BUFFALO - Expectations for Villanova, already heightened by its national championship season last year, grew even stronger after the Wildcats won 31 games in the regular season and were awarded the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
So naturally, while there was crushing disappointment that the Cats were knocked out of a chance to repeat in only the second game of the tournament on Saturday, a 65-62 loss to Wisconsin that ended the college careers of seniors Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Darryl Reynolds, one truth seemed to stand out.
Even with all the success it had over the last four years, Villanova probably overachieved in this 32-4 season considering the lineup that coach Jay Wright figured on having last September before the start of preseason.
The Wildcats played nearly all season with a seven-man rotation, short by one guard and one big man. Junior guard Phil Booth played in the first three games and then sat out the rest of the season because of left knee inflammation. Freshman forward Omari Spellman was ruled ineligible in September by the NCAA. Tim Delaney, a deep frontcourt sub, played in just seven games, limited by continuing hip problems.
The Wildcats, however, did not miss a beat. Redshirt freshman Donte DiVincenzo and sophomore Eric Paschall filled two major bench roles all season, improving as the campaign wore on. They were called upon even more when Reynolds was sidelined for five games in February with a rib injury.
"I'm most proud of the team that we became after losing Omari and Phil, and Tim Delaney, we lost him for the year," Wright said Saturday after the game. "When that happened, and then losing Darryl during the year, we figured, let's see how good we can be, and we became a hell of a team, we really did. And just not good enough to get past this Wisconsin team but still a hell of a team.
"We weren't a national champion. I think we had a chance, but it's such a fine line between being a national champion and losing at any point in this tournament."
In the end, however, the short bench and a lack of depth on the inside led to the Cats' ouster. Wisconsin's inside duo of 6-foot-8 senior Nigel Hayes and 6-10 junior Ethan Happ combined for 31 points and 16 rebounds, with Hayes hitting the tie-breaking layup with 11.4 seconds to play.
Wright knows about expectations in the NCAA tournament, and about the judgments passed on his team, harsh opinions that surfaced again after the Wildcats' third second-round knockout in the last four years as a top two seed.
The praise was unlimited last season after the Wildcats swept six games in the tournament and returned home with the national championship trophy. That ramped up expectations this year with the Cats expected to make a significant run at a repeat, at least get as far as the Final Four. But Wisconsin made sure it didn't happen.
"It's so special to be a part of the NCAA tournament," Wright said. "Every time you win and you get a chance to advance, cherish it. You're playing the best teams in the country. We had a game like this against Kansas last year and we came out on the good side of it. We had a game like this against N.C. State two years ago, and we had a shot to win it and we missed it.
"To me, there's no dishonor in losing in this tournament. But I do know that - and we've lived through it - you are judged by how you play in this tournament and that's the reality of it. So you have to accept it."
It was a tough way for the seniors to bow out after a career that produced 129 wins, the 10th-highest total by a class in NCAA history. It was a particularly difficult time for Jenkins, whose buzzer-beater last year in Houston will be remembered forever on the Main Line.
After averaging 15.5 points in the NCAA tournament last season while shooting 57 percent from the field and draining 17 three-point baskets, Jenkins went 4 of 22 in two games in Buffalo, scored 13 points, and did not make a single three-pointer.
Hart scored 19 points in his final game to finish with 1,921 in his career, 10th in program history, and now awaits the results of all-America and player of the year voting, and a future in the NBA.
"We battled and we went through a lot of adversity," Hart said. "This group fought and they faced every challenge that was thrown at them, and that's something I'm proud about. I'm proud of what we did."
The Wildcats will have plenty of talent returning. Booth and Spellman will join returning starters Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. DiVincenzo and Paschall have a valuable year of experience under their belts, and 6-10 Dylan Painter may be ready for a more regular role.
Villanova also has some well-regarded freshmen coming to the Main Line - 6-9 Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree of Neumann-Goretti, 6-6 Jermaine Samuels of Weston, Mass., and 6-1 Collin Gillespie of Archbishop Wood. Gillespie is expected to sign his national letter of intent next month.
So it should be another strong year in 2017-18. But first, Wright wants to give credit to a team that just couldn't get over the hump against Wisconsin.
"I just think in general, you're defined by what you did in the NCAA tournament," he said. "If you're a team that's getting there every year, the team and you as a player get defined that way nationally, with fans, and that's OK. But we're not going to define ourselves that way."