So often in sports – especially college basketball – your record at the end of the year isn’t quite as important as how you’re playing at the end of the year. Some teams start hot and fade during the course of the season, while other teams start slow but come on strong in the final month.
No. 4 Villanova (29-2, 16-2), however, is the rare team that has both the record and the stellar play working in its favor. In fact, the Wildcats have won 16 of their last 17 games, including 12 straight.
“That’s what’s important this time of year,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “Where’s your mindset? Where’s your health? And how are you executing going into the tournament? I think we’re good in all three areas. I really do. We’re trying to have short practices here and keep the guys’ legs fresh. They look good and they look dialed in. We’re on the New Jersey turnpike right now as I speak to you, heading up to the Garden.”
Villanova, which went 6-0 against ranked teams this season, opens the Big East Tournament on Thursday against the winner of Seton Hall versus Marquette. The Wildcats are the favorite to not only win the Big East Tournament, but also earn a 1-seed from the selection committee this Sunday.
Regardless of seed, the Wildcats just want to get back to the Final Four – a place they haven’t been since 2009, when they lost to North Carolina. At the time, it seemed the program would become a Final Four regular, especially after a string of excellent recruiting classes. Unfortunately for Wright, it never materialized.
“We didn’t do as good a job as we should have done in terms of recruiting – not just getting the guys, but making sure the guys understood what was important in our program,” Wright said. “Guys just wanted to come. Kyle Lowry went to the NBA, and Randy Foye went to the NBA, and guys just wanted to come – and we weren’t asking any questions. We’re like, ‘Hey, great player, great guy. All right, let’s go’ – instead of really sitting down and discussing with them, ‘This is what our program’s about. This is what our core values (are) about.’ I think that was on us as a staff, especially me as the head coach.
“And then No. 2, we had too many players,” Wright continued. “In 2010, we were No. 2, No. 3 in the country all year, and people were saying, ‘Wow, what a great job. You’re playing 11 players. How do yo do it?’ We were playing 11 players, but by the end, we weren’t effective enough in tight games.”
Villanova, a 2-seed that year, needed overtime to escape Robert Morris, 73-70, in the first round before losing to Saint Mary’s, 75-68, in the Round of 32.
“We ran into a team that slowed the pace down and controlled the tempo, and our 11 guys weren’t a factor,” Wright said. “So those two things (were the issues): too many players, and not really making our guys understand before they got here what they were getting into.”
Wright believes this year’s team understands. With six players averaging at least 9.3 points per game, Villanova is as balanced as any team in the country. But the glue-guy might just be Ryan Arcidiacono, who is averaging 10.7 points and a team-high 3.6 assists per game. Arcidiacono, a junior, earned first-team All-Big East honors despite posting stats that, while impressive, maybe weren’t as gaudy as those of some other players in the conference.
Wright wasn’t surprised one bit.
“He’s the kind of guy that really has the ability to do anything he needs to do to help you win – and that’s his mindset,” Wright said. “There’s games where he can just see we need buckets and he goes and gets them, and there’s games were he sees we need to pick up our defensive intensity – whether he’s on the ball handler or he’s on a shooter chasing them off screens – and he’ll do it. We had a tough game against Creighton about a week or so ago on the road. Came down to the last possession and he goes and gets the rebound (to seal the win).
“So a lot of times guys go unnoticed like that, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Wright continued. “I have great respect for the coaches in our league, and I think they really appreciate that kind of player.”