BOSTON — As that shot inside this place arced in the air, you could not conjure up the future. The floater by Scottie Reynolds found the net, which meant Villanova went to the 2009 Final Four, and the other guys went home.
All within your imagination.
It’s what has happened since that is so, so startling.
Two schools separated by one shot that night in this city’s north end — Villanova, the winner, was the underdog that night to Pittsburgh — and now these two programs can’t be farther apart, far past the geography of their own state.
At the time of that shot, Jay Wright said Wednesday before his team practiced, “I was hoping to be in the old Big East forever, the greatest league ever and the best basketball league in the country.”
For Villanova, you know it played out a little different, just with trips to that Final Four and eventually another in 2016 that ended with a parade on Market Street. Now, Villanova is back inside TD Garden, a favorite to reach a third Final Four in a decade, if Wright’s squad can get past West Virginia on Friday in the NCAA East Region semifinals. The winner gets the Purdue-Texas Tech survivor.
And Pittsburgh? What happened to that storied program might go even beyond Villanova in terms of stretching your imagination. A shot from the Final Four in 2008-09, a 31-win team, top seed in the East — to no conference victories at all in 2017-18, not so much national laughingstock as national afterthought. (Although the one about UMBC getting more Atlantic Coast Conference wins this season than Pitt was a pretty good one.)
The craziest part of it might be that these divergent paths have come amidst the massive restructuring of the college conference landscape. It was Pittsburgh that took the path that so many schools wanted to go on, leaving old Big East rivals behind to get to the big time of the ACC. It was a path that Villanova would have loved to have taken.
Take a second to think about the implausibility of it all. At the time, Wright was open about his hope that Villanova could somehow end up in a big-time football league, believing that the school would need such an alignment to remain in the elite level of college athletics.
When Pitt got the golden ticket along with Syracuse, it really forced the hand of the Big East basketball schools left behind to come up with their own plan. They got lucky that Fox was starting a sports channel and needed programming and the Big East was available to provide it. They got lucky that they could keep their name and keep Madison Square Garden for some postseason magic and add schools that were as committed to hoops in their own way as Villanova and Georgetown and the others.
Let’s also remember that Villanova didn’t just go on a straight line to glory. After the Final Four, ‘Nova went from 25 wins to 21 to a 13-19 season. There was a time when it seemed as if Pitt still had the way upper hand. The Panthers averaged 25 wins over the next five seasons.
So going to the ACC was a drastic mistake? No. Jamie Dixon had Pitt in the NCAA tournament in two of the school’s first three years in the ACC. Did it become harder to recruit New York without playing in the Big East? Sure, but ACC schools have recruited New York for decades.
When Dixon left for TCU, the big problem was picking the wrong replacement, thinking any old coach could keep the ship headed in the right direction.
When the new man, Kevin Stallings, proved that notion wrong, coaching Pitt to just four wins in 36 league games before being fired after this season, the AD who hired him was already gone. It’s still a good job, let’s argue, because the memories aren’t gone forever and that record is the very definition of nowhere to go but up.
“I didn’t really think about how it was going to affect the other teams going to the ACC or whatever they did,’’ Wright said, talking about how disappointed he was at first that the league “we knew and loved that was so solid” was going away. “But I’ll tell you what, I would have never thought back then that we would be in a league as successful as we are and I would be as happy about a new league and that Pitt would be where they are, to give you an honest answer.”
Villanova’s history books keep adding pages. The Reynolds shot was overtaken by one from Kris Jenkins. For those who were there for both, the Reynolds shot still almost seems as if it was maybe the day before yesterday, not nine eventful years ago.
“I was at the end of the bench — back then I was a video coordinator,’’ said Villanova assistant coach Kyle Neptune. “It was a play we ran all the time, and got all the time in practice. So when the ball was in the air, and you saw Scottie streaking down the court, you felt like, ‘Oh, he’s going to make the shot.’ ‘’
In thinking about how that one bucket was a culmination of a lot of things, Neptune said, “You have to build it, build it, build it.” And then even after starting over after that Final Four, “you build it, build it, build it … “
And is it shocking to him how it has gone down at Pitt?
“I’ll be really honest, they’re not in our league anymore, so I haven’t really paid attention to them as much to know what they’re doing,’’ Neptune said.
Winless in any league doesn’t take a lot of analysis, however.
“I will say, college basketball is very hard,’’ Neptune said. “It’s very hard to be consistent. It’s very, very hard.”
And the road is never straight. When the teams leave TD Garden after this weekend, don’t try to predict their path.