INDIANAPOLIS — The Villanova Wildcats – those guys with the championship rings and pictures from the White House – had to know this was coming. Sure enough, when it was over Wednesday night, the Butler students stormed the Hinkle Fieldhouse court from all directions.
But this is what happens when you’re ranked No. 1, the owner of a 20-game winning streak, the defending national champion and you lose in someone else’s packed house. You trudge back to the locker room through revelry.
“As an opposing team, it’s something that I hate,” Villanova’s Josh Hart would say afterward, the 66-58 defeat in the books. “But if I was in a Butler uniform right now … I’d be out there with them. I guess you could say it’s a compliment.”
Indeed, Villanova should start worrying if losing on the road ever stops being a good reason for the other side to party. No danger of that this season, which is a burden the Wildcats must carry.
So how’s that going? The 14-0 start was impressive enough. Championship hangover? What championship hangover? But Wednesday night was affirmation of the demands at hand. Villanova will need it’s a-game in a lot of places, and this was one of them.
The Wildcats’ Big East schedule sent them to Creighton Saturday and Butler Wednesday—two ranked opponents with uproarious followings, hollering for comeuppance for the ballyhooed visitors.
“The loudest I’ve ever heard Hinkle,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said.
It turned out to be asking too much.
You got that idea watching Villanova shoot 31 percent in the second half, get pounded on the boards, commit two fatal turnovers at the worst moment and Hart—in line for all manner of postseason honors—play with his mute button pushed.
Yep, it was Butler who made the stops and not the mistakes. Butler who owned a 33-24 gap in rebounding. Gee, the Bulldogs weren’t that dominant against Bucknell and Norfolk State.
“We felt like it was going to be a quote, unquote ugly game at times. It always is because they make it that way,” Holtmann said. “They’re so hard to score on. We felt like if we could make it ugly on the defensive end, we’d give ourselves a chance.”
Wright said: “It’s a game of inches, a game of little things . . . They just did more than us tonight.”
All very un-Villanovian.
“We were kind of psyched about that challenge,” Wright said of the past week. “We only talked about it one game at a time, but I think we all knew. There are tough venues, but the venues are only tough because the teams are good. If the teams aren’t good, it doesn’t matter how loud the crowds are. It was really interesting just to see if we could put together two great road efforts against outstanding teams. We just didn’t have enough tonight.”
So the national unbeaten list drops to two: Baylor and Gonzaga. Meanwhile, since defeat is always good for raising questions, here are a few now for Villanova’s repeat run:
Are the Wildcats deep enough?
With Phil Booth’s knee injury, Wright basically has a seven-man rotation, so can’t afford many cold hands any given night. They were outscored by Butler in bench points, 25-6.
What happens when Hart isn’t magnificent?
There had been no need to ask that, because he always had been. But he was 3-for-11 Wednesday for 13 points, partly his own doing, partly the defense designed to slow him down. “I missed some shots I probably shouldn’t have, but you have to give them credit,” he said. Whatever, Villanova needs to score more than 58 points – 22 under its average -- on his bad-shooting nights.
Is the defense truly Villanova-worthy yet?
It had its moments through 14 games, but Butler shot 52 percent in the second half. “It wasn’t one of our best nights,” Wright said of the defense.
How taxing has it been, out on tour as the national champion and No. 1?
The players claim to see no real difference.
“I don’t think so,” Hart said. “We’ve been Big East champions the last three years in a row so we just know that we’re going to get other teams’ best shots. Nothing really feels like it’s been added.”
Jalen Brunson added: “It started before I even got here. This program’s always had a target on its back. You have to credit the players before us.”
Their coach thinks otherwise.
“You can feel it when you come into town,” Wright said. “Players are different. Players are coming to play the next game. But you can sense there’s a little extra juice every time you come into an arena. Last year we experienced it for the first time (as a No. 1), this year we’re experiencing it. We kind of like it. It definitely comes with the territory.”
So what next?
Wright mentioned how “you learn a lot when you lose … I think one of the things that our guys have done a good job is they’ve kept learning while we were winning.”
Hart said of the defeat: “Obviously you don’t like it, but whether we had won today or lost today, we are going to come back tomorrow and get better.”
They’ll need to. Other loud booby-traps are on the schedule. Villanova won a national title and went 38-3 in the 2016 calendar year by being famously steely and resolved. But even tough guys go into places, especially in the Big East, that are difficult to escape. Won't be easy for them, maybe not a minute of it. That’s what Wednesday night showed.