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Under Pressure: How Villanova will handle college basketball’s greatest test

The madness that comes with March has gotten the Wildcats before, but this year, they are still standing. For some other highly ranked teams—unfortunately—they caught the upset bug. These ‘Cats, however, aren’t scared of it.

Big East Basketball Tournament - Championship Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

For basketball fans, this March Madness has been the stuff of legend. The 2018 men’s basketball NCAA tournament has been riddled with the unpredictable and the impossible.

While teams from the UMBC Retrievers and Loyola-Chicago Ramblers have reached almost unimaginable victories, the Virginia Cavaliers, Miami Hurricanes, Xavier Musketeers and countless others have seen heartbreak in the face of defeat.

Players from these top college basketball teams have the weight of team history and outside expectations on their shoulders. For the Villanova Wildcats, that burden has become their new normal—representing the Big East, proving naysayers wrong, and avoiding the dreaded early exit.

The Villanova Wildcats, who started the tournament as the No. 1 seed in the East region, are no stranger to the dreaded upset. The 2015 Wildcats, seeded first in the East, fell to North Carolina State in the second round. Just last year, the Wildcats were knocked out by the Wisconsin Badgers in game two as defending national champions and the overall no. 1 seed.

“I think they just learned how to respect every opponent,” said head coach Jay Wright, recalling last year’s tournament exit.

Wright, 56, speaks about the tournament with a confident, relaxed kind of wisdom that reflects 17 years as the Wildcats’ head coach—with 12 trips to the NCAA Tournament sprinkled in between. His demeanor might be the only thing that gives away his age.

“When you’ve been in it long enough, it’s the NCAA tournament—anything can happen,” said Wright. “If you’re in it long enough it evens out. The thing is, for these kids it hasn’t evened out, for Villanova it has.”

For some fans, last year’s loss still stings, but that has since been relieved by Villanova’s spot in the Sweet 16. For Wright and his team, it’s not something they harp on—nor do they worry too much about whether or not they can be next, with all the chaos ensuing in other regions of the tournament bracket.

“As difficult as it is to understand, we don’t look at anything that happened in the past, we don’t even look at the championship run,” said Donte DiVincenzo. “We just focus on our next game, and our next opponent. We don’t even look at the seedings because we know that anybody can be anybody that day, and no matter what team we play it’s going to be a great team.”

With a Sweet 16 matchup against the West Virginia Mountaineers on Friday, Villanova has made it past the realm of second round upsets, but things won’t get easier from here on out.

There were no perfect brackets after the second night of games. At this point in tournament play, Villanova and Kansas are the only one seeds left--the fewest amount of one seeds headed to the Sweet 16 since 2004. Plus, Duke is the only remaining two seed.

2018 might just be the year of upsets. For the first time ever a 16-seed triumphed over a No. 1 seed, and there’s a game with a trip to the Elite 8 on the line between an 11-seed and a seven-seed. This might just be the year of the underdog. The ‘Cats have to be worried about the prospect of an upset too, right?

“I think when you get to the sweet sixteen the guys don’t think about who’s the higher seed anymore, they have great respect for everybody, especially when it’s a team like West Virginia,” said Wright. “You watch film of them, you can tell they’re really good, so you’re going to have great respect for them.”

The fifth-seeded Mountaineers are a really good team this year. They’re headed into Friday’s game with a decisive victory over Marshall University under their belt. West Virginia’s star guard Jevon Carter put up 28 points, and teammate Lamont West followed that with 18 points and 10 boards.

This meeting with the Mountaineers is the first since West Virginia left the Big East to join the Big 12. Both programs and coaches are very familiar with each other.

With nothing short of the NCAA’s best on the horizon, the expectations are great for one of the few highly seeded teams left in the tournament. That doesn’t seem to shake the Wildcats though, who have spent their share of time in college basketball’s top spot.

“We can control what we can control only,” said Brunson, a co-captain and National Player of the Year finalist. “We’re just going to go out there and just play for those 40 minutes and not really worry about an upset or not. We just have to go out there and play as hard as we can.”

Brunson isn’t the only player that holds the sentiment.

“There’s no pressure,” said Bridges, a redshirt junior co-captain. “We knew before the tournament started that anyone can be beat, and we can be beat too, and we’ve never taken that lightly. We always play our way no matter what the situation is.”

The NCAA Tournament adds a win-or-go-home dynamic that doesn’t offer second chances, but at this point they know how to cope with the target on their back. The team never veered far from the top of all major polls this season, and has steadily been part of the national conversation as a title contender. When other top giants fall to the unknowns, it might make for a great story, but it doesn’t scare the ‘Cats at all.

“We can’t be afraid to lose or play out there scared, because you will lose playing like that,” said Phil Booth.