Villanova looks to future instead of at failed title defense
By DAN GELSTON
VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Check all the Xs in the office pool and just-for-fun brackets and defending national champion Villanova and Duke are two of the biggest names eliminated from the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats and Blue Devils would have been a matchup fit for the marquee at Madison Square Garden.
But instead of getting the equivalent of Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz, MSG has to sell seats for the regional final with Wisconsin and South Carolina potentially in the main event. For entertainment value, may as well go watch a Nets-Knicks game instead and hope Charley Oakley is in the house.
No Nova. No Duke. How much does that stink for the Wildcats?
"It does. More Nova than Duke," coach Jay Wright said to laughter.
The Wildcats (32-4) saw their chance at becoming the first repeat champions since Florida in 2007 evaporate when they were upset by eighth-seeded Wisconsin. Now they're headed home instead of toward their home away from home in New York.
Wright didn't have the stomach to watch any tourney games on Sunday. Neither did most of his players. Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins made plans to hit a Chick-fil-A on Wednesday instead of studying a scouting report.
"Our careers, we gave everything we could," Hart said.
Hart, a Naismith Player of the Year finalist, Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds gave their names to the Villanova record book over four-year careers that boasted 129 wins, the most in program history.
Four Big East championships.
Two conference tournament championships.
And they never lost two straight games - and won 48 straight at the Pavilion. They also went 16-0 against the Big 5 (Temple, La Salle, Penn, Saint Joseph's).
Oh yes, the 2016 national championship won when Jenkins buried a 3 at the buzzer to topple North Carolina.
"We didn't end our careers the way we wanted to," Jenkins said. "But we had great careers and we're proud of that."
But the (asterisk) next to their names is the three opening weekend flops that knocked out Nova as a 1 or 2 seed three times in the last four years. The national championship eases the rest of the first-weekend misery, but the Wildcats left have left a hefty amount of postseason chips on the table.
"Not to make light of it, but there are a lot more serious things in the world," Wright said. "You've got to try and think about that."
Wright can take a day or two and then think about how the Wildcats should keep rolling next season. Hart (18.7 points) and Jenkins (13.1 points) will chase pro careers - Hart is an NBA draft pick, Jenkins may play in Europe - but Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Eric Paschall and a healthy Phil Booth should again make the Wildcats the Big East favorites. They will also add a pair of top 50 high school recruits.
Jalen Brunson's return is the lone hang-up in Villanova's offseason planning. Brunson, the sensational sophomore point guard, averaged 14.7 points, shot 54 percent from the field, had 148 assists and could bolt for the NBA. Brunson, the son of former NBA player Rick Brunson, has not told Wright his decision.
"I'm going to sit down with Jalen and his parents in the next day or so," Wright said. "They don't really need my advice. I trust any decision they would make."
The Pavilion is set to undergo a $25 million renovation that will force the Wildcats to play home games next season at the Wells Fargo Center (home of the 76ers) and perhaps other local gyms.
The Wildcats are ready to return to campus in `18 - and Wright should be there on the bench. Wright again brushed off questions that he could head elsewhere and seems happy to coach Villanova for life.
But imagine a franchise down the road from campus that courted Wright once before coming off a sixth straight losing season but with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the roster and looking for a new leader ...
"When people talk to you about a job, it's flattering," Wright said. "Honestly, I'd like it better if it wouldn't happen because I know I don't want to go. I love it here."
Wright and the Wildcats can rest up this summer. There will be another team at the White House, the ESPYs and making the rounds at banquets around the state.
"I was so proud of how they handled the repeat talk all season," Wright said. "I guess we'll never know if it affected them in the tournament because it didn't last long enough."
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Updated March 20, 2017