PITTSBURGH – It’s the elephant in the arena. Jay Wright won’t let it in his locker room but he knows it’s out there, the fact that Villanova has lost in the second round in the NCAA tournament in three of the last four seasons, the last two times as a No. 1 seed.
The Wildcats (31-4), again a top seed, will try again Saturday to advance to the second weekend of the NCAAs when they take on Alabama (20-15), the ninth seed, in the East Region at PPG Paints Arena, the venue for their early 2015 exit.
“It’s only on me, I’m the only one that’s screwed it up,” Wright said Friday. “The guys that are on this team, they don’t have anything to do with it. They’ve won a national championship and they’ve lost in the second round, so that’s all they’ve done. These guys are not a part of that, just me.”
After losing to No. 7 seed Connecticut in 2014 and to No. 8 North Carolina State the next year, the Wildcats rolled all the way through the bracket to the 2016 championship. But they reverted to old habits last season, going down against No. 8 Wisconsin, 65-62.
Redshirt junior guard Phil Booth, who sat out last year with a knee injury, is the only Cat to have played in the 2015 game here.
“I definitely remember that game,” Booth said. “I walked in here the other day walking through that hallway and it reminded me of losing here. So I can’t think about that, a lot of these guys weren’t even on that team. It is what it is, but we’re definitely focused on Alabama.”
Jalen Brunson, the team’s floor leader, has talked about being part of the high point and low point of the program the last two years. But remembering the low point “is something that we rarely talk about,” he said.
“It’s something that may cross our minds here and there,” he said. “But we can’t really be focused on that. We’re a new team, new leader, different roles. It’s all new to us. We’re not really worried about what’s happened in the past, just focus on what we can control and playing hard for 40 minutes. That’s all we can do.”
Playing hard will be of the utmost importance against the unpredictable Crimson Tide, whose first-round victory Thursday night over Virginia Tech was just their third win in their last nine games. They are led by freshman Collin Sexton, a quick, multi-talented guard who scored 22 of his 25 points in the second half against the Hokies.
There will be plenty of talk by Saturday’s tip of how this game will be a Brunson vs. Sexton matchup. But Brunson, a favorite for national player of the year honors to be awarded in the coming weeks, doesn’t see it that way.
“Obviously we’re very different,” Brunson said. “I believe that he’s a great player. He has a bright future ahead of him and he’s going to do a lot of great things. But it’s really about Villanova versus Alabama.”
Wright said neither is the kind of player you guard 1-on-1. Villanova switches often on defense and Alabama, coached by former NBA player and coach Avery Johnson, showed Thursday night a defense that frequently double-teams the ballhandler.
So the stage is set. Alabama is coming off its first NCAA win since 2006 but had been to the dance one other time before this season. Villanova is competing for the sixth straight year and has advanced past the opening weekend just once.
Wright said he may decide to address the history. Or he may not.
“I just feel like they’re not a part of it,” he said. “It’s all on me.”