This season, Villanova entered Big East conference play with a 9-4 record and a couple of bad losses. So far, the Wildcats are 4-3 in league games this season, giving them a 13-7 record and at least a small chance of charging their way into the NCAA postseason. Can Jay Wright's program replicate the miraculous turnaround seen by Notre Dame a year ago, to win big in the Big East and lock down an NCAA bid?
Last season, I wrote about Notre Dame's turnaround for BustingBrackets.com, noting that a combination of factors lead to a dramatic change in early-season results by the time that January rolled around.
"We were young and we were so dysfunctional in November and December, to see them make these strides is amazingly gratifying," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey explained after a comeback win in Philadelphia. "I tell them all the time, ‘I'm honored to be your coach.' It's a fabulous group of students to work with all the time. I haven't had more fun at Notre Dame."
The Irish lost star player Tim Abromaitis for the season early on, leaving them young, inexperienced and lacking leadership that he was expected to provide. The players weren't executing and it seemed like the program was sunk after their record dropped to 7-5 after early losses to Gonzaga, Maryland and Indiana forced them to finish off their non-conference schedule without a true quality win (and a couple of bad losses).
They had the personnel to succeed, but they needed to learn to execute.
"What helped us was right around December 15th, we were able to practice with a nucleus, the other guys were healthy, Tim's gone, and we showed some signs. Everybody is looking for some secret; we just got better, because we were able to practice together, we have really good players - we have smart guys."
They opened the Big East season with a win over a struggling Pitt team and two games later, they took down a top-10 ranked Louisville team.
The Wildcats stand right around where the Irish were at this time last year in terms of record — really a tick better. Both programs went to 4-3 in the Big East by late January. What allowed the Irish to gel in the New Year was a certain level of faith and belief in their game plan and ability to execute, and that same belief is what the Wildcats will need if they hope to pursue an all-the-way-back to the tournament turnaround.
"[Faith is] the difference-maker in this league," Brey said. "It is so fragile and I've been on both sides of the belief and luckily lately I've been on the upside of it. We have really good kids, they hung in. In November and December, they hung in there when it was bad and didn't look good, and we just . . . I told my staff, we just have to be really good teachers. Lets just teach."
Teach they did, and the players, few superstars among them, believed in those lessons, trusted their coaches, and took it all to hart.
"Coach has just done so many phenomenal things this year," now-senior forward Jack Cooley said about Brey. "I mean you just see how great he is as a coach, the plays he puts in, the calls he makes during timeouts, and we all trust him and we all know he's a great coach."
Maybe that buy-in has already happened with the Villanova team that knocked off Louisville, or maybe it happened before Syracuse, but if it hadn't before Saturday, it likely has now. Players learn from results and the results are obvious — the same team that could be blown out at home by an Ivy League program can create two court-rushing wins in a week.
"You can't get them believing until they've had a little success, and winning the Pitt game and the Louisville game were big steps for us to reinforce, ‘fellas, we've got a chance at the NCAA tournament," Brey explained.
Now Jay Wright has the same opportunity with his team. If the players buy in and outperform their past struggles, it remains possible that the Wildcats could come from nowhere to replicate last season's Irish miracle. It would be a dramatic turnaround for the program from where they started the year, and perhaps an even more dramatic difference from where the team was a year ago, dealing with late-game implosions, defensive lapses and terrible shooting decisions.
Villanova doesn't even need 13 conference wins to reach that same level. What they do need is some consistency.
"In this league, if you play with a high level of consistency, you're still going to lose some games, but if you're not playing with a high level of consistency, you're going to lose a lot of games," Jay Wright told reporters after Saturday's game. "This game was really the first time we were able to make adjustments and execute. We've had some games where we were able to make adjustments, but didn't do it well. This game, we did both."
Now Jay Wright and his staff will have to work to get that consistency in place for the next eleven-plus games. The turnaround has only just left the station, and Nova Nation has to hope that the train doesn't get derailed.