Jay Wright understands the criticism and says it’s fair. He understands that Villanova is identified as much by its string of postseason failures as by its history of regular-season success, and that the defining moment last year was not its Big East championship but its crushing ouster in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
By this point, though, “surprising” has become surprisingly ordinary. The top-seeded Wildcats lost to No. 8 North Carolina State in 2015 and got knocked out in the second round the year before, when they were seeded second. In the previous six years, Villanova has been to the Big Dance five times, and turned an ankle all five — exiting in the first or second round.
“Life’s a series of trade-offs,” Wright said Thursday at Barclays Center. “We get a lot of perks being in our position . . . [When] we win the Big East championship and everybody’s going crazy and all the media’s around us, we don’t turn that away. So when we get beat in the NCAA Tournament and they’re criticizing us, we’ve got to accept that.”
On Friday, No. 2 Villanova faces No. 15 UNC Asheville in the first round, and the bitterness of the previous seasons hasn’t gone away. It’s clear another early dismissal would be brutal, particularly because this will be the final year for a crop of seniors that have ushered in one of the most successful stretches in school history — a four-year record of 111-27.
“It became a big issue, even in the offseason,” Wright said of losing to North Carolina State. “Everything that we did, there was always an afterthought, whether we lost a game, someone would say, well, it doesn’t matter because all you have to do is get to the second weekend anyway. If we won the Big East championship, people say, well, that doesn’t matter.”
“We realize, if we don’t [get to the second weekend], it’s going to be a major issue again.”
The players don’t particularly want the reminders. Ryan Arcidiacono said they were trying “to look past that,” while fellow senior Daniel Ochefu insists the Wildcats have “done a great job of eliminating that from our memories.”
“Obviously, we’re in the NCAA Tournament, so it’s going to be fresh in our minds and everyone is going to be asking us about it,” Ochefu said. “As soon as we step on the court, we cancel it out of our minds.”
Temple coach Fran Dunphy would be set to face his Philadelphia rival if his 10th-seeded Owls can upset Iowa Friday, and he doesn’t expect the Wildcats to keel over. They beat Temple by 23 this season.
“They’re really good,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any limit on what Villanova can do . . . It’s just the luck of the draw, the luck of the jump shot, the luck of getting the rebound at the right time. I don’t think it’s anything other than that.”
Even if the shots don’t fall and the Wildcats repeat their tired refrain, Wright says none of it tarnishes the Villanova legacy of his five seniors — of Ochefu, who he said will go down as one of the best big men in program history, or of Arcidiacono, one of its great point guards.
But he’s realistic. This matters, and it matters that they do well. “Nationally, we realize their legacy is going to be based on what they do in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “We understand the national legacy is important, and I think that’s how it’s going to play out.”
It’s now or never.