Author's Note: This article will appear in the April 4th issue of The Villanovan.
Dear Villanova Basketball,
When the buzzer sounded two years ago at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, I thought my 24-hour, whirlwind band trip to an NCAA tournament game would be my last as a student at Villanova. I believed that the departure of the two Coreys; Fisher and Stokes, would leave a void of three-point shooting and veteran presence necessary for another run to March Madness. At the conclusion of an incredibly disappointing 2012 season, I was even more convinced playoff basketball was a thing of the past. I have one thing to say: I’m sorry.
I’m sorry for my lack of hope in November. It was easy to get down on a team picked to finish 12th in the Big East in a poll of writers who cover the conference. It was easy to look at a team that had lost two-thirds of its true senior triumvirate to the NBA Draft. It was easy to see the freshmen and transfer players and think, "They might develop, but not this year. Not right away." Dismissing this team was easy. It was safe. It was wrong.
I attended media day on the first day of the season, before the team could prove itself on the court. You all provided the same phrase or answer: "We’re just trying to play Villanova basketball." Villanova basketball. It sounded vague. It sounded nebulous. To be honest, it sounded like you weren’t really sure what Villanova basketball was. Sure, some of you provided buzz words to describe it: Defense, toughness, a grind. To be honest, though? It sounded more like you took a page out of the Bull Durham script: "You got to know your clichés"
And then the season started. And you won the first four games of the season. Fans of the team were starting to feel cautiously optimistic that this team could be slightly better than the one that preceded it. Not a tournament team, no, but better than expected. Progress! But then Alabama soundly beat you in the championship game of the 2k Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden. It was a reality check for the fans. It was a wake up call for the team.
The very next game, you all got a chance to lick your wounds against a, how should I say, not very good Columbia team. And you got trounced. By 18. In the Pavilion. It was a low point of the season for most. The realization that another down year was in store for the Wildcats, after such an optimistic start, washed over the fans and students. A loss to La Salle and Temple officially left Villanova’s Big Five dominance a thing of the past.
And then, the middle finger. Saint Joseph’s Halil Kanacevic flipped the student section the bird during the annual Holy War, and something clicked. The Wildcats scrapped together a win in a raucous Pavilion, capped off with a big three from junior guard James Bell. Everything from that point on seemed different. An overtime victory over St. John’s. A trouncing of USF. Even the losses seemed different. The January 12th matchup against Syracuse featured a two-point halftime lead for the ‘Cats. Head coach Jay Wright started to venture away from his traditional "Guard U" reputation. And it was working. It was only a matter of time before Villanova notched a signature win.
Louisville didn’t seem like the game it would happen. The Cardinals were coming off their first loss of the season and a number one ranking in the country. You were notoriously bad against defending the three point shot. Louisville specialized in it. And yet, you guys hung around. You hit three pointer after three pointer, got defensive stop after stop. After a nine point victory, the students rushed the court. It was the first really big win since Scottie Reynolds’ layup in the Elite Eight four years ago.
And then Syracuse. And another court rushing. And all of a sudden you were in the NCAA tournament picture. Fans and students alike started to hold that cautious optimism that had burned them earlier in the season. Big wins against UConn and Georgetown moved the playoff conversation to not if, but what seed the Wildcats would land. On Selection Sunday you chose to watch your fate in privacy. I held a watch party at my off campus apartment. We both screamed with joy when it was announced that not only had you made it, but you were a nine seed. Most bracketologists predicted a 12 or 13 seed. The improbable season kept rolling on.
Three days later, I was on a plane to Kansas City with the band. After a few days of eating the world’s best barbecue and taking in the sights of "The Paris of the Plains", we were in the Sprint Center, rooting for you as you battled your foil team, a Tar Heel squad that relied on connecting from beyond the arc. After coming back from a twenty point first half deficit, you kept the game close before eventually falling. Many of the seniors in the band had tears in their eyes, the last game of their career. But I couldn’t help but think that everything I had witnessed this season was a gift.
We watched Ryan Arcidiacono overcome his growing pains and lead a team to the NCAA tournament. We saw Mouphtaou Yarou develop his midrange game that could stretch a defense. We saw Darrun Hilliard turn into bona fide starter. JayVaughn Pinkston provided toughness inside and established himself as a consistent scorer. Player after player improved. I had more fun watching you develop, to grow, to surprise us now and then than I did when expectations suffocated our fandom. On media day, Jay Wright said that he would judge your success on whether you were playing your best basketball by the end of the season. This season was a success. I shouldn’t say I’m sorry. I should simply say: "Thank you."