It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: The Villanova Wildcats.
Now that the surprise is less jarring, and the wounds are less raw, it is easier to look back at the long-term trajectory of Villanova basketball and focus on the positives.
And almost all of it is positive. In 2011-12, after eight years of mostly elite outfits, Villanova was a disaster. The Wildcats were talented, experienced, and had no visible excuse for being bad, yet they were, at least by coach Jay Wright's standards. Consider: As of today, Villanova is still just three years removed from missing its first NCAA tournament since 2005, from a backbiting, disagreeable group that posted the fewest wins (13) and highest adjusted efficiency rank (84) of Wright's career.
That humbling campaign essentially forced Wright to rebuild from the ground up, programatically and personally. The results have been swift and spectacular. In 2012-13, Nova got back into the NCAA tournament. In 2013-14, it went 29-5 and earned a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed.
Which brings us to 2014-15, one of the great all-around seasons in Villanova hoops history. Thirty-three wins. Three losses. A thoroughly dominant 16-2 regular season against an underrated Big East that sent six teams to the tournament. A stretch of eight games to close that regular season wherein the Wildcats scored a nation's best 1.28 points per possession. A conference tournament title won by an average margin of 18 points. A No. 1 tournament seed -- in a top-heavy year defined by elite teams. Duke, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Arizona, Virginia. For the vast majority of 2014-15, Villanova was as good as any of them.
And then the shock came, just as it did in 2014, when Villanova likewise failed to advance to the Sweet 16. The 2015 surprise was far more devastating, both in the moment and in retrospect. The 2013-14 team wasn't as good, for starters; it also lost to Connecticut, the eventual national champion. The 2014-15 team was arguably the best of Wright's long tenure; it lost to NC State, which needed a mediocre LSU to miss its final 12 field goals to mount its desperate comeback in in the Round of 64. Villanova would lose just one senior from the 2013-14 team; almost the entire lineup would return intact. The team now loses JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, the team's gritty tweener frontcourt avatar and dominant perimeter scorer, respectively.
The 2015 loss also cemented a narrative, one critics of its No. 1 seed (wrongly) argued throughout February and March. The Wildcats were overrated, too reliant on shooting, played an easy schedule, and couldn't win when it mattered.
Nonsense, all of it. But just minutes after the NC State loss, even Wright knew what questions were coming -- and that there was only one way to quiet them in the future.
What the immediate future holds
That palliative -- a deep NCAA tournament run -- is easy to identify, and hard to produce. Fortunately, Wright will have yet another team capable of it.
The Wildcats' losses were more significant than a summer ago, no doubt about that. Beyond Hilliard and Pinkston -- whose importance can't be understated -- Villanova also waved farewell to guard Dylan Ennis, who's transferring to Oregon. Ennis was arguably the least important regular in the Wildcats' cast, which says less about him (he posted high usage rates, solid assist-to-turnover numbers and shot 36 percent from 3-point territory) than it does his teammates (who were all really good). Still, the smooth transition that gave the 2014-15 Wildcats their trademark balance and cohesion will be at least slightly harder to come by this fall.
Which is not to say that important pieces don't return. Chief among them is senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. Arcidiacono -- a tough defender and whip-smart ball handler who does almost everything at an above-average level -- was Wright's first big post-2012 recruit. He is now one season away from finishing an excellent four-year career at the center of Villanova's renaissance. Also back is Daniel Ochefu, the lone conventional big man in Villanova's attack, and also its most improved player over the course of the past year. Likewise for rising junior Josh Hart, who maintained his efficient freshman output despite more minutes and touches in last season's starting role. Sophomore guard Phil Booth and sophomore wing Kris Jenkins both showed tons of promise off the bench last season, and showed just how deep and comprehensive Wright's recruiting and development pipeline have become.
The latest addition to that pipeline -- incoming freshman Jalen Brunson -- might also be its best. Brunson is a five-star, top-20 overall recruit ranked No. 2 at his position, according to the ESPN 100, and his arrival probably had at least a little bit to do with Ennis deciding he would find more playing time out west. If Brunson finds his feet right away, the Wildcats will retain much of the often unguardable four-out offensive attack they used to steamroll the Big East a season ago.
Will this team be as good as it was? Probably not. Will it be very good? Definitely. Indeed, the news about Villanova basketball -- from the post-2012 rebuild to 2015's 33-win culmination to the talented and balanced look of the roster to come -- is almost entirely positive. There is but one item missing from the past two seasons, one cruel blemish on an otherwise spotless record. Intellectually, that's the wrong way to look at Villanova. Analytically, it's lazy. None of which changes the fact that in college basketball, March is all anyone remembers, whether you like it or not.