VILLANOVA'S SEASON ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, for the third time in four years. This time the Wildcats were eliminated by eighth-seeded Wisconsin. Which means they didn't become the third team to repeat since John Wooden called it a career in 1975. They didn't even become the fifth defending champion since Florida went back-to-back a decade ago to reach the Sweet 16 (none have gone further). So much for being the top overall seed in the field.
Still, it wasn't until two weeks later at the Final Four that the blunt reality "really hit" coach Jay Wright.
"I went to work the CBS pregame show before the semifinals and I had to get there early," he said, at what's become an annual postseason chat to look back and, more relevant from his point of view, ahead. "I'm walking through the bottom of the stands (at Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.) and there's nobody there. It reminded me of last year, when we were coming in for the (opening) game. Except this year I felt kind of like an imposter, you know. I didn't do anything to be there.
"And going through workouts now, we didn't do any last spring. Because there was no time. We were doing so many other things. That's when I realized how different it was. But there's another side of me that enjoys this too. Coaches love practice. You love coaching more than you love going to appearances and stuff like that. This is what you enjoy more, that individual time with the players. In the offseason, it's a lot more relaxed. I really did miss that last year."
But . . .
"We would never trade a championship."
Therein lies the conundrum.
Only two teams have been either a one or a two seed in each of the last four seasons: Villanova and Kansas. Kansas lost in the Elite Eight the last two years. In 2016 the loss was to Villanova, which of course would become the last team standing. That was the year Wright wondered aloud what a third straight loss in the second round might mean. Especially since he hadn't been past the second game since 2009. Turned out it was a story that never had to be written. Next March, if the Wildcats are in a similar position, the questions will have to be asked again. Because even a national title only gets you so much whatever. Nobody gets that more than Wright.
"Each year is a unique journey," he said. "As exhilarating as last year was, this loss was almost as crushing. It hurts. Gradually, it just kind of fades over time. But for awhile it's hard. Even if you won it last year. Because this season was over. And you put everything into each year. You never know what each new year's going to bring. I'm not going to be able to coach some of these guys any more. That group won't be together again. Things change."
This senior class (Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds) set a program record for wins, with 129. The Wildcats won 32 times this season, despite playing without two projected starters. They finished with one less loss than the previous season. Yet the lasting memory for many folks will be another early exit. Just like nobody remembers the 23-point December loss to Oklahoma last season, or the Big East title-game loss to Seton Hall three months later. Jenkins ensured that with one shot. This time there would be no heroics - from anyone. Which only makes Wright appreciate last year's run more.
"We learned how hard it is," he stressed. "And how hard it would be to do it again. I have so much respect for what (North) Carolina did by getting back there. Even if they didn't win it. I'm sure they would have been devastated, but do you know how hard it is to win five games in the NCAA Tournament two years in a row? It's probably better if you don't think about how hard it is. Because it's almost impossible.
"Once the tournament starts, you're subjected to evaluation by seeding. And you can't argue that. Because you get to play a 16 seed (first). And then you get to play an eight or nine, where other teams could be playing fours or fives. There is an advantage to that. When you don't take advantage of that, you take the heat. We would never try to convince anyone otherwise. We understand the bottom line, that you get measured by how you play in the NCAA Tournament. That's just the way it is. There's no reason to waste any energy trying to change that. In the same sense, we got tremendous accolades for winning it. So when you take the accolades, which we did, you have to take the heat. That's just part of the game.
"We're definitely going to have the face the questions again. But it takes so much just to get to that point. So it's not even worth thinking about. Yet in the back of our minds, we know it. That won't be enjoyable. But we've all come to terms with that here, through experience.
Even if you're only two years removed from the ultimate Shining Moment.
"I think for fans and generally in college sports, it tempers (the pressure) somewhat," Wright conceded. "But only for a short period of time, you know."
The start of the next journey will arrive soon enough. The Wildcats could be really good again, particularly now that Jalen Brunson has decided to come back for his junior season. Of course there's always going to be variables. It would obviously help if Phil Booth's knee were finally pain-free since he was their top scorer in the national-title game. And if Omari Spellman, who like Booth missed the season (though not because of injury but for eligibility reasons), has an immediate low-post impact as projected. Donte DiVincenzo looks like he's only going to get better. Mikal Bridges has a pro body and unique skill set. Eric Paschall has a promising upside. And the three incoming freshmen, who have to prove themselves at this level, each brings a certain pedigree.
But there are no guarantees.
"We were very disappointed about the way we played in both our games in the NCAA Tournament," Wright said. "We still feel great about what we did during the regular season. I think we were a little worn down by the end, but that's not an excuse. That's just where we were. Other teams were dealing with their own issues. I just felt if we got past that game, we could have got some rest and maybe got on a roll. But we didn't. Wisconsin made more big plays.
"I wish I could have done some things differently. Simple things. Like Saturday night after the Big East, we stayed up there and came home Sunday. I wish I'd given them an extra night in their bed. I'm not saying that would have made a difference, but it might have kept them fresher. The year before I think we made all the right moves.
"We're very honest with them. What our seniors did, leading us through the distractions, the injuries, the challenges, was hard. Everything they accomplished, and everything they handled, was incredible. We're very proud of them. Then we told them the tournament is the tournament. We didn't play our best basketball. We all have to take responsibility for that."
Wright did get to at least the Sweet 16, once as a 12 seed, four times in five years beginning in 2005. And in 2009 the Wildcats reached the national semis. That remains part of the reality too. Simply not as relevant any longer. But the national title should be. As are those second-round failures. A title is a heckuva trump card. At least until next March.
"I purposely don't take time to think about everything that's happened in the last few years, because I want to enjoy the next season," Wright said. "We try to discipline ourselves not to do that. I love teaching new guys things for the first time. When people asked Kris Jenkins if he thought about the shot he said, 'I'll have plenty of time to do that later.' That's a great way of explaining how we go through this.
"Some day it's going to be fun to sit back and reminisce. But while you're in it it's a waste of time. We have another opportunity ahead of us. They're all so precious. We want to make sure we take advantage of each one.
"You have to enjoy the process of going forward."
If only it were that elementary.