NEW YORK -- It took 32 games, but Villanova is once again a 20-win team. It's a welcomed and familiar feeling for Jay Wright, who only won 13 games last year but hadn't gone without a 20-win season prior to that since 2004 -- the time before the last time that the Wildcats missed the NCAAs.
It's hard not to be, at the very least, intrigued by this team. For a good while, it had no identity, no leadership and seemingly no semblance of offense. (This is still problematic in many spots, truth be told.) Above all, this was an 11-7 group in January that I thought had no shot at the NCAA tournament.
Wright had his doubts in spots, but he saw improvement throughout the season. He admitted Wednesday night, though, that he knows pressure and disappointment would've surrounded the program -- but only from the outside.
"In reality, as long as we were playing well and playing Villanova basketball, if we would've slipped and not made it (the NCAAs) but we were going in a good direction, I'd be fine," Wright said. "But I'm also aware of the perception out there: you go seven years in a row, (then) you don't make it, you come back another year and don't make it. People start wondering, Now are they not as good as anymore? Perceptually, which usually affects recruiting and fans, it's important. On the inside, though, I would've been OK as long as we were playing like this and knew we were getting better."
The St. John's win represents an important benchmark to all coaches: the 20th win. In reality, that has no bearing whatsoever on NCAA tournament selection. Having said that, if you're into interesting stats, know this: 147 of the 152 Big East teams that won 20 games since 1983 have reached the Big Dance.
If they'd lost to St. John's -- at Nova did trail in the second half before pulling away -- doubt would've hovered over the team.
"After the game I would've been thinking, Damn, we've got a long wait," Wright said. "As good as our resume is, and I thought before this game it was very strong, it was unique. Nobody only had 19 wins but had that many quality wins. I thought it was unique enough to get us in even if we lost. I think now, you get 20 wins, I think we're pretty strong."
Now? It's a proud group looking to get a win over Louisville Thursday night, a team Villanova's already beaten. In fact, Wright also reflected about that Jan. 22 win over the Cards that essentially altered this team's season/hopes.
"That game definitely was important for us in that we were playing well," he said. "But you gotta get a win. Winning justifies everything. Louisville was coming off a loss to Syracuse. I think they're playing a lot better right now. They're really hot. This team has been in this position before, so I expect a great game from them tomorrow night."
And the coaching staff doesn't expect this team to feel pressure to perform, for two reasons. The first being: it's a young group, and Wright even said they didn't feel the weight or pressure to win 20 games, let alone take out Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette and Georgetown, as they have.
"They weren't down after we lost to Pitt, they didn't look at the Georgetown one like, 'We need this game,'" Wright said.
The other reason for no worry comes with the learning curve of knowing the necessity to play to their ceiling in each game, especially down the stretch against the top half of the league.
"I think some of them are so naive," he said. "They're inexperienced, and one of our weakness was, when we had good wins, we worked hard in practice but we just thought it was just going to happen in the next game instead of working at it. They did that all year. It's understanding that if you're one step off the top of your game you're going to get beat in this league. I think they know that now; I think they get it."
But let's make this perfectly clear: Win or lose, small margin or large against Louisville, Villanova's dancing again come Selection Sunday. That's my conjecture and projection. And I didn't need to see a win over St. John's at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night to confirm it; I was convinced of Nova's case a week ago.
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