NCAA Tournament 2014: Villanova's biggest test awaits


Villanova turned in a tremendous season, but the Wildcats know they will be judged by how their NCAA Tournament turns out. SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

Following a 40-minute slugfest on Thursday at Madison Square Garden, Jay Wright unbuttoned his smokey grey suit and kept his head down on the way to the locker room.

Darrun Hilliard looked like a man who just saw a ghost. Tony Chennault rested is hands above his head, his jaw hanging in disbelief. The Seton Hall Pirates filled the golden hardwoods of the mecca of basketball, their exuberant celebration acting as a fourth crushing reminder to Villanova that one mistake could cost them a chance at a bigger title.

The Wildcats closed the season with a bang, beating Marquette and Georgetown easily and ascending to the No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. It was an end-of-season high which was disturbed by Sterling Gibbs and Seton Hall in their first game of the Big East tournament.

In the aftermath, the question isn't if Villanova is a good team, as the Wildcats set new marks in program history for conference wins. Rather, it's if the Wildcats can show the same spark their fans have witnessed all season when it matters during March Madness.

"It's good right now, it's good for today, we'll take it," Wright said when asked what it meant to the team as they moved past Creighton into first place in the Big East following the Wildcats win over Marquette.

"It doesn't matter until the end of the season. It may be a cliché, but it's true. It just doesn't matter who's in first place until the last game. Being first doesn't have any impact on us. It really doesn't. We always concentrate on the next game. It's a simple way to approach it. It's what we enjoy. We will not even address it."

But something needs to be said about what this Villanova squad has accomplished this season that has made them arguably the most underrated team in the current top-10 poll headed into the opening rounds of the Big Dance.

Prior to this year, the Wildcats hadn't been nationally relevant since their 2009-10 season, when Wright's team amassed a 25-8 record. That team left the season with no Big East tournament title and an early exit from the NCAA Tournament in the Round of 32.

The 30-8 team the year prior boasted a stacked squad that made the Final Four, but still came home empty. No conference title, no NCAA championship.

And it's been that way since 1985, the last time Villanova won an NCAA title. It's been that way since Scottie Reynolds carried the 'Cats to the Final Four as a senior five years ago.

And it's begun a trend that's plagued Wildcat basketball in the Jay Wright era, perhaps the only blemish over his successful 13-year stint as Villanova's head coach.

The Wildcats have won one tournament game since Reynolds donned a blue and white jersey. The loss to North Carolina in last year's tournament halted a successful season that saw the club compile four wins over top-25 teams in one season.

Villanova hasn't won even a share of a regular-season Big East championship since 2006, or a tournament championship since 1995. So being in first place in the conference at season's end, especially when it seems like no one outside of the small campus in the Philadelphia suburbs cares enough to bat an eye at their recent success, is a big deal.

The Wildcats have the potential to do what they've had a habit of doing for years from the bottom rungs of the national polls: remain the quiet giant killers from the Big East, one contest at a time.

"We had no control of being in first place; Creighton beat us twice," Wright said. "We just have to concentrate on [upcoming games]. It's hard at this time of the year to keep that concentration. We work really hard at it."

And they're telling the truth. Wright keeps his team's attention away from media. But just like any other team, Villanova still has plenty to work on. The Wildcats' best teams have had a habit of coming up short when it matters the most.

It's been two decades without a conference championship, three without a national championship. So for now, the next step is validating their regular season with a hint of postseason success. A showing of how good they can be in the regular season alone, when people weren't inclined to watch, won't matter if they can't get it done on the biggest stage.

The Wildcats might not get the buzz or have the stars of a young Kentucky team or an experienced Syracuse squad that's played poor offensively for the last three weeks, but they have something that can't be replicated in the NCAA.

Virginia earned the No. 1 seed in the East and might act as a roadblock to 'Nova. Here's a look at the Cavaliers.

It's their immeasurable team-first attitude that's become the norm for Villanova basketball.

"They're not [ranked] in the country because they're a bad club," Marquette coach Buzz Williams said following the game.

"I don't think that they're going to win our league or are ranked as high because of statistics. ... Villanova just plays with a great spirit."

Xavier and Georgetown were big tests before the Big Dance. Seton Hall was a brutal reminder of what can happen in a single-elimination tournament if not properly prepared. And now, Wright's club has six teams left to check off its season-long to-do list that started with a clean sweep four months ago in the Bahamas.

A Sweet 16 would be good, but 'Nova Nation is hungry for another Final Four.

"I remember Jim Calhoun told me one time that we love this tournament, but this isn't the big one," Wright reminisced a few days before the Big East Tournament.

"For us, we don't look [past the conference tournament], we look at it as we have a chance to play in a great 10-team tournament. We make it that simple. If we don't win, great. We get to play in the next tournament, we focus on playing the game and what we have to do basketball-wise."

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