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."

Villanova 2017-18: If Jalen Brunson returns, Wildcats should be loaded

Villanova 2017-18: If Jalen Brunson returns, Wildcats should be loaded

College basketball's Final Four is set. Gonzaga, North Carolina, Oregon and South Carolina head to Arizona this week in hopes of winning two more games for the right to call themselves national champions. 

Villanova stood tall this time last year, winning the school's second ever national championship thanks to Kris Jenkins' buzzer beater against North Carolina.
 
Despite being the No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, Villanova fell considerably short of winning a second straight national title. The Wildcats' second-round loss to Wisconsin brought about an abrupt end to an otherwise successful season, one that saw them win a fourth straight Big East regular season championship and second Big East Tournament in the last three years.
 
Villanova says goodbye to the winningest senior class in school history in Jenkins, Josh Hart and Darryl Reynolds, but there is plenty of reason for optimism heading into next season. Here is a breakdown of the Wildcats' projected rotation for 2017-18, one that should have Villanova ranked in the top five of most preseason polls. Players are listed in order of importance to the Wildcats' success next season.
 
Jalen Brunson
This comes with a caveat, as Brunson is still deciding whether to test the NBA draft waters following his sophomore season. It wouldn't come as a surprise if Brunson decides to go through the draft process like Hart did last year -- the NBA allows college underclassmen to work out for teams and go to the draft combine but still return to school provided they don't hire an agent. If those opportunities are available, why not take advantage of them?
 
Chances are Brunson will ultimately return to Villanova for his junior season. If he does, he'll be a strong candidate for the preseason Player of the Year in the Big East after earning first-team all-conference honors this past year. Brunson came into his own as Villanova's unquestioned floor general following the graduation of Ryan Arcidiacono, averaging 14.7 points and 4.1 assists. Brunson was very efficient throughout his sophomore season -- he shot 54 percent from the field, 37 percent from three-point range and 87 percent from the foul line.
 
Brunson should be one of the best players in all of college basketball next season, the type of player capable of lifting Villanova to the heights it has grown accustomed to over the past four years.    
 
Phil Booth
He played only three games this past season, but there's no disputing how important a healthy Booth will be for Villanova's fortunes next season. Booth played through left knee soreness two years ago as a sophomore and capped that season with a 20-point performance in the National Championship Game. He had arthroscopic surgery on the knee last May and by all accounts progressed nicely through the summer and fall. But the pain returned once the season started and Booth was shut down in late November. The hope at the time was he would return in a few weeks, but weeks turned into months and Booth never returned.
 
Head coach Jay Wright was optimistic last week when discussing Booth's health moving forward. Wright revealed that Booth returned to practice late in the season and said he expects his playmaking guard to be 100 percent healthy next year. Booth will likely apply for a medical redshirt and will retain his junior eligibility for the 2017-18 season.

If he's healthy (and that's understandably a big if) Booth is one of the best perimeter players in the Big East. He is an explosive scorer on the offensive end capable of playing either guard position. In Brunson and Booth, Villanova would have one of the premier 1-2 backcourt punches in the country.
 
Donte DiVincenzo
DiVincenzo picked up steam as the year progressed and will enter next season as one of the key cogs in the Villanova attack. He answered the bell in a big way on college basketball's biggest stage, averaging 18 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Wildcats' two NCAA Tournament games. DiVincenzo is an elite athlete and relentless competitor on both ends of the floor. Wright compared DiVincenzo to a young Josh Hart midway through the season, and that seems like an apt comparison.
 
Whether DiVincenzo follows Hart's career arc remains to be seen, but he'll likely enter his sophomore season penciled into Villanova's starting lineup. DiVincenzo should get the bulk of his playing time on the wing next year, but he's also comfortable bringing the ball up the floor when needed. He's earned the label of a rising star, and it will be interesting to see how he follows up a strong finish to his red-shirt freshman season.
 
Mikal Bridges
Bridges' sophomore season numbers were solid, but his production tailed off down the stretch, bottoming out in the final game against Wisconsin when he was held scoreless in 29 minutes. When he's on his game, Bridges is a dynamic player offensively and one of the top defensive players in the country. To that end, he was one of three players to share the Big East Defensive Player of the Year award last season. But Bridges' confidence appeared to dip in March, and Villanova will need him firing on all cylinders for his junior season.
 
Bridges will likely serve as a stretch four for the Wildcats next year, relying on his 39.3 three-point field goal percentage to stretch opposing defenses out to the perimeter. He'll also be asked to regularly guard bigger players in the post. In short, he'll be carrying a heavy burden on both ends of the court. How he responds will be key to the Wildcats extending their run of success into next season.
 
Omari Spellman
Villanova was able to survive Spellman's absence throughout the regular season, but it caught up with them in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats needed more size and a physical presence in the post in their season-ending loss to Wisconsin, and Spellman would have provided both. He arrived at Villanova last summer billed as a five-star recruit who was poised to contribute immediately on the frontline. But in September he was ruled academically ineligible for the season, the issue stemming from the timeline during which Spellman earned his high school credits.
 
Spellman was able to practice with the team all season, an experience that should only benefit him next season. He also transformed his body during his year on the sidelines and shed considerable weight from his high school playing days. This should all add up to Spellman's making a big time impact next year, when he should be Villanova's primary inside scoring option.
 
Eric Paschall
Because of Spellman's ineligibility, Paschall was forced to play inside far more often than originally anticipated this past season. He was a more of a wing during his freshman year at Fordham, when he won the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year award. Expect him to be a combination of the two next year -- still logging minutes in the post but also playing out on the perimeter more frequently. If Wright goes with a starting lineup of Brunson, Booth, DiVincenzo, Bridges and Spellman, Paschall would give Villanova a versatile sixth man option off the bench.
 
Regardless of whether he's in the starting lineup, Paschall should regularly play 20-25 minutes per game. Next year will be Paschall's third in the Villanova program following his decision to transfer from Fordham. Don't be surprised to see him take a significant step forward in a role he's more accustomed to playing.
 
Dylan Painter
Painter played spot minutes throughout the season, the bulk of which came while Reynolds missed five games with a rib injury. Painter has legit 6-10 size and solid ball skills for a big man, but his footwork needs improvement. In a perfect world where Spellman was eligible, Painter likely would have red-shirted last season. But Wright didn't have that option given the Wildcats' thin frontcourt. Don't rule out Painter's red-shirting this coming season. If that isn't the case, he'll provide depth off the bench behind Spellman and Paschall.  
 
Incoming Freshmen
At the moment Villanova has a three-man incoming freshman class, two of which are products of the Philadelphia Catholic League -- Archbishop Wood's Collin Gillespie and Neumann Goretti's Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. Jermaine Samuels of Massachusetts is the third member of this class and on the surface appears to have the highest ceiling. Samuels is an explosive wing player who will have every opportunity to crack Villanova's rotation as a freshman. This is a very solid class with pieces that fit together nicely. All three of these freshmen have the potential to grow into big-time contributors on the Big East level.

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 KenPom.com 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."