Big East Burning Question: Is Villanova An NCAA Tournament Team Now?Posted by mlemaire on January 29th, 2013
Two weeks ago Villanova was a program left for dead. The young team had shown talent and promise, but they lacked consistency and blew halftime leads so regularly you would think they were trying to get beat. Then, last Tuesday, coming off a disheartening loss to lowly Providence, something happened. First the Wildcats took advantage of some awful free-throwing shooting to upset heavily favored Louisville and just four days later they took advantage of some questionable late-game strategy from Syracuse and ended up beating the Orange in overtime for their second win over a top-5 opponent in the week. The Wildcats now sit at 13-7 and 4-3 in Big East play with two marquee wins to hang their hats on. So the question is, if the season ended today, would the Wildcats be an NCAA Tournament team?
Mike: Forget the NCAA Tournament for a minute; the program needed these ones badly if only for respectability’s sake. Since the Wildcats lost to North Carolina in the Final Four in 2009, Villanova fans have watched their program free-fall into mediocrity and losses to Columbia and Providence this season weren’t helping anyone feel hopeful about the rebuilding efforts of Jay Wright and his staff. Those two wins last week change some of that. The fan base is energized again – if only for the time being – and the team can finally start to have confidence in themselves which will only help as the season goes on. As far as their tournament chances go, I still think they are on the outside looking in. After the wins over Louisville and Syracuse, the Wildcats jumped from #73 to #49 in the official RPI of the NCAA, which was also good enough to make them one of “the last four in” according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi but both of those wins came at home and they are still really the only two “good wins” on the Wildcats’ resume. I guess it’s possible the NCAA could see how many games the Wildcats have let slip away and they could show some understanding, but getting blown out by Columbia at home is an excellent way to lose all of your goodwill and losing to bottom-dweller Providence isn’t going to help either. The next four games will be crucial for the team’s chances. If they can go 4-0 or even 3-1 against some of the lesser teams in the conference, they will be in a good spot for the home stretch. But lose a pair to South Florida, Providence, Notre Dame, or DePaul and the team will probably be forced to look forward to next season.
Dan: I agree Mike. I think that Villanova’s wins against the conference’s top dogs are a good jumping off point if the team is primed to make a run at the tournament, but alone they are not enough to put Nova in unless they start compiling some more good wins against the rest of the Big East. The Wildcats dug themselves into a big hole with seven early season losses which are highlighted by the Columbia debacle, and while Syracuse and Louisville wins help offset that a bit, those won’t come off their resume come tournament time. Villanova needs to use this momentum to start winning games on a consistent basis, including a couple of decent games on the road, if they want to play meaningful games come March. If they sputter and start losing more winnable games, these two wins will merely be the high-water mark in another disappointing season for Jay Wright’s program.
Will: Mike makes a great point about last week being a watershed moment for the Villanova program and Jay Wright. To be sure, post-season disappointment in 2010-11 and all-consuming misery in 2011-12 have tarnished the program since its upset loss in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, and in a VU Hoops poll from December, 60 percent of respondents blamed coaching for the Wildcats’ chronic second-half collapses. The tricky thing about hanging your hat on one or two marquee wins is that you relinquish control of your destiny when that’s the crux of your tournament resume. What if, for the sake of argument, Louisville and Syracuse aren’t top 25 wins in six weeks? The murderers’ row of Big East play still lies ahead for both teams, and stranger things have happened. My point is that a team is better off stringing together a constellation of RPI top-50 wins than punctuating a hodgepodge of losses with one or two elite wins and praying they don’t lose their luster before Selection Sunday. In that sense, I definitely agree with Mike and Dan that Villanova is in no position to rest on their laurels. But their remaining schedule shapes up favorably; even five wins plus one in the Big East Tournament could get them into the NCAA field at 19-14, depending on how the bubble shapes up. To that point, games against Providence, at DePaul, South Florida, Rutgers and at Seton Hall are the obvious candidates. Given the way Darrun Hilliard is shooting, the steady veteran hand of Mouphtaou Yarou, a sagacious freshman point guard who hasn’t reached his ceiling, and an advantageous schedule, their path isn’t hard to envision.