I think that just made me a lot faster," she said.

And it comes in part from the event itself.

"When you come here," Procaccio said, "you just become a different being."

But no small part of it comes because of the push Buttner's teammates give her, and the tireless pursuit — on her part, and everyone else's — of the stars who preceded her at VU.

Be assured she doesn't want to drop that baton, any more than she does a real one.

In Friday's relay, she was preceded by sophomore Bella Burda, Piccirillo and another soph, Nicole Hutchinson, the last of whom saw Stanford's Christina Aragon nudge into the lead shortly before the exchange.

And for over three laps, Buttner was content to ride Cranny's shoulder. Her parents and sister were looking on. So too was Procaccio, who fretted a bit, knowing that Buttner's best event is the 800, while Cranny had run a sub-4:12 mile this year, and a sub-4:10 last spring.

"I was hurting that last 800," Buttner said, "but I knew that she was hurting, too."

She also knew she had enough in reserve — that indeed she always does. And sure enough she blew past Cranny with 200 meters remaining, and that was that. The Wildcats won by nearly two seconds.

"I just have full confidence in myself," she said, "and remember what I'm doing it for and who I'm doing it for."

Folks like Piccirillo, a close friend.

"There's no one more deserving (of the record) than Angel," said Buttner, who has won five wheels herself at the Relays.

She followed what she called "the Irish Pipeline" to Villanova, the one laid by Ronnie Delany, Eamonn Coghlan and Marcus O'Sullivan years ago, and during a campus visit got some idea of the import of the Relays when she saw hundreds of wheels lining the walls of one of the school's sports palaces.

"I'd already known a little bit about the Penn Relays," she said, "but once I saw that I really understood the big story behind it."

So she came over. And here's another tribute to her speed — she outran homesickness.

"I don't think when you're a student-athlete, you have time to be homesick," she said.

Buttner reiterated something Procaccio said after Friday's race — that she is following in the footsteps of departed star Steph Schappert, just as Piccirillo and Schappert were following Emily Lipari and Nicky Akande, and Lipari and Akande were tracking Sheila Reid.

The chase is ongoing. And Buttner is forever listening to her legs, forever ready to put it into overdrive.