A year ago, head coach Jay Wright and the Villanova Wildcats weren’t celebrating one of the biggest wins in program history. They weren’t preparing for a well-deserved trip to the Final Four, and for the second straight year, a once-promising season had ended in misery, otherwise known as the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
And while they’ve won their way to this year’s Sweet 16 with a trio of very impressive victories over no.15 seed UNC-Asheville, seventh-seeded Iowa, and third-seeded Miami, Wright’s Wildcats weren’t supposed to survive past Saturday’s showdown with top-seed Kansas.
But thanks to some solid defense when it the mattered most, not to mention a near-perfect performance at the charity stripe, that’s exactly what the second-seeded Wildcats did, upsetting the top-seeded Jayhawks 64-59 to reach their first Final Four since 2009.
”Everybody on this team sacrifices,” said Villanova junior Kris Jenkins. ”But we’re not satisfied. We’re looking forward to our next game in Houston. This definitely is a special feeling, but like I said before, we’re not satisfied.”
As ESPN’s C.L. Brown conveniently pointed out, in 14 of the last 15 years, Wright’s Final Four experience has consisted of little more than acting as the host of his invitation-only Final Four bash.
But if Wright wants to avoid throwing a last-minute shindig for this year’s national championship mere hours after saying goodbye to his season, the veteran bench-boss should already be analyzing every painful second of December’s 23-point loss to Oklahoma.
Set to face the second-seeded Sooners in Saturday’s semi-finals, the Wildcats didn’t just suffer their worst loss of the season the last time that they clashed with head coach Lon Kruger’s crew—they suffered a loss that temporarily cost them their unofficial status as a legitimate contender for the national championship.
On neutral ground, Villanova couldn’t buy a bucket, hitting just 20 of their 63 attempts from the field and finishing a nauseating 4 of 32 from beyond the arc. And defensively, the 18 points that the Wildcats allowed Buddy Heild to score were just the tip of the spear for an Oklahoma squad that shot 46.7 percent from the floor, 53.8 percent from long range, and had five players finish in double figures.
Out-rebounded and out-played, the Wildcats looked nothing like the team that would eventually win 33 games on the way to upsetting the NCAA tourney’s top seed and reaching its first Final Four in seven years.
”I think the first time we played them we had a lot of young guys coming in that didn’t know what we were completely about yet,” said senior Daniel Ochefu. ”The game was not ugly at all. I think throughout the course of the year, we’ve grown a lot, and Buddy Heild’s an amazing player, Oklahoma is an extremely well-coached team with great players. It’s going to be a battle.”
Less than two weeks after losing to the Sooners, and with only a meaningless home court destruction of LaSalle to soothe their supporters since, the Wildcats’ 11-point loss to Virginia on December 19th seemed to seal their fate. Villanova was a good team with serious potential and the best of this year’s Big East, but it just didn’t belong among the nation’s elite.
For key seniors Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono, and irreplaceable juniors Jenkins and Josh Hart, that was unacceptable. They’d worked too hard to be cast-off in December, and after each of the past two seasons had ended in heartbreak, Arcidiacono and company couldn’t live with another early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
But a little more than three months, 25 victories, three losses, a Big East regular season title, and three weeks atop the Associated Press poll later, Villanova has finally fulfilled expectations while managing to earn itself a rare shot at revenge. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.