Kern: Villanova's ring makes up for early exits

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Villanova guard Mikal Bridges drives to the basket against Wisconsin guard Brevin Pritzl.

BUFFALO, N.Y. - "We're trying to be legendary."

Those were the words Kris Jenkins shouted out last April in Houston, as he stood in front of 'Nova Nation at NRG Stadium with his arms pointing toward the heavens in the frenzied aftermath of his buzzer-beating three-pointer against North Carolina that gave the Wildcats their first national title since 1985.

He was right, because they were. And nothing is ever going to change that.

But . . .

Poll

Can Villanova make an NCAA run next season?

Saturday night at KeyBank Center, the top-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament lost in the second round of the East Regional to Wisconsin, 65-62, in a game it led by seven with 51/2 minutes to go. So these Wildcats, who finished with one less loss than last year, will not be headed to New York - where they just won the Big East tourney - for Friday night's Sweet 16, where they would have faced Florida, which was the last team to repeat a decade ago. Instead they'll join the 2013-14 and 2014-15 Wildcats, who also lost in the second round as a two and then a one seed, as teams that for whatever reasons couldn't get it done in the Madness as favorites.

Still, when you won it all the year before you do tend to get a pass, even if right now it's hard to explain and feels like the end of the world to this group. There's probably a statute of limitations on the pass, but I don't think we're anywhere near that yet. Not that reality stopped some emailers from getting carried away with their reaction. I get it. What happened Saturday was anything but legendary. But it doesn't erase last year, or what this senior class did. And that counts, too.

The three guys who are leaving - Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart, Jenkins and Lower Merion's Darryl Reynolds - were part of a program-record 129 victories, four Big East regular-season titles, two conference tourney titles and no Big 5 losses (with all the wins coming by double digits). That's a legacy anyone would take. And, oh yeah, don't forget Houston.

"Obviously this one's tough for everyone to swallow," said Hart, who had 19 points but five turnovers, including the decisive one in the closing seconds when he tried to drive to the basket in traffic, down by two. "But we had the best four years we could ever dream of."

Sounds like a pretty enlightening point.

The flip side, of course, is that the Wildcats have made it past the second round just once since 2009. And that once ended in a ring. But four other times they lost as either a one or two seed. If any other big-time program did that, what would we think from afar? Just saying. So the question becomes: Would you trade all those early exits for that one shining moment? Sure, you'd rather have a title and a few more prolonged runs. But it's not a perfect world. If the Wildcats had made a few runs with no title in that stretch, would their fans be happier?

That's why you have to savor the shining moments when you get them. Because you're never sure when you might get another, no matter if you're winning 30 times every year. And the fact that they're winning 30 times every year should be seen as a good thing, no?

Next March, nevertheless, Wright will probably be right back where he was a year ago, answering the same questions about the early exits. Because that's the way it works, fair or whatever. Shockingly, the Wildcats should be really good once more. And you figured he had buried that once and for all 12 months ago.

From 2005-09, Wright made it to the Sweet 16 four times, once as a 12 seed. He got to an Elite Eight and a Final Four. So it's not like he doesn't know how to get his guys to do it. Yet at some point it might become a tiresome subject again, despite the ring.

Me, I'd take the last four years any day. Could it have been better? Obviously. But they scaled the mountain. How many teams can say that? Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu were lucky. They got to go out on top. I felt for Jenkins, who struggled mightily with his shot the last month. The expectations shouldn't have become a burden. He didn't deserve that. And I'll always have the image of Reynolds, a class act and future success story, sitting in the corner of the locker room almost not being able to express his thoughts through all the crushing emotion. But the reunions are going to be something else. And nobody will be talking about Wisconsin. They will be talking about Jenkins hitting one of the most memorable shots in college basketball history.

Legendary, indeed.

"Regardless of what happened this year, I'm always going to be with my brothers," Hart said. "That bond is never going to be broken. I guarantee you I'm going to be close to them until the day I die."

And in eight months, a new team, a different team, will begin the next journey.

"There should be nothing negative about this tournament," Wright insisted. "This is the greatest, I think, sporting event in the country. Just being in it, I say this every year, we can't take it for granted. It's so special to be part of it. Every time you win and get a chance to advance, cherish it. We had a game like this against Kansas a year ago (in the Final Eight) and we came out on the right side of it. We had a game against NC State (in 2015) when we had to shot to win it and missed it.

"There's no dishonor in losing in this tournament. But I do know that you are judged by how you play in this tournament and that's the reality of it. We've lived through it. So you have to accept it."

That goes the same whether you're cutting down nets or getting upset before your time. Then you move on. Either way.

See you in November.

kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn