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The Monkey Is Gone

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The Hawkeyes are back in the land of grain elevators, silos and Ray Kinsella, no doubt writing nasty notes to St. Mary’s, George Mason and North Carolina State for embarrassing Villanova over the past few years and turning the Wildcats into the kind of thresher most often seen harvesting wheat in the blazing Iowa sun.

Anybody wondering whether the collective weight of Nova’s recent first-weekend NCAA tourney fails would paralyze the Wildcats knew by midway through the first half that there was no chance that the team would gack up this one. Villanova was focused and angry. It’s unfortunate that Delco native Fran McCaffrey was the victim of the cathartic eruption, which was so thorough and impressive that Wild E. Cat could’ve run the point in the second half, and Nova still would’ve won by double digits. Heck, even coach Jay Wright’s wife, Patty, looked relatively sanguine during the second half, and she’s been known to fret over the outcome of intra-squad scrimmages.

Wright and his players no longer have to answer questions about whether the season will be a success if they failed to escape the tourney’s first weekend. Granted, they will be fielding queries about how it feels to escape the second round, but it’s far more enjoyable to be dealing with that inconvenience than the former condition.

Once the past has been mined to the last flake, Villanova will move on, knowing that erasing ugly memories isn’t enough this year. It’s great to be playing in the second weekend for a change, but a team that spends three weeks atop the polls isn’t happy with a mere Sweet 16 appearance. We spent four-plus months talking about what wouldn’t be a successful season. Now, it’s time to explore what will be considered worthy of these Wildcats.

After watching Nova eviscerate the Hawkeyes, who once upon a time (January) looked damn good, it’s not unreasonable to think the Wildcats have legitimate Final Four aspirations. Beating a senior-laden Power Five conference representative that had risen at one point to third in the polls demonstrated Villanova’s physical ability and talent. That VU did it primarily with a strangling defense is an even better indication of what’s to come, because teams that stop the other guys from scoring are usually pretty successful in late March.

The problem is that Villanova’s next opponent does that pretty well, too. Miami has loads of experience, three great guards and some interior toughness that’s going to challenge the Wildcats’ frontcourt. Miami was a robust 13-5 in the brutal ACC (12-1 so far in the tournament) and can score inside and out. The Hurricanes are tough on the boards. They’ve played formidable opponents away from home and are coached by Jim Larranaga, one of the country’s best.

But Villanova has enough to beat the Canes, provided they defend as they did against Iowa and move the ball with the same crisp passing.

It won’t be easy, but it can be done. The question now is whether the win over Iowa will serve as a launching point for bigger things, or whether the build-up to the second-round game and the need to escape the first weekend were so much in focus that it will be tough for the Wildcats to regroup and play with the same confidence and authority that carried them to their first two wins.

The guess here is that Nova will gain momentum from the rout and head to Louisville ready to play well again. Beating Miami and (one would imagine) Kansas in the Elite Eight round will require more than dumping UNC-Asheville and the Hawkeyes. Now that the script has changed, Villanova should have enough to move forward and thrive.

EL HOMBRE SEZ: There is a tendency to reflect only on the last moments of the last game when remembering a team’s season, but Saint Joseph’s fans should look past the unfortunate last minute of play in the Hawks’ second-round loss to Oregon. Instead, they should focus on the many high points in the 28-8 season, when a team that wasn’t regarded as much of a threat coalesced into a mighty fine unit and produced myriad highlights. Losing is never fun, and competitors consider moral victories with great disdain. This was a great season, though, and coach Phil Martelli and his team deserve tremendous credit. Bravo.