LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- For the past 15 years, Villanova coach Jay Wright has held an invitation-only party at the Final Four, with the glorious exception of 2009, when the Wildcats made it.
It has grown from a quaint gathering to “almost out-of-control proportions.” Last year at his event in Indianapolis, Wright was making his rounds, greeting guests, when he paused briefly from cracking jokes and telling basketball stories for a moment of clarity.
“We’ve got to get back to the Final Four so I won’t be hosting this next year,” Wright said.
Wright will gladly take a break from playing host after the Wildcats’ 64-59 victory Saturday over Kansas vaulted them back to the Final Four for the first time in six seasons.
“There are going to be some people, especially our Philly people, who are going to be bummed out,” Wright joked. “It’s a great party.”
Villanova just earned its invite to a better one.
In doing so, Nova erased the narrative that has existed since its last Final Four appearance.
The Wildcats couldn’t find a way to get past the NCAA tournament round of 32, despite being a No. 2 seed in 2010 and 2014 and a No. 1 seed in 2015. Throw in first-round losses as a No. 9 seed in 2011 and 2013 and in five of the six seasons between appearances, they didn’t make it out of the first weekend.
Now they’ll be playing in the last.
“We knew everything said in the media about the first round and all that other stuff,” guard Josh Hart said. “This team is just so special we didn’t care about that. To us, we didn’t have a monkey on our back. A lot of these guys had never played in those early exits, this was a brand-new team.”
A brand-new team, maybe, but at the heart of it was two key seniors who had been through the disappointments.
“We were definitely tired of hearing it, especially our class because we were part of three of them,” senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono said. “We didn’t focus on getting past the first weekend, let’s just grind it out and see what happens.”
What happened was a Villanova team that overwhelmed its first three opponents with an offense that put up historic numbers. Its shooting percentage (62.7) against Miami in the Sweet 16 ranked third-highest since the tournament expanded in 1985.
But it was defense the Wildcats showed off against top overall seed Kansas, holding the Jayhawks to a season-low 59 points and forward Perry Ellis, who torched Maryland for 27 points Thursday, to a season-low four.
Nova forward Daniel Ochefu said the Wildcats weren’t fixated on past failures but added that the reputation developed because of them. He knew the only way to change the perception of Villanova in the tournament was to deliver like it had not before.
“People had the right to say it,” the senior said. “That just means they expect great things of us like we do of ourselves. For us to finally get to this point, it means a lot to this program and all the guys in this locker room.”
Wright said the players might have taken early exits in past tournaments harder than they should have. But without those losses, he doesn’t know if Saturday would have been possible.
The disappointments shaped Villanova into a more resilient team.
“I was proud of them the last two years,” Wright said. “I thought it was going to be a learning experience that would help them for life. But it really was a learning experience that helped them for this year because they failed twice and they came back from it and they played here without fear of failure.”
There was no fear in the Wildcats. Not even when their offense had gone stagnant to start the second half and the Jayhawks seemingly had seized momentum.
Villanova never doubted itself, which might come in handy next week in Houston, where it will likely be underdogs against an Oklahoma team that beat the Wildcats 78-55 on Dec. 7.
“All they ever did was doubt us, man,” forward Kris Jenkins said. “But we’re not done yet.”