By Nancy Armour |
There’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness, and keeping a team on the right side is one of the bigger challenges this time of year.
Coaches preach about it until their voices are hoarse, and their players swear they get the message. But do they really? Yes or no, it’s usually too late by the time you know for sure.
Virginia’s historic loss could be taken as a cautionary tale for every other No. 1 seed, and certainly for Villanova, which assumed the title of favorite with the Cavaliers’ early exit. But as coach Jay Wright sat with his players in a Pittsburgh hotel room, he realized he didn’t need to say a word.
“It was so impactful that you didn’t have to say it,” Wright said Thursday. “We had been in that game so many times, and I had talked about it so many times, saying this is going to happen. You’ve got to respect these guys.
“It wasn’t a matter of fear like, `Don’t let it happen to us.’ It’s just you just have to respect these teams,” Wright said. “After that game, we didn’t have to say anything.”
There are a number of reasons Villanova is the team to beat in the NCAA men’s tournament. The Wildcats spent eight weeks atop the USA TODAY coaches poll, more than any other team. They have the nation’s most potent offense and are particularly dangerous from beyond the arc. Their defense, not what you would call a strength early in the season, finally has taken shape and they are now among the stingiest teams out there.
It takes maturity, the kind that has nothing to do with what year you are in school.
“It gets tougher as you keep winning and winning because it’s hard for you to stay humble and hungry, right?” Mikal Bridges said. “We’re all smart individuals. We know that ego is our biggest competitor right there. We’re all humble. If one person has a big ego, it could mess up this whole team. We care about each other so much that we don’t want to mess up this team, and we just keep staying humble.”
While Bridges praised Wright for keeping the Wildcats’ eyes on the ultimate prize, credit goes to him, Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth, too. The three are juniors, but they might as well have advanced degrees in the ways of the NCAA tournament.
Two years ago, they were the last team standing, lifting the trophy as NCAA champions. Last year they didn’t even make it out of the first weekend.
“These guys have seen it all,” Wright said. “So I really think they’re valuable to our younger guys, just in how they talk about every step, how they conduct themselves every step of the way. Because they’re living what we’re telling them.”
And that’s to stick with what has gotten them here.
Tempting as it might be, doing “more” rarely translates to success in March. Identities are forged during the dog days of December and January and, unless injuries require it, deviating from that can only lead to trouble.
It’s what the veteran Wildcats saw two years ago, and it’s the lesson they’re trying to impart on their younger teammates.
“It didn’t take big shots. It didn’t take crazy plays that happened during the game. I think it started with our approach, started with our mindset to win the games,” Brunson said. “We just saw how locked in our leaders were and how dialed in they were to scouting reports and things like that. I think we’ve just got to do the same thing.
“We’ve just got to go in there and play as hard as we can and not worry about the outcome.”
With that kind of mindset, Villanova is going to be a tough team to beat.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.