BUFFALO, New York – The crown may have been too heavy for Villanova.
One title will have to do.
Saddled with huge expectations and external pressure to repeat as NCAA champions, the Wildcats wilted down the stretch on Saturday and were knocked out of the tournament 65-62 by eighth-seeded Wisconsin, a team with an even richer March resume.
The end came quickly, but not necessarily unexpectedly for Villanova, which struggled in its opening-round win over Mount St. Mary’s — a game that foreshadowed a quick exit.
It was not meant to be, and with the gap between the Davids and Goliaths in college basketball growing closer and star underclassmen jumping to the NBA more frequently, a team winning back-to-back championships becomes more unlikely.
It’s just hard to do.
While coach Jay Wright and the Wildcats (32-4) did their best to duck any discussions about whether they could win it all again, the possibility hung over them almost from the moment they cut down the nets in Houston last year.
They were attempting to become only the third repeat champion since UCLA’s dynastic run in the 1960s and 1970, joining Duke (1991-92) and Florida (2006-7).
Instead, Villanova became another No. 1 seed toppled by the Badgers, who probably deserved a higher seed and are strolling into the Sweet 16 for the fourth consecutive year.
“I say this every year at Villanova, we can’t take it for granted,” Wright said. “It’s so special to be a part of it. Every time you win and you get a chance to advance, cherish it. You’re playing the best teams in the country. You’re going to come down to games like this. We had a game like this against Kansas last year and we came out of the good side of it. We had a game like this against N.C. State last year, and we had a shot to win it and we missed it.
“To me, there’s no dishonor in losing in this tournament — and we’ve lived through it. You are judged by how you play in this tournament and that’s the reality of it. So, you have to accept it.”
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it was evident from the opening moments of Thursday night’s game against No. 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s — a team that had to win in the First Four to get a crack at the defending champions — that Villanova might not be around for very long.
The well-oiled offense looked rusty, and there were uncharacteristic lapses on defense. They committed silly fouls and forced shots.
But no player exemplified an overall tightness more than senior forward Kris Jenkins, last season’s title game hero who dropped the game-winning shot that will long live as one of the most iconic in hoops history.
Jenkins followed up a 2-of-13 shooting performance against the Mount by going 2 of 9 against the Badgers, who seemed to be willing to let him fire away. He missed all eight 3-point attempts in his two games in Buffalo.
After averaging 15.5 points in last year, Jenkins averaged just 6.5 this March and the Wildcats didn’t have enough firepower to compensate. Redshirt freshman Donte DiVincenzo did his part, scoring 36 points in two games but there wasn’t much other help for Wright, who shortened his rotation to seven against the Badgers.
And when the Wildcats needed big plays, they didn’t happen. There was no magic this March as Wisconsin’s seniors came through in the clutch and outplayed the Big East champions.
“You got to give them credit,” Wright said. “It’s great execution, great job, great coaching job, and that’s how you win and lose these close games.”
After the final horn, Jenkins bent over near midcourt before joining his teammates to shake hands and congratulate the Badgers, who are moving on.
The champions are going home.
Their title is up for grabs.