LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Is this what chasing atonement looks like? Is that what’s gotten into Villanova, the team with the microwaved shooting percentages?
At the press conference microphone Thursday night was coach Jay Wright, describing the latest NCAA Tournament romp. Twenty-three points this time over Miami, 19 before that, 30 before that. The Wildcats are on a tear, recovering from being the poster team for conspicuously early exits the past two years. And now they’re one game away from the Final Four.
"I think what you’re seeing is a team that’s learned a lot from those games, and that is experienced," Wright explained. "They’ve been there twice. They’ve lost. They don’t fear it. They don’t fear losing in the second round, they don’t fear losing in Sweet 16. They are just driven to advance.
"And I think having no fear is what we’re seeing."
Is this what a league’s true coming of age looks like?In the back of the room, Stu Jackson, the associate commissioner of the Big East, watching the gold standard team of his league take its latest bow.
The conference understands the rap from public and media. The past three years were fine as a reborn and rebooted league. Lots of good teams, good coaches, good games. But come back when someone has done something in March.
"It would be very meaningful," Jackson said of the idea of a Villanova Final Four. "Even getting to the Elite Eight is very meaningful. We all can’t have short memories. Three years ago there were tombstones with the Big East names on them.
"I think what this says, when you’re a basketball-centric league and that’s your pure focus on all levels, you can still compete.’’
Is this what an omen looks like?
Rollie Massimino was in the house Thursday. The Wildcats fired away at 62.7 percent, which wasn’t quite as good as the last time Villanova played an NCAA Tournament game in the state of Kentucky. In that one, the Wildcats missed one shot in the second half. You might remember it as Villanova 66, Georgetown 64 for the 1985 national championship. Massimino was a coach.
There he was Thursday, behind the team bench. And the Wildcats are shooting almost like it’s 1985.
They are at 61.1 percent in the NCAA Tournament, 53.2 from the 3-point line. They have missed 65 shots, but have 61 assists. Thursday, they were 10-for-15 from in 3-pointers, 18-for-19 in free throws. One coach was impressed, anyway.
"If they go 10-for-15 and 18-of-19," Kansas’ Bill Self said, "nobody’s going to beat them."
Is this what being hardened by bitter experience looks like?
Sitting by his locker, Josh Hart was talking over the road from the past two springs, to now.
"Those quick trips home the last couple of years, a lot of heartache in those losses. The upperclassmen know how that feels. That’s something we don’t want to feel and now that we’re getting deep into the tournament, that’s something we don’t want to feel even more.
"It’s been crazy. A lot of it is we’re feeding off of our defense. One thing about the NCAA Tournament, you get hot for a couple of games and that can make a world of difference."
Is this what a team determined not to fail its mission looks like?
Villanova has trailed a total of 88 seconds so far in an NCAA Tournament. The largest deficit was three, against Iowa. Ten minutes into the showdown with one of the ACC brutes Thursday, the score was 13-10. Ryan Arcidiacono 13, Miami 10.
From Arcidiacono’s three turnovers in 95 tournament minutes and 17-point scoring average, to Kris Jenkins’ 10-for-19 shooting in 3-pointers, including one he hit Thursday night from about Lexington, this Villanova team has been on a rampage.
You could tell that from the latest team to get in its way.
"We had no way to stop them,’’ Miami coach Jim Larranaga said.
"I don’t even know what to think about right now,’’ the Hurricanes’ Angel Rodriguez mentioned.
But now comes Kansas. It’ll be Nos. 1 vs. 2 seed in the South, just as it will be in the West, as the cream relentlessly rises to the top in this tournament. Thursday’s four games were won by an average of nearly 17 points.The Jayhawks are on their own roll. Try an 85.7-scoring average in the tournament, an 18.0-point average winning margin, a 13-rebound gap, a 50.8 team shooting percentage.
A team to worry about, right?
"A little bit, yeah," Kansas’ Jalen Brunson said.
But the Wildcats have been on the frightening side lately, too. That’s not a No. 2 seed rolling through the South Regional, it’s a locomotive.
Wright: "You can just see they’re hungry. They’re hungry to advance. They’re hungry to prepare. It’s all coming from them. When the players take over responsibility for all your core values, you’re a good team.
"We’re definitely playing our best basketball right now . . . and that’s your goal."
The confidence on offense has been impossible to miss, or stop so far.
"We have a saying,’’ Wright said "Shoot ‘em, and sleep in the streets,"
Wright said he got the idea from a book, where ``the concept is, to be a great shooter, you have to be willing to keep shooting, even on a night when, if you don’t make them, no one’s going to let you come into their house. They’re going to make you sleep in the streets, you were so bad. If you’re going to be a great shooter, you can’t fear sleeping in the streets.’’
Can’t fear Kansas, either.
Is it Villanova’s time? It is the Big East’s time? Is that what three dominations are suggesting?
"We all in this locker room knew we could make a deep run," Hart said "The next game, it won’t be like this."