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NCAA Tournament 2014: Old problems creep up to cost Villanova dream season

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Villanova enjoyed a resurgent season in the new Big East, but perimeter defense was again the problem on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament. It cost the Wildcats in the end.

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

With 10 minutes left in the first half, Shabazz Napier - the heart of Connecticut's offense - was caught on the wrong side of the whistle.

The petite guard had to sit for the remainder of the first half with foul trouble and watched his team like a hawk, hoping they could salvage the contest in his absence. Villanova smelled blood in the water. But as they attempted to sprint to the finish line, the lights of the big stage blinded them.

The 'Cats were up 10 and had the momentum, but Jay Wright's team fizzled. Villanova went 15 straight possessions without a bucket.

'Nova's path to the Sweet 16 was cut off with a 14-1 UConn run behind guard Ryan Boatright in the second half. Less than 30 minutes later, the Wildcats' season was over, ended thanks to an onslaught by a former rival in what used to be the most dominant basketball conference in the world.

"I really thought we were going to shoot the ball well," Wright said following his team's loss on Saturday night. "I don't think they came out really aggressive. But once we went on that little run, they stepped up the defense big time. They really stepped it up. 

"Because we got a couple of easy ones early, a couple of layups, there was a different level of intensity after maybe the first 16‑minute timeout."

And the intensity that made Villanova one of the better defensive teams in the NCAA didn't disappear overnight. Villanova basketball, even in the success of their 29-win regular season, had similar problems all season.

The Wildcats could never defend the perimeter, an issue that began against Lafayette the first game of the year when Villanova eased off the arc and watched the Leopards hit 11 triples and go 45 percent from deep, similar to the numbers Saturday night against the Huskies.

They had difficulty all season stopping flashy guards. Saturday it was Napier, but in a five-month campaign there were many others.

In December it was Penn's Myles Jackson-Cartwright, Rider's Jimmie Taylor and Anthony Myles and Syracuse's Tyler Ennis, to name a few. During Big East action it turned into Providence's Bryce Cotton, Georgetown's Markel Starks and St. John's D'Angelo Harrison.

It's easy to pick out the deficiencies a team has faced over 34 games, but it's clear when the same problems continue to reappear and no changes have been made. And just like during the season, change didn't appear in crunch time against Connecticut. Napier went down, and Jay Wright didn't go for the jugular.

"That was probably the second most important part of the game," Wright said. [Napier] not being on the floor in the first half and them making up a difference there. We had a lead. That was disappointing. In a game like that, you got to take advantage of that, which we didn't."

All the momentum gained in conference play was gone instantly after a step back jumper from Seton Hall and Sterling Gibbs sent the Wildcats packing in the Big East Tournament. Wright has looked vulnerable as a coach in two of his last three games this season and the overall No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament got bounced during its first weekend at the Big Dance.

If anything, it can only be described as disappointing.

"Do I feel like we could have did more?" Senior guard James Bell wondered following the game. "Maybe a little more pressure on the ball. But he was making some good plays. He was shooting outside what we call the scoring area. He's an outstanding player that made outstanding plays."

The Wildcats will only lose 1st-team All Big East honoree Bell, a guard who before Saturday's game hadn't hit a three-pointer since the end of the regular season. Darrun Hilliard will return as the offensive threat for the Wildcats. Ryan Arcidiacono will likely be the team's leader in the locker room and they bring in two four-star recruits to add scoring to their bench.

All is not lost, the future still has promise.

for the foreseeable future, Villanova will fade back to the underdog team full of guards from a weakened conference.

But it's clear that Villanova's postseason woes are no longer happenstance in the recent memory of college basketball fans. The four Sweet 16 appearances that came between 2005-2009 are no more. The only Final Four since the days of the old Big East and Rollie Massimino are even farther away.

And for the foreseeable future, Villanova will fade back to the underdog team full of guards from a weakened conference. Maybe an indictment to some, but with the possibility of coming back to prominence in one year, it might be the exact place the Wildcats would like to be.

But on Saturday night in brisk Buffalo, New York, UConn and Napier came in as the underdogs. They finished the night as the Wildcat killers.

"Certainly a tough way to end the season. I don't want to let this put a damper on what this group has done this year," Wright said. "Napier was just awesome. There was just a period there where he hit those three threes, and it just created a separation. In a game like this that was that close, that separation was tough to make up, and I think that was probably the story of the game, their defense and that period where Napier hit three deep threes."