On Saturday, Villanova got a huge win against 17th-ranked Marquette. It was 'Nova's third win against top-20 competition this season, adding to their wins against #3 Syracuse and #5 Louisville. Add in their win against UConn and the Wildcats have 4 top-30 RPI wins. The win on Saturday inched Villanova a little bit closer to securing an NCAA tournament bid. And I am here to argue that this season's campaign is the best that coach Jay Wright has had on the Main Line.
That statement says a lot. Since Jay Wright took over on the Main Line, the Wildcats have made 7 NCAA tournament appearances and 3 NIT appearances. They've made a Final 4, an Elite 8, and two Sweet 16's. In 2005, they were a phantom traveling call on Allen Ray from reaching another Elite 8, and in 2006 they lost in the Elite 8, and an injury to Curtis Sumpter will leave that 'Nova squad forever in the "what might have been" category.
Coach Wright took over a mediocre program from former coach Steve Lappas and returned it to national prominence. Solid recruiting classes, perennial top-25 rankings, and trips to the NCAA tournament have become the norm at Villanova under Wright's guidance.
Last season they stumbled to a putrid 13-19 record. It was only the second time Villanova failed to record a winning record under Wright, and the only time during his tenure where they failed to qualify for any postseason basketball.
The season was a tough one for 'Nova fans to stomach, as they had gotten used to 20+ win seasons and NCAA tournament bids. It also opened the door for some of Wright's critics. Even the proprietor of this here site has been critical of Wright, citing that the coach has struggled at developing his usually stellar recruiting classes, although I certainly wouldn't classify the Rev a critic of Wright overall.
The disaster that was Villanova's 2011-2012 season had led to much-diminished expectations heading into this year. The Wildcats were picked by the Big East coaches to finish 12th in the conference this season (they currently sit tied for 7th at 9-6). You would be hard-pressed to find even the staunchest of 'Nova supporters and optimists claiming they expected the team to be anywhere near an NCAA tournament bid. Personally, at the beginning of the season I would have been satisfied with a .500 record and an NIT berth.
And yet here we are, in late February, and the Wildcats trending toward an invite to the Big Dance. They are 18-10 with three regular-season games remaining. They play Seton Hall tonight, who they should (and need to) beat. Knock on wood. Then they finish with tough games against two nationally ranked teams in Pitt and rival Georgetown.
It's still too early to try to figure out what the résumé will look like in two weeks' time. It could look about the same, or it could look drastically better or worse. But the fact that the Wildcats are squarely in the discussion and ultimately hold their fate in their own hands is a testament to the players and to the job coach Wright has done this season.
He's gotten his guys to play tough night in and night out. They've gutted out several wins. The biggest difference is that this year they are finding ways to win games that last year they would find a way to lose. I am equally surprised/excited/impressed with the season they have put together and where they stand with Selection Sunday drawing ever closer.
Perhaps even more importantly, the team seems to be in good hands going forward. Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton are the only seniors on the team. Next season they will return the leadership and clutch play of James Bell, the steady play of an increasingly confident and comfortable JayVaughn Pinkston, and the hopefully improving play of already promising and impressive freshman Ryan Arcidiacono. Sophomore Darrun Hilliard has also surprised, showing flashes of offensive brilliance.
Regardless of how the rest of the season goes and what their ultimate fate concerning the NCAA tournament becomes, they have shown great improvement and growth from last year. They were coming off an abysmal season and into a season with low expectations. And they've been working with arguably the least amount of talent that they've had under Wright. So I just needed to give some props to coach, who is doing perhaps his best job since arriving on the Main Line, despite all the success he has already had there.