The players and coaches all knew which bracket line was reserved for Villanova long before the Selection Sunday announcement was broadcast into their annual campus gathering of Wildcat Nation.
They cheered on cue when the automatic qualifiers were listed at the top of the show, because that seemed like the thing to do, even though Villanova’s coronation as Big East champion had been decided the day before and was no longer a surprise.
And they cheered again when the East bracket was listed, with the Wildcats headed for Pittsburgh as the No. 1 seed in the region. But what made everyone sit forward just a little were the names on the other lines of the bracket. That’s the part you never know ahead of time, and it is what really decides how the NCAA tournament will go.
“In this tournament, you can get beat by anybody,” coach Jay Wright said. “But we also feel we can take on anybody.”
The Wildcats are that good, but to run through the tournament as they did in winning the national championship in 2016, a team also has to have a path that doesn’t present an insurmountable matchup roadblock. Being good gets you there — and gets you the high seed necessary to get deep into the bracket — but there is a component of luck that can’t be denied.
“I think it’s part of the tournament and I think we’ve had some tough matchups,” Wright said. “You just don’t know who you’re going to get.”
When the names of the teams that will join them in Pittsburgh were revealed, the Wildcats didn’t necessarily know more than before. For the opener, in fact, they still don’t know the identity of the opponent, pending the outcome of a LIU Brooklyn-Radford game on Tuesday between a pair of No. 16 seeds in the play-in portion of the tournament.
“That makes practice a little different [because] you have to prepare for two different styles until you find out the winner and then you get one day to prepare,” Wright said. “Of course, they only have one day to prepare, too.”
And they, whoever “they” turns out to be, has one day to prepare for a team that was seeded second in the entire nation by the NCAA tournament committee, just a tick behind Virginia, the No. 1 seed in the South Regional.
Realistically — because a 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed — the problems for Wright and the Wildcats will begin in earnest with their second game of the tournament. Sure, someday that will change for some unlucky top seed, but that isn’t the way to bet.
And, even more realistically, no one is more aware of the dangers of the first weekend than Wright. In six of the Wildcats’ last seven trips to the NCAA tournament, that is not just where the trouble began, but also where it ended. It helps that the seventh of those seven trips held the magic of the 2016 national championship, a run that didn’t include a game decided by fewer than five points until the final.
It helps a lot, but it doesn’t change the other six, and it hasn’t kept Wright from looking for a thread that might connect the disappointments.
“It doesn’t mask it. We still talk about that,” Wright said. “The best way to say it is that I don’t see one consistent issue. I looked at each one independently and did try to find some consistencies. The only thing consistent was tough matchups.”
Four of the early exits (2010, 2014, 2015, 2017) came in the second game of the tournament, with Villanova either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. The other two (2011, 2013) happened in the opener when the Wildcats were No. 9 seeds playing shootouts against No. 8 seeds. As Wright suggested, there wasn’t a pattern, except that the opponent who showed up was simply the wrong one on that day.
“We get UConn, who became the national champion. Who knew that?” Wright said of the 2014 loss in the second game. “We get an N.C. State team  that was really talented, but had underachieved during the year. And we get Wisconsin, the oldest team, and have Josh Hart going down the lane with the ball to win the game and gets fouled, I think, and we don’t get the call. If I thought there was something there, I’d address it, but it’s the nature of the tournament.”
The Wisconsin loss a year ago is the freshest wound, and it hurt, but it also emphasized just how remarkable was the sprint to the national championship. But it can happen … because it did.
So, when the staff drills down into the first games, there will be a lot of attention given to scouting Virginia Tech and Alabama, the two possible opponents for the second game. Tech is smallish, with just one starter taller than 6-foot-5, but the Hokies also beat Virginia, Duke and North Carolina this season. Alabama lost its last five regular season games before having a pretty good conference tournament, but is essentially a one-man team led by one-and-done lottery pick guard Collin Sexton. Are either of them a potential pothole?
“I don’t know enough about those teams that would be in the second round to know if they are tough matchups yet,” Wright said. “But we’ll figure it out.”
Put it this way. They’ve figured it out before.