Another 'Nova Heartbreak a Tough Pill to Swallow

We’ve seen it all before, many times, and even though the players are different, the disappointment is the same. Villanova University basketball teams always win a lot of games and they’re almost always entertaining, as well, but when the Wildcats get to the greatest show on earth, they shrivel and disappear.

Villanova rolled into the NCAA Tournament with the best record in school history (32-2) and an impressive showing in the Big East Tournament and it was hard to argue when they were named as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Regional. And after an easy, taking-care-of-business victory over Lafayette in the opening round, the Wildcats looked prime for a long NCAA run.

And then they ran into a brick wall that was dressed in North Carolina State uniforms, and once again the Wildcats headed back to the Main Line with their tail between their legs. The 71-68 loss to No. 8 seed N.C. State was just the latest in a long line of disappointing finishes for Villanova under coach Jay Wright, and once again Wright’s anything-goes offense was a major reason why.

Before going any further, here is disclaimer No. 1 – I’ve been a big Villanova basketball fan my entire life. My father was a starting forward for the Wildcats in the mid-1930s and I was raised on names like Washington and Jones and Kraft and Melchionni and Porter and Siemiontkowski, and I celebrated when ‘Nova won its only national championship in 1985.

Disclaimer No. 2 – I like Jay Wright, just like everybody likes Jay Wright. I dealt with him several times when he was coach at Hofstra and in the same conference as Delaware, and I’ve dealt with him several times since he’s been at Villanova. He’s always gracious and cooperative and, unlike some other high-profile coaches, Wright is a nice guy even when the television cameras aren’t on him.

Disclaimer No. 3 – I readily acknowledge that Jay Wright knows more about basketball than I do. He also dresses a lot better.

Having said all of that, something has to change on the Main Line, or Villanova will never duplicate its miracle 1985 finish, when the Wildcats stunned Georgetown in one of the best championship games in NCAA Tournament history. Back then, when Massimino was the coach, Villanova almost never lost games it should have won and often won games it wasn’t supposed to. Massimino was a master of game-day coaching as well as pregame preparation.

Granted, times have changed. The players have changed, too, as well as the way the game is played. But good coaching still makes a difference, especially in the NCAA Tournament when the competition is stiffer and the odds are higher. It’s not a coincidence that some coaches, like Massimino and now Tom Izzo of Michigan State, always seemed to make a good run when it matters the most.

And even though we understand that the coaches don’t make or miss shots or fail to block out or seal the baseline or anything else that happens inside the lines, the coaches do influence how those players take those shots, etc. As our old friend Andy Reid used to say every week, you’ve got to put the players in a position to succeed.

So, Villanova fans had to have cringed when they witnessed the coaching blunders that Wright made against North Carolina State. And we’re not talking about specific plays he should or should not have called. We’re talking about his approach on offense and defense, and that you can second-guess, especially when it’s so easy to do it. Time and time again, one guy from Villanova would dribble around while the other four players on the floor just stood there and watched, and eventually that one guy would heave a pressured shot with the shot clock winding down.

Sure, the Wildcats had several point-blank-range shots that didn’t go in and those kinds of things can happen no matter who the coach is – which is even more reason to make every possession count and not waste any of them playing one-on-four. Gives your kids the freedom to take shots, but insist on them having the discipline to take good shots and to do the little things that make a big difference, like set screens and move without the ball.

Wright’s other blunder was on the defensive end of the floor. North Carolina State has a big, physical team and Wright elected to go with a small, pressing lineup for much of the second half. That strategy failed miserably. No. 1, the Wildcats failed to take the ball away from the Wolfpack, which is obviously a major reason to press a team that you don’t think is as athletic and quick as yours. But Villanova also failed to accomplish another key strategy behind a press – force a quicker tempo, which is obviously to the benefit of a run-and-gun team like Villanova.

So, Villanova’s press failed to bother N.C. State in the slightest and then the smaller Wildcats got hammered on the boards. The Wolfpack had a 45-32 edge in rebounding and its offensive rebounding and second-chance points were one of the biggest reasons N.C. State pulled off the upset.

Villanova will have another good team next season, including Delaware’s player of the year for 2014-15, Donte DiVicenzo of state-champion Salesianum School. And the Wildcats will have enough talent to once again become a high seed when March Madness rolls around again. Hopefully, Wright will watch what happened to his team – again – and learn from it. Just like Eagles coach Chip Kelly realized he had to make drastic changes to win a championship, Jay Wright has to adjust and adapt, or the Wildcats will continue to break our hearts.

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