Nothing felt good after that loss.
The Villanova Wildcats won the Big East regular season title, set a school record with 28 wins and were thinking about a possible No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament.
But then they ran into Seton Hall in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals. The Wildcats went home early, waiting for second life. They get their chance tonight in Buffalo with a second-round game against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
That second chance isn’t something they’re taking lightly.
“I think one of the things that happened in the Big East Tournament is I forgot how special this is to the kids because we’ve been doing this for a long time,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “But it helped remind me that no matter how many times we’ve been here to the tournament to these kids, they want to win games. … It’s far more important to these kids than maybe I remember. They all want to win an NCAA Tournament game. I think it’s a big part of their inspiration.”
For senior James Bell, there certainly is a motivation to win. It’s his third trip to the NCAA Tournament and the Wildcats are looking for a postseason win.
Bell, a first-team All-Big East selection who leads the Wildcats with 14.5 points per game, said the team learned a lot from that conference tournament loss. An NCAA win? That would be nice. But he’s not taking any outcomes for granted, or even judging success based on the outcomes.
“There are definitely things we took from that game that will help us. Everything matters. Everybody counts. Everybody’s a great team at this point. We understand that we’re going to get everybody’s best game and they’re going to get ours.
“I just felt like I, myself, have to get the team to play to the level that we’re supposed to. Playing hard. Playing together. Playing smart. If we win or lose ,we win or lose, but just my goal as a senior, as leader, is to get the team playing how we’re supposed to be playing.”
This isn’t at all how people expected Milwaukee to be playing. The Panthers went just 8-24 last season, finishing last in the Horizon League.
Instead, their 13-game improvement this year is the best turnaround in the country and they won four straight games to clinch their fourth NCAA appearance.
“We’ve always been kind of not on the radar of a lot of people and that’s the kind of chip that we have when we get out there on that court,” said senior Jordan Aaron, who was the Horizon League Tourney MVP and averages 15 points a game. “We just want to leave everything out there for that 40 minutes that we’re on the court.
“I think this team has a lot of confidence and a lot of players that are aggressive and we just play for one another. We always back each other up whatever we do out there.”
That idea of playing for one another was very much a work in progress for the Panthers who went 7-9 in conference play.
“I think those guys recognized that … they had enough talent in the room to do it, but we needed to learn how to do it together,” Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter said.
“As they progressed through the season, they really learned that lesson that adversity hit us and in some of those tough times, we seemed to play more as individuals. Later in the season we figured out that when adversity hits, we have to learn how to lean on the person next to us,” he said.