'Nova faces questions heading into March

I don’t know how Villanova’s season is going to play out. I do know that a few weeks ago, a lot of folks had the Wildcats making some kind of extended run in the NCAA Tournament. And it still might happen, just because. But things have obviously changed. Simply look at the Big East standings.

Still, if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that anything can happen in March. And often does. You’re just not always sure of the who. Or the circumstances.

I mean, three years ago, when the Wildcats were losing those five games at midseason, all by double digits, who thought they were even going to be in the field? Yet somehow they did just enough to sneak in, maybe even as the last at-large team. Then they drew Clemson and Oliver Purnell, who’s never won in the Madness, in the opener, where they somehow overcame an 18-point second-half deficit. Then, 13th-seeded Siena upset Vanderbilt in the other half of their bracket. So they made it to the Sweet 16, where they got drilled by eventual national champion Kansas. But all most people really remember is that they made it to the second week. Not how they got there, or all that proceeded it.

Last year, they were 20-1 and ranked No. 2. But they hit a wall, and lost in the second round to 10th-seeded St. Mary’s. So, their 20-1 pretty much got lost in the rubble.

It’s just the way this stuff works.

Jay Wright has spoiled the Nation. So now, the expectations are usually high. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially with three senior starters. But expectations don’t guarantee anything. Nor should they. But from the time the Wildcats went to the Sweet 16 in 2005, and almost beat eventual champ North Carolina, to the Final Eight appearance the following March, it’s all been about the Madness. The Final Four trip in 2009 only enhanced that reality.

Think about this: the last time the Wildcats made the tourney in back-to-back seasons and didn’t make it past the second round was 1996 and ‘97. They won once both times before losing as the higher seed (to Louisville and Cal). That’s what they’ll be trying to avoid next month.

I don’t know what the status of Corey Stokes’ turf toe is going to be. I don’t know what kind of seed they’re going to get. Or, more to the point, what kind of matchup that’s going to present. I do know they’re going to lose at least a couple more games before Selection Sunday. And I also think this: when they’re playing well, they can beat a lot of teams. Maybe not the top tier on the food chain, but a lot nonetheless. And if they play just OK, they can be beaten by a bunch of good clubs as well.

What to make of all that? Hey, your guess is as good as mine. I didn’t think this team was necessarily the second best in the Big East to begin with. Nor was I convinced it was Final Four material, either. That was back in November, so nothing’s happened to make me change my opinion. But that doesn’t mean the Wildcats can’t win a couple of games in the tourney. If you do that, who knows? And by my standards, that would still have to go down as a successful season, no matter how high they’re raised the bar in the recent past. By the same token, if they go out in the second round again the Nation wouldn’t be happy. And it would be hard to blame them, especially since there could be so many question marks heading into next season with such a young group.

Or maybe that could be a good thing, since the expectations figure to be lower. But personally, I’ll take the elevated bar every time. And I’m pretty sure so would Wright. You might not always get to where you’re projected, but being seen as one of the annual haves is what every program aspires to be. It certainly beats the alternative.