VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) — The student pick-up game on Villanova’s court was about to tip. Coach Jay Wright’s cameo appearance seemed a perfect time to yell words of encouragement.
“Let’s get Ohio State, Coach! Let’s go!”
Get Ohio State?
The skidding Wildcats first need to beat George Mason in the NCAA tournament before they can even think about playing the top seed in the East region. For a Villanova team on a five-game losing streak, a tournament victory and a potential third-round date with the Buckeyes is far from a guarantee.
“I think there’s a lot of people that will expect us to fail,” Wright said. “I can’t blame them.”
Villanova’s second-half swoon was not enough to keep them out of the field Sunday for a seventh straight season. Villanova (21-11) is the ninth seed in the East and will play eighth-seeded George Mason Friday in Cleveland.
“Having your name called kind of erases the past and clears your mind,” Wright said. “It says, ‘OK, new season. Let’s go have some fun.”‘
For the fourth straight season, Villanova and Temple are in the tournament. In a Keystone State battle, the seventh-seeded Owls (25-7) play 10th-seeded Penn State (19-14) Thursday in Tucson, Arizona in the West.
Temple is 31-28 in the NCAA tournament; Villanova is 49-31 and won the 1985 national championship.
The Owls had a 10-game winning streak snapped when they lost to Richmond in the Atlantic 10 tournament semifinals. Coach Fran Dunphy is 0-3 with the Owls in the NCAA tournament. Dunphy has lost 11 straight tournament games dating back to his time coaching Penn.
It was an unusual selection day for Dunphy. He is going to the tournament for the first time with an at-large bid. The Quakers automatically qualified as the Ivy League champs and the Owls won the previous three A-10 tournament titles.
“As much as everybody tells you you’re in, you’re never going to believe it until you see your name on that board,” Dunphy said. “When I saw our name, I was excited. I knew it was going to closely follow with a team that was difficult and challenging.”
The Nittany Lions beat Wisconsin and Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament before a 71-60 loss to Ohio State on Sunday in the conference title game.
The last time the Nittany Lions made the NCAAs was in 2001. They upset North Carolina in the second round to set up a regional semifinal date against the state-rival Owls. Temple won 84-72.
Temple and Penn State scrimmaged in October. How did the Owls fare and what can they take from that effort?
“I think we did fine,” Dunphy said, “And not one bit. We’re both totally different teams at this point.”
Temple forward Lavoy Allen was excited for the challenge — and a chance to end his career with the Owls’ first NCAA victory since John Chaney led them to the regional final in 2001.
“They recruited me and I have a lot of respect for their coaches,” Allen said. “I know they have a real good team because we scrimmaged and it was about even.”
Temple, Xavier and Richmond will represent the Atlantic 10.
Dunphy said he was still not sure if swingman Scootie Randall, the A-10’s most improved player, will play. He hasn’t practiced since he hurt his right foot last month.
The Wildcats, one of 11 Big East teams in the field, aren’t in that kind of tournament drought. Wright led the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2009 and the seven straight tournament appearances matches a school record (1980-1986).
The Patriots (26-6) lost in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament and earned their first at-large bid since 2006, when coach Jim Larranaga led them to the Final Four.
Wright said the Wildcats are set to put the disappointing finish behind them. He wants them to remember the 16-1 that shot them into the Top 5, not dwell on a skid that saw them lose seven of their last nine games.
“We just have to get back our midseason form,” Wright said.
Hard to imagine the Wildcats are anywhere near midseason form after they blew a 16-point lead in a Big East tournament loss to South Florida.
“The five losses are over with. That happened in the past,” guard Corey Fisher said. “We feel we’re close. No one on the outside might understand that.”
Villanova was hit with injuries late in the season, notably losing 3-point ace Corey Stokes for a stretch with turf toe, and big man Mouphtaou Yarou suffered bruised ribs and a bruised right shoulder in the Big East tournament.
Wright said Yarou will be 100 percent by Friday.
Wright laughed at the fans’ suggestion they’d play Ohio State. From 16-1 to 21-11, he knows victories are never a given. But he’s set a lofty standard on the Main Line and understands the expectations.
“We know how to do it,” Wright said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)