VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Villanova could stand to raise some funds for a new trophy case.
The Wildcats opened last season winning the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, New York. That was just a warmup for 12 straight wins and a Big East championship. Then it was three more wins and a Big East tournament championship.
Josh Hart even earned conference sixth man of the year honors, pointing everything toward celebration on the Main Line.
Except for one thing – the Wildcats again flopped in March, when college basketball matters most.
Thirty years after Villanova won an improbable national championship, the top-seeded Wildcats were booted in the second game of the NCAA tournament by North Carolina State. President Barack Obama had even cast his vote for Villanova to reach the national championship game.
The Wildcats have been impeached from the tournament in the first weekend every season they’ve made it since they played in the 2009 Final Four. That’s a 3-5 record that has raised some questions if the Wildcats can ever truly become elite under coach Jay Wright.
They’ll try again this season, ranked 11th in the AP Top 25 poll and the Big East favorite.
Wright said he’s looked hard at fixing the tournament problems.
“It’s more from the coaching standpoint than the players,” he said. “It’s little tactical things we could do. It’s two years in a row playing a 1-16 game or 2-15 game, then going to a high-level game the next game. Maybe the coaching staff – me – didn’t do a good enough job in between those games.”
Wright said the regular season can’t be considered anything but a success but added, “I get it” why his program is judged on March alone.
Hart, guard Ryan Arcidiacono, forward Kris Jenkins and forward Daniel Ochefu all return from a team looking to prove they really are built for the long haul.
But it’s the new kid in town that could give the program the jolt it needed as tries for the first national championship since 1985.
BRUNSON BURNER: Jalen Brunson, a 6-foot-2 guard and McDonald’s All-American, is the most highly-touted recruit to hit campus in years. Brunson is the son of former Temple star and NBA player Rick Brunson. He was unanimously named the Big East Rookie of the Year and could help the Wildcats erase their March doldrums. Wright said Brunson was an intelligent, gritty guard who might be around for only one or two seasons, a rarity for a program built on the strength of upperclassman.
“I know one thing that concerns me is that he’s gotten so much hype, that when people hear hype, they expect Andrew Wiggins,” Wright said. “He’s not that.”
NEW ARENA: Villanova’s 6,500-seat Pavilion opened in 1986 – and was outdated by 1987. Most high school gyms have more restrooms and concession stands than the Pavilion and Wright said plans are in full swing for either a new arena or complete renovation.
“We sell this place out every game,” Wright said. “But for the school, we could create more revenue. The place looks great on TV. It’s just not good for fans and it doesn’t generate the revenue like a new arena would.”
HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Because seating capacity is almost tripled, the Wildcats save their biggest games each season for the Wells Fargo Center.
But with the arena the site of an NCAA tournament regional this season, Villanova was limited to only three games during the regular season if it wanted the option of playing in March at home.
“We didn’t want to be arrogant about making the decision, like we’re going to get there,” Wright said. “But if we did get that far, and we didn’t give ourselves that chance, it probably would be irresponsible. We actually take a revenue hit doing it.”
FIFTH FRANCHISE: The 76ers might be good around the next Republican presidential debate – in 2019. The Flyers are mired in mediocrity, the Eagles hope a .500 record can win them the NFC East and the Phillies are a few years off from contention. That leaves the Wildcats standing tall as the lone Philly sports bright spot through an otherwise bleak winter.
“We’re used to people paying attention to us once the Eagles’ season is over,” Wright said. “But it’s fine if they want to watch now.”