Villanova can't hide from NCAA tourney failures

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- As he walked into the locker room at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh last March, Daniel Ochefu knew what awaited him.

It would be more of the same. The same as it was in Buffalo's First Niagara Center the year before, and the same as it was in Kansas City's Sprint Center the year before that:

Tears, disappointment and the crushing blow of an end coming way too soon.

"Bad, it was bad,'' the Villanova senior said.

He knows it could happen again. Worse, he knows he might be one of the players suffering the most.

As we sprint to the finish line of this wildly unpredictable season, Villanova stands still amid the maelstrom as the picture of consistency. It is in its third consecutive week as the No. 1 team in college basketball, and at 24-3 is one of just four teams in the country (including Big East rival Xavier -- which the Wildcats will face at 7 p.m. ET Wednesday) with fewer than four losses. It is the only top-ranked team that hasn't lost to an unranked team this season, and it is No. 2 in the RPI rankings.

All of that is merely a continuation of the theme for the Cats, who in the past three years have lost a combined 11 games and in the past seven are 165-54 -- a ridiculously impressive 75.3 winning percentage.

And yet.

We all know the "yet," right? The albatross around the Wildcats' neck? The stain that threatens the image of even the nattily dressed Jay Wright?

The elephant that keeps greeting Ochefu and his teammates in the locker room?

"We don't want to be known as the team that's always high-ranked but gets knocked out of the tournament early," Ochefu said.

And yet . . .

That's exactly what Villanova is.

Since their 2009 Final Four run, the Wildcats are 0-for-the-first-weekend in the NCAA tournament, negating -- at least in the eyes of fans and the general basketball public -- everything else that came before.

  • 2015: No. 8 seed NC State 71, No. 1 seed Villanova 68 (round of 32)

  • 2014: No. 7 seed UConn 77, No. 2 seed Villanova 65 (round of 32)

  • 2013: No. 8 seed North Carolina 78, No. 9 seed Villanova 71 (round of 64)

  • 2011: No. 8 seed George Mason 61, No. 9 seed Villanova 57 (round of 64)

  • 2010: No. 10 seed Saint Mary's 75, No. 2 seed Villanova 68 (round of 32)

So here we go again. Villanova is about to be rewarded with yet another high seed and another easy first-weekend trip (likely to Brooklyn) but dogged the whole way by its past failures.

"It's not unfair at all,'' said Wright, Villanova's coach since 2001. "I get it. No excuses. We've got to own it.''

But can they get beyond it?

That's the question on everyone's lips, the question that Wright has been asked since October. Even fellow coaches who wished him well at the start of the season followed it with a reminder -- that nothing Villanova did this year would matter if it failed again in March.

That thought prompted Wright to sit his players down for a talk. He knew if he was hearing it, so were they.

"We had to tell them, 'Look, we're going to enjoy this season,' " Wright said. "Players only get so many years to play. We didn't want them to dismiss it because everyone was telling them how they had to get past the first weekend. Enjoy the season.''

And so they did, rolling to their first No. 1 ranking in school history, and now with a showdown against second-place Xavier, in position for a third straight Big East regular-season crown.

But rather than quiet the skeptics, all of that success has only helped the elephant grow into a mastodon.

"Hear the same thing every year. Won't survive the weekend,'' someone replied to a tweet about Wright's belief that, unlike last season's squad, this one hasn't plateaued and can still get better.

Wright said he has done more interviews since the Wildcats took over the top spot and spied more people in the hotel lobbies on the road, and virtually every conversation is the same. There are the pleasantries, the congratulations on the ranking and the gaudy record, and then the hammer.

"It outweighs everything else,'' he said. "Everything pales in comparison to that.''

As if simply ditching the monkey on their back isn't enough, the Wildcats are trying to carry the mantle in Philadelphia, a city that has a serious aversion to sports success.

Since Villanova won the national title in 1985, just one other team in the city has hosted a championship parade, the 2008 Phillies. That glow is but a distant memory, what with an assortment of professional teams so wildly inept that it would be comical, except that sports actually matters to Philadelphians.

The Eagles just finished 7-9, fired coach Chip Kelly and hired Doug Pederson in the hopes of reviving the Andy Reid glory years (where at least the team went to the NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl before losing).

The Flyers canned coach Craig Berube in April and are still next to last in the Eastern Conference.

If you haven't heard, the 76ers have tanked their way into a pit so deep, the league brought in Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations to try to fix the mess. They've won eight games this season, lost 47 and have three first-round draft picks in a draft many consider to be mundane.

"Yeah, and I heard one projection for the Phillies for like 61-101,'' said Villanova senior Ryan Arcidiacono, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia. "My family does joke about it. They've said to me, 'I don't know what's going to happen once you're done. There's not much else to look forward to.' I guess we're kind of it.''

Everyone -- Wright, the players -- they all say they don't feel any pressure and that they can do what no one else seems to be able to: judge their season's worth on its totality.

Wright said -- and he knows it will come off as spin -- that he has used that NC State loss in last season's NCAA tourney as a positive teaching tool.

He points to a team that couldn't shoot (the Wildcats shot 31 percent), couldn't even dunk and generally played worse than it had in four months and yet never stopped working. He remembered timeouts where his seniors, JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, never showed panic but insisted that Villanova keep "doing what we do." And finally, he recalled how the game ended:

As absolutely horribly as Villanova played, it still had the ball in its hands with an open look at a go-ahead 3-pointer with 20 seconds to play.

"We know we did everything we could to try to find a way to win at the end, and that's all we ask of our guys,'' Wright said. "We know that's a real negative to our fans, and we deal with that reality, but that's not how we saw it.''

Except Wright also said that he couldn't bring himself to watch the game tape for two months, waiting for a cross-country flight where he could pop the disc into his laptop in privacy.

And Ochefu said he returned after the loss to NC State and watched just one more game all season -- Wisconsin's upset of Kentucky in the Final Four -- purposefully avoiding the tournament he was no longer a part of.

"I felt like it was our time, with the seniors we had, the leaders,'' Ochefu said. "That locker room, that was the worst. That could be me this year. I'm not thinking about it now, but I know as soon as the tournament comes, I will be. I'll be thinking about it a lot.''

Hard not to, what with the elephant clogging up the room.