PHILADELPHIA (AP) — With each top-five upset, Villanova put more fans on the court than some schools can get in the seats.
Wins over Louisville and Syracuse at the Wells Fargo Center created a mad dash for students to celebrate with Ryan Arcidiacono, Achraf Yacoubou and all the other Wildcats who put a team coming off a 19-loss tailspin a year ago into the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid.
Coach Jay Wright has restored order to a program more used to playing for tournament seeding this time of year than a postseason berth.
With the Wildcats on the brink of putting themselves in position to secure at least an at-large bid, one major obstacle looms: No. 5. Georgetown.
With one more game left at their NBA off-campus arena, the Wildcats (18-12, 9-8 Big East) need to pull off another top-five stunner to solidify their March credentials. Villanova’s resume-building wins over the best in the Big East took a hit with two straight losses against Seton Hall and Pittsburgh. The Wildcats need a win over the Hoyas (23-4, 13-3) on Wednesday to take the guesswork out of the NCAA tournament selection process.
“I like the fact we’re going to play important games late in the season,” Wright said. “That’s how I want it to be.”
The Wildcats turned the Wells Fargo Center into their own stomping — or is, storming? — ground with wins over then-No. 5 Louisville and then-No. 3 Syracuse. Throw in a win a month later against nationally-ranked Marquette, and the unranked Wildcats have proven themselves one of the better unranked teams against Top 25 opponents in a season when no clear-cut favorite has emerged.
That can only help against a Hoyas team fueled by Otto Porter Jr. that’s riding an 11-game winning streak and playing for a No. 1 seed in the both the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Should the Hoyas earn a top seed, it’s likely they’ll travel again to Philadelphia for the tournament’s opening weekend.
Like they did against the Cardinals and Orange, the Wildcats plan to spoil the party.
It’s a swift turnaround after the Wildcats finished 13-19 last season and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004. The 19 losses were a season-worst for a program that started playing in 1920.
Even if they flop down the stretch, they’ll still assured a postseason berth in some second- or third-tier tournament.
“If we get to any postseason, and we get to keep playing and keep getting better, I’ll consider this a successful season,” Wright said.
On the surface, improving to 13 wins to 18 is a pretty big deal for any team, even one with Nova’s pedigree.
But if the Wildcats miss out on the madness, they’ll look at the clunkers, more than the fantastic wins, when they review the season.
They lost at home to Ivy League Columbia, lost twice to Providence, dropped a one-point game to Seton Hall and blew a late lead Sunday to the Panthers before losing in overtime.
“You’ve got to be good enough on the road to withstand and still win,” Wright said.
The Wildcats had crashed from the Big East’s elite following a run to the 2009 Final Four. They were knocked out of the tournament on the first weekend each of the next two tournaments before last season’s skid kept them home in March.
Wright never lost faith he could make the Wildcats winners again — and the fan base never lost confidence in him.
“It’s a lot worse at a lot of places. They’re passionate, but they’re not bad on me, they really aren’t,” he said. “They want to win, but I don’t think they’re ridiculous.”
Arcidiacono, a freshman point guard, has been a huge reason in the turnaround, providing scoring and leadership to a team in dire need of both. Arcidiacono hit the tying 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left in regulation against the Orange that was a top contender for biggest shot of the season.
His name is a mouthful — Arch-ee-dee-ack-ah-no — but it’s one worth learning how to say.
“Some people don’t know how to say it. That’s OK. Not many people do,” he said, chuckling. “Most people call me Arch. They don’t even try.”
Arcidiacono eased into a leadership role over the summer after Wright took the step of asking him how to show the rest of the team how hard a player has to work to become successful. Once the Wildcats lost game last season, they quickly lost their way.
“Not having any seniors last year, we just didn’t have that,” he said. “We didn’t have bad guys at all. We had good guys. We just didn’t have any leaders.”
Beat the Hoyas, have a strong showing in the Big East tournament, and Arcidiacono can lead the Wildcats all the way back into the tournament.
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