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Big East king Villanova knows it will be judged in March

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Jay Wright's team is once again rolling through the first part of the new calendar year, but the ghosts of past Villanova teams will follow this one around until it gets another shot in the NCAA Tournament.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

At the midway point of a season defined by murkiness and unpredictability, there seems to be only one team that college basketball fans believe they have completely figured out.

The irony here, of course, is that in a season where it feels like multiple top 15 teams are taking losses just about every night, one of the only members of that elite fraternity to win impressively on a consistent basis over the past month is the one the college basketball world seems to trust the least.

Good or bad, the March stigma might be the hardest one in sports to shake. A four-month body of work is immediately thrown out the window each year on Selection Sunday, and fairly or unfairly, whatever happens next is what gets lodged in the collective sports brain of the American public.

For Villanova, the phenomenon has been especially cruel.

In each of the past two seasons, Jay Wright's team has ripped through the Big East's regular season, finishing with a 16-2 record. A year ago, the Wildcats consolidated that title by winning the Big East Tournament and locking up a No. 1 seed for the Big Dance. It was the third time since 2010 that 'Nova had found itself on one of the top two lines for the tournament, but both of the last two occurrences had ended in opening weekend heartbreak.

If the doubters didn't outnumber the believers, they were certainly more audible. Between the day the brackets were unveiled and the opening tip of the madness on Thursday afternoon, it was impossible for anyone associated with Villanova basketball not to hear the questions.

How much do you think about the second-round losses to UConn and Saint Mary's? Are these teams too reliant on the outside shot to be trusted in March? Do you think this Wildcat team is different? Why should we believe "it" won't happen again?

That's why when "it" happened again -- a 71-68 upset loss to eighth-seeded NC State in the second round -- Wright already knew what was in store for both he and his program.

"I know we have to answer to the fact that we did not get to the second weekend again," Wright said after the game. "We have to own that. But it's not going to define us within our program. It's going to define us outside of our program and we accept that. We're not afraid to fail. We failed here in this NCAA tournament. And we just got to accept it and we've got to own it and live with it."

Fast forward 10 months and both the stigma and the sparkling record are still there. Villanova is 16-2 with its lone losses coming to No. 1 Oklahoma on a neutral court and at then-No. 8 Virginia. The Wildcats again appear to be the clear class of the Big East, owning the league's only unbeaten mark (6-0), which includes wins at Georgetown and nationally ranked Butler, as well as a 31-point stomping of a Xavier team that is 16-1 and also ranked in the top 10.

Basic logic would indicate that Villanova dominating the first 1/3 of conference play in a league that has been ranked at or near the top of the conference RPI rankings all season would garner more respect than what you saw in the tweets above, but the Big East's problem is the same as its current tentpole program.

The Big East sent four teams to the 2014 NCAA Tournament, and those four teams combined for exactly two victories and zero trips to the Sweet 16. Not only did second-seeded 'Nova and three-seed Creighton do nothing to reward the confidence that the Selection Committee placed in both them by getting bounced in the Round of 32, but they did so by an embarrassing combined total of 42 points.

The story was the same for the league a year later. A wildly successful regular season resulted in six teams hearing their names called on Selection Sunday. Just one, Xavier, made it to the tournament's second weekend, and none appeared in a regional final.

The aura of the Big East name can only carry these 10 teams so far before the hoops world starts clamoring for results. A conference that sends more than half of its squads to the Big Dance is certainly one worthy of praise, but that praise is unlikely to come until at least one of them makes a legitimate run at a national title.

If the Big East wants to avoid an onslaught of "we need to stop calling it the Big East" columns in summers to come, it knows that it needs its flagship programs to step up. That starts with the team that once again appears poised to run away with the league's regular season title and earn top three line status for the Big Dance.

The more Villanova wins, the louder the questions get.

Haven't we seen this before? Does playing a Big East schedule really get you prepared for March? Which underachieving team do you think Villanova will lose to in the second round this year?

It's a phenomenon that's as hard to explain as the sequence of events that led its subject to this point.

Regardless of how Villanova got to this point, and regardless of how great the January accolades are ('Nova is currently the top team in the country according to Ken Pomeroy's rankings), Wright is fully aware that there's only one way to make the questions stop. Cruelly, it's a journey the Wildcats won't be able to start until eight weeks from now.

"There's no way to combat it," Wright said at Big East media day last October. "That's why I say we have to own. That's the mystical thing about college basketball. It doesn't matter how many games you win or lose. You're judged on March. There's nothing we can do about that label. It's going to be that way all year. We can't get past it until we get there, and then when we get there, we have to win to get past it."