NEW YORK – - On Thursday afternoon, for the fifth time in the past 10 years, the top seed in the Big East tournament lost its opening game. Villanova, ranked third in the nation, got off to a poor start and fell 64-63 to unranked Seton Hall in the quarterfinals after reserve Pirates guard Sterling Gibbs made a step-back jumper at the buzzer.
And yet, even though the Wildcats (28-4) may not get a No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA tournament as expected, coach Jay Wright didn’t seem too concerned about his team’s chances of advancing deep if it play up to its potential. He believes there is no clear-cut national title favorite this year.
It’s different than five years ago, when Villanova advanced to the Final Four but lost 83-69 to a dominant, veteran North Carolina squad that two days later crushed Michigan State by 17 points to win its fifth national championship.
The 2009 Tar Heels featured the national player of the year in Tyler Hansbrough, with three players (Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington) selected in the first round of that June’s NBA draft.
“After you played them, you felt like, ‘We played well. They’re just better,’” Wright said. “I don’t think there is a team this year in the tournament that’s totally dominant.”
As of now, Florida and Wichita State seem assured of No. 1 seeds when the brackets are announced on Sunday. Arizona, Kansas, Wisconsin and others are in the running for the remaining top spots. Still, to Wright at least, the seeding this year isn’t a major factor.
“This was not about one seeds [or] two seeds,” Wright said. “This was about we wanted to come to Madison Square Garden and win the Big East tournament. Winning the Big East tournament would mean much more to us than a one seed… [With] the NCAA tournament seedings, my belief is a one, two, three, it doesn’t matter that much. You’re going to play great teams.”
No one would refer to Seton Hall (17-16) as a great team, but the No. 8 seed Pirates led by 15 points midway through the first half on Thursday. With 14:12 remaining, they were ahead 44-31 before Villanova went on a 16-0 run. With seven seconds remaining, Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard made a spin move and scored on a floater in the lane for a 63-62 advantage. After Seton Hall called a timeout, guard Jaren Sina made an inbounds pass to Gibbs, who dribbled twice and hit an 18-footer over Hilliard as the clock expired.
“The difference is so small,” Wright said after the Wildcats made only 4 of 19 three-pointers and 15 of 25 free throws. “If he misses that shot, we’re sitting here saying, ‘Oh, you got through it, you go to the second round.’ But we would have still tried to learn from that. You can learn from winning just as easy as you can learn from losing.”
A reporter then reminded Wright that that was a line Dean Smith used when he was coaching at North Carolina. Wright laughed.
“You can,” he said. “I would rather learn from winning.”
Instead, the conversation turned to Villanova’s seeding and chances in the NCAA tournament. Wright was asked if he would prefer getting placed in the East bracket because the regional semifinals and final will be held back here at Madison Square Garden later this month. Wright said he didn’t care where the selection committee sent the Wildcats. Twice during Wright’s tenure, Villanova has played NCAA tournament games in Philadelphia. He said it was tough competing so close to campus, although he credited the crowd for helping the Wildcats defeat Arizona in the second round in 2006.
“Honestly, any of that stuff in the NCAA tournament, I really don’t care about,” Wright said. “There’s so many variables. We don’t worry about any of that. We’re happy to be in there. We’ll play anybody anywhere. We don’t think about that stuff. We don’t talk about that stuff.”