VILLANOVA, Pennsylvania – Kris Jenkins buried the 3-pointer that sparked book deals, red carpet photo ops, a White House trip, a handful of award banquets and hundreds of perks that come with winning a national championship.
But the national title did come with a tinge of pressure that lingered into this season — can Villanova beat the odds and become the first back-to-back national champs in 10 years?
“It’s always a reminder that everybody expects you to do it again,” coach Jay Wright said. “That’s part of the challenge. When people say it’s hard to repeat, that’s part of why it’s hard to repeat, is because you have to deal with those expectations all the time, those constant reminders of last year.”
The reminders of April were impossible to ignore this season.
So were the warnings for the rest of the NCAA Tournament bracket that this season’s Wildcats just might be better than last year’s edition.
“I don’t know if we’re better,” Big East player of the year Josh Hart said. “I just know that we’re playing just as well at the end of the season.”
Duke, Kansas and North Carolina are championship favorites at the Las Vegas casinos. But the shot at basketball history has helped drive the Wildcats (31-3) toward becoming the first repeat champs since Florida in 2006 and 2007.
Led by coach Billy Donovan, the Gators were loaded with NBA talent and the five starters from the ’06 team bypassed the pros for a chance to repeat. Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer sacrificed NBA riches and helped the Gators breeze through the regular season and earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Florida beat Ohio State in the title game and became the first program since Duke in 1992 to repeat.
Florida was a champ in 2006, relying on size, shooting and maybe some obscurity to win its first national title. The Gators took a far different path a season later, playing with lofty expectations, mounting pressure and the highest of profiles.
They received more media attention, causing some players to believe every loss was magnified and every ho-hum win was expected.
“I felt like once we got to the tournament, I could sense that our guys felt pressure,” Donovan said. “It was a little bit different with that team. I think they felt pressured during the tournament. I think once they got to the Final Four, actually, I think some of the pressure subsided, which you would have thought would be the opposite.”
Florida made a second straight title look easy — creating an aura of invincibility.
“Anytime you win like that, and you have your whole starting team come back, the expectations change, and in a lot of ways, you get critiqued under a microscope, and sometimes, that can take the joy out of it,” Donovan said. “It’s like, you win, but you didn’t win by enough. You lost, but you shouldn’t. All those things get factored in.”
The Wildcats had some of the same scrutiny, but in a major sports market like Philadelphia, the biggest victories or toughest losses never seem to reach the same level of feverish fan reaction as the Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and even the 76ers.
Villanova spent eight weeks at No. 1 in the AP Top 25, were joined by Kansas as the only teams who spent the entire season in the top 10, and won Big East season and tournament titles. The Wildcats are the first defending champion to earn the tournament’s overall top seed since, yup, Florida in 2007. The Wildcats also have the fewest losses entering the NCAA Tournament by a defending national champion since Duke lost three times in 2001-02.
That’s the resume of a program primed for a repeat.
Wright, who also led Villanova to the 2009 Final Four, has refused to let the season become defined by a championship.
“I think when you’re a one seed to fans and media, it would look like a failure,” he said. “We’re not afraid of failure, we’re not afraid of people defining us as failures. As long as we play hard for each other, we’re good.”
The Wildcats, a No. 2 seed last season, aren’t as stacked with potential first-rounders as those Gators. But Hart, Jenkins and Jalen Brunson lead the returning starters that are tournament tested and have the championship experience that can only help them survive potential early tests against Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida and maybe Duke just to reach the Final Four.
After winning the conference title in New York, the Wildcats knew the hard part had just started.
“A lot of them said, ‘We’re not done yet,’” Wright said.