Ford: Villanova remembers the one it lost

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A teary-eyed Josh Hart after losing to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament championship game on March 12, 2016.

The Villanova Wildcats had the good fortune to play nine postseason games last season, which was the limit available to them. There were three in the Big East Conference tournament and then the remarkable six-game run through the NCAA field.

They remember every one of them, particularly the national championship game against North Carolina, but the postseason wasn't a clean sheet for the Wildcats, and so they also haven't forgotten the game that made them 8-1 in the sprint through March and April.

In retrospect and by comparison, the 69-67 loss to Seton Hall in the conference final doesn't seem all that meaningful. Perhaps having that lone loss could even be viewed as motivational for this season. But don't try selling all that to Villanova.

"I would have much rather won it and be dealing with the challenge of doing it again," coach Jay Wright said. "The only positive of not winning it is the guys are hungry. But we try to keep our guys hungry even when they win. They know we got beat last year."

The Seton Hall team that beat them, led by sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead, made the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade, and the Big East title was the first for the Pirates in 23 years. Compared with Villanova's stately annual resumé, it was a one-year blip - Seton Hall, having lost Whitehead to the NBA, has slipped back and is expected to be a low at-large team this time around - but nevertheless it was a blip that cost the Wildcats a perfect tournament season.

"That game was humbling," senior Josh Hart said. "We didn't play Villanova basketball for 30 of the 40 minutes. In the last 10 minutes, it was a different game, and we know that's what we have to do now. If we don't focus on detail, we'll get the same outcome."

The Wildcats had beaten Georgetown and Providence in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds of the tournament at Madison Square Garden to make it to the Saturday night final, but Seton Hall went out to an easy 14-point lead in the first half. Villanova's defense was spotty, and the Wildcats couldn't make a three-point shot. As Hart said, it wasn't until late that Villanova mounted a comeback that would eventually give the Wildcats a slim lead in the final minute of play.

Then there was a Whitehead drive to the hoop and a foul call that might have been legitimate, and Villanova needed a length-of-the-court miracle in the final seconds to pull out the win. Wright called for an end-of-half play that the Wildcats practiced regularly, one in which point guard Ryan Arcidiacono would race upcourt and then choose among several options for the last shot.

Wright would need to call the play twice during the postseason. It turned out pretty well the second time, when Arcidiacono passed to Kris Jenkins for the title-winning shot at the buzzer against North Carolina. The first time was a bust, however. Against Seton Hall, Arcidiacono slipped as he crossed half-court and got off a weak attempt that never reached the rim. (Learning from the experience, center Daniel Ochefu grabbed a mop and dried the floor in front of the benches before the last play against North Carolina, having noticed that spills from water bottles often collect there.)

"We battled back, but it was hard and then, yeah, Arch slipped," swingman Mikal Bridges said. "It shows you that every team in the Big East is good, and any of them can beat you if you don't bring it every game. You see there are going to be, what, six or seven teams make the NCAA tournament, and you know how tough our conference is."

The Villanova players are aware that playing nine games is never a guarantee at this time of year. Only two are for sure: their first one in the Big East tournament, which will be Thursday at noon against St. John's, and then their opener in the NCAA tournament the following week. The experience of a year ago will help them, but the wins don't carry over.

"If we don't take care of business, we'll be home watching it," Jenkins said. "We know it's a new season. Win or go home from here on out."

The trail begins in the Garden, which hosts the tournament for the 35th consecutive year, and gets everyone ready for the bright lights that might lie ahead.

"I don't think there's any conference tournament in the country that has the intensity and the passion in the stands like the Garden. There's some vibe about being there," Wright said. "It's something unique, and if you make it to Friday night or Saturday night in New York City, in the Garden, the intensity is off the charts."

It's a lot better when you win, though. The Wildcats didn't have to live through much losing in the postseason a year ago, but they haven't forgotten the one time they did. It's hard to win a national championship and still have unfinished business, but Villanova somehow believes that's the case.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports