A FEW HUNDRED Villanova people, comfortable as comfortable can be on Selection Sunday, gathered at the Connelly Center on campus to discover the Wildcats' road map. Several minutes before they found out that their path went through Philadelphia, as hoped, CBS flashed some camera shots from gatherings like this one around the nation - except that the one in Fargo, N.D., was unlike any other, thousands of people gathered in an arena, literally thousands, whooping and hollering and awaiting their unaccustomed (and longshot) fate.
The Villanova crowd laughed at the picture - and it was funny and charming, the innocent joy. Afterward, coach Jay Wright would stand behind a podium and reference that huge throng at North Dakota State, those thousands of tournament virgins, and tell his own people, "Never let it get old."
But it is hard not to be a little jaded as Villanova prepares for a first-round game against American on Thursday at the Wachovia Center. This is now five straight NCAA Tournaments for Wright and the Wildcats. To call this a great accomplishment is to understate the reality. Only once before - seven straight appearances under Rollie Massimino, from 1980 to '86 - has Villanova enjoyed a longer string of success. And it is harder now.
"It was less teams [the tournament didn't grow to 64 teams until 1985], so it was pretty tough back then, too,'' Wright said. "It is tough [today], though. All I can say is, I'm so proud of this group and proud of our program - I really am.
"I was worried last year. I thought it was really big for us to get back [as a 12th seed], to keep it going, and I hope it's going to help us as a team this year. That's one of the things I was worried about last year - if we didn't go, I knew we'd be better this year, but we'd have a group playing in the tournament that hadn't played. But now these sophomores, who are a big part of our team, they've played and they've played in the Sweet 16.
"This is big," Wright said, searching for something grand and then settling for the most plain and effective word. "It's big. It really makes me proud.''
These were the Villanova seedings during Massimino's 7-year run: 8, 9, 3, 3, 7, 8, 10. The first five add up to 30. These are the five seeds in this run under Wright: 5, 1, 9, 12, 3. Those five also add up to 30.
"It would appear to me that it's harder to do today," said Whitey Rigsby, the former Villanova player and longtime radio analyst. "I never thought coach Mass got credit for doing it back then, for how good those teams were year after year. And the tournament was smaller, so you could argue it was harder then. But I think it's harder now. There's more emphasis on the NCAA Tournament than there was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, certainly 30 years ago when I played. Even with more teams in the tournament, because of that emphasis, I think it's harder now.
"Then you look at this league . . . "
The Wildcats were a No. 8 seed when they won it all in 1985, the year when Georgetown and St. John's also made the Final Four, the only conference ever to do that. The counterargument for this year is that the Big East has three teams on the top line, three No. 1 seeds in Louisville, Pittsburgh and Connecticut, the only conference ever to do that.
Wright said, "I don't think
we're an overly talented team, but we have a group of wily veterans that have been through a lot." It really is the key to their success - keeping most of their players here for 4 years.
"Back when coach Mass was here, do you think Eddie Pinckney stays 4 years?" Rigsby said. "There's no way. Stewart Granger? No way. Players at that level don't stay anymore.
"And here's the other thing: The really great big people leave in college basketball [for the NBA]. You don't see as many guards leave early. Kyle Lowry was an odd duck that way - not a lot of 5-11 kids go early, but 6-10 kids do. Our best players, for the most part, have been midrange players, guys who are 6-6 and down.
"Jay has built more around guards and perimeter players, and they stay longer."
The results are the results. This class of seniors - Dante Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark and Frank Tchuisi - has won 98 games, the most ever by a Villanova class. The streak of 20-win seasons is now at five, the most ever in school history. The team has been to the Sweet 16 in three of the last four seasons.
It is a formidable resume, historic in terms of this program. You wonder how the rest of the basketball world views them.
"I don't know what people around the country think of Villanova," Rigsby said. "I'm sure, when they think about the Big East, they think about Connecticut. They probably still think about Syracuse. They might still think about Georgetown, even though they're down. I don't know if they think of Pitt, even now. I don't know if they think of Villanova."
They should. *
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