BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) – There’s nothing like an unexpected loss to grab your attention. Villanova coach Jay Wright knows all about that.
In line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament after cruising through the season with only three losses and winning the Big East regular-season title, his Wildcats were stunned 64-63 by Seton Hall in last week’s conference quarterfinals and have been biding their time for nearly a week.
“It was definitely a jolt to our system,” Wright said Wednesday. “Seton Hall played really well. You could lose that game and be OK with it, but we didn’t start that game ready to play. It was the only game all year that we had done that. I don’t know what it was.”
Better figure it out real soon.
The Wildcats (28-4), the second seed in the East, face upstart No. 15 Milwaukee (21-13), champion of the Horizon League, in a second-round matchup on Thursday in the NCAA tournament.
Wright has led the Wildcats to nine NCAA tournaments, including the 2009 Final Four, but their last two visits ended in first-round knockouts – 61-57 to George Mason in 2011 and 78-71 to North Carolina last year.
That means James Bell has yet to experience what a victory is like – and that’s a big deal for the senior.
“My goal as a leader is to get the team to play how it’s supposed to, playing hard, playing smart,” said Bell, the team’s leading scorer (14.5) and rebounder (6.1).
“I forgot how special this is to the kids,” Wright added. “But it helped remind me that no matter how many times we’ve been to the tournament, for these kids, they want to win games. This is big. They all want to win an NCAA tournament game.”
Milwaukee was picked last in the conference preseason poll and was a clear afterthought after senior guard Jordan Aaron, the team’s leading scorer (15), was suspended four games toward the end of the regular season for a violation of team rules.
Then the Panthers lost to last-place Illinois-Chicago, which finished the year 6-25, on Senior Night, and even the return of Aaron, who was allowed to play in his final home game, didn’t help.
That all changed in a hurry in the madness that March can be.
The Panthers won their regular-season finale against Detroit, earning a home game to open the conference tournament and easily beat Valparaiso. They followed up with an overtime victory (73-66) at Green Bay, the regular-season champ, and beat Wright State 69-63 to win the tournament.
The sky’s the limit now.
“The past few years you see the 14 and 15 seeds come out with victories,” said sophomore forward Matt Tiby, who’s averaging 12.1 points. “It’s just because they have more heart and determination. That’s what it comes down to.”
Five things to know when Villanova meets Milwaukee in the NCAA tournament:
TURNAROUND MASTERS: Milwaukee has won five straight to surpass the 20-win plateau. Not bad for a team that finished 8-24 a year ago. Milwaukee’s 13-win increase from last season is the best year-to-year improvement in the country, and the Panthers are the only team in the NCAA tournament that finished last in its league a year ago.
NOVA’S IMPROVING D: Villanova ranked second in the Big East with a 78.5 scoring average and its defense has come alive of late. In their last six games, the Wildcats allowed their opponents to shoot just 39 percent (120 of 308) and 34.3 percent (35 of 102) from behind the arc.
PANTHER POWER: Milwaukee is in the tournament for the first time since 2006 and is making its sixth appearance overall. And the Panthers have made some noise. They beat Oklahoma in 2006 and knocked off both Alabama and Boston College the year before that under Bruce Pearl.
BO’S INFLUENCE: Before going to Wisconsin, Bo Ryan helped Milwaukee get on track, posting 30 wins in two seasons (1999-2001) after the team had won just 31 games the previous five seasons. Current head coach Rob Jeter has the Panthers playing Bo ball. “They use all of their players on every spot on the floor,” Wright said. “Even their big forwards step out, shoot 3s, put it on the floor, pass the ball. And then at the end, they always have that one guy that kind of has the freedom at the end of the shot clock to do his thing.”
GANG NOT SHOOTING STRAIGHT: Milwaukee was tied with N.C. State for the worst shooting percentage (30.7) from 3-point range among the 68 teams in the tourney.
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