- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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While fans are busy clamoring for Villanova to receive Top 25 votes and envisioning happily busy March days once more, Jay Wright isn’t quite there.
The Villanova coach has been on his team’s bandwagon all season, convinced that the Wildcats were a bunch that would and could get better as the season progressed.
But despite two eye-opening wins against Louisville and Syracuse that has everyone else’s tongues wagging about his team, Wright isn’t ready to say Villanova has arrived just yet.
Check back with him on Wednesday night, after the Wildcats play at Notre Dame.
“We’ve put together two very good games, back-to-back at home, which a lot of teams can do," Wright said. “So now this Notre Dame game is a great test for us. They’re a smart team. They play well at home. I’m not as concerned with whether we win or lose, but can we play with the same consistency we’ve played with over the last two games?"
Truth be told, if there was a corner to be turned for Villanova, Wright thought they rounded it three weeks ago, when the Wildcats won going away at South Florida. That the victory was followed up with three consecutive losses, including a dud at Providence, didn’t change Wright’s rose-colored opinion. In those defeats, he saw a team playing well and then shooting itself in the foot with turnovers late.
More important, he saw a team that didn’t waver in its confidence or its commitment. It’s that attitude that has endeared this roster to Wright, even when fans and outsiders were less obliged to love them.
Villanova hasn’t made it out of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend since its Final Four run in 2009, hitting the nadir last season with a 13-19 finish.
Then the Cats started this season 4-4, losing to Alabama, Columbia and La Salle, a three-peat of misery that summoned the hecklers calling for Wright’s job and the players’ hides.
Wright kept saying he liked his team, and while cynics snickered, he meant it.
These Wildcats are more like the kind of players he used to build the program’s foundation. His first recruiting class, while highly sought after, wound up without a single player leaving early. But as success begat success, Wright found himself not only in the home of some terrific talent but wooing them to campus. They weren’t bad kids, but they were less invested in Villanova and more invested in leaving Villanova to move on to bigger and better things.
It was a bad partnership.
“This group understands they’re on a journey," Wright said. “They’re a really bright group. They get it. They respect the process. They respect that they have a lot of work to do. They aren’t coming in like some of our other groups were. They aren’t privileged or thinking they’re owed something. They feel like they have to earn this and build it all over again."
And really, if this were a building, Villanova isn’t much beyond a ranch home right now. Those two big wins propelled the Wildcats to 51 on the RPI, but pushed their record to only 13-7 overall.
One week, even one with two court stormings, does not a season make.
Villanova heads to South Bend a different team, not only because of the wins but also because of what the wins have done for the Wildcats’ credibility. It’s been a long time since this program has sauntered into an arena as a measuring stick team.
Now suddenly the Wildcats are.
“I’m really interested to see how we handle this," Wright said. “It’s easy to do when the only thing around you is negativity. It’s easy to ignore that because it’s uncomfortable. When everything is positive, when everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, that’s hard, especially for young guys.
“I think these guys have the kind of character to understand that they don’t know what they're doing and our staff has been through it, so they have to listen to and trust us. But the proof will be on Wednesday night."