SportsPulse: Saturday was all chalk for the most part with Ja Morant and Murray State bowing out of the tournament. Trysta Krick recaps the action and looks ahead to Sunday’s slate.
HARTFORD, Conn. — Eric Paschall dabbed his tears with a towel during a postgame news conference, trying unsuccessfully to keep the emotions of the night at bay.
“It’s just hard going out like this,” he said. “But everything comes to an end.”
That end was swift and ugly for Villanova on Saturday night. After winning two national titles in three years, the sixth-seeded Wildcats brought a young team to the XL Center this week and got squashed in the second round by No. 3 seed Purdue 87-61.
It was their most lopsided NCAA tournament loss in program history. And it felt, in some ways, like the end of an era.
Though Villanova is only a year removed from its most recent title, it will enter the offseason without a senior — or a member of its 2016 championship team — on its roster. Only a handful of rising sophomores and juniors will remain, tasked with rebuilding the program into the national contender that it recently has been.
“It’s going to be starting new,” coach Jay Wright said after Saturday’s game. “But that’s OK. Other teams do it. Nobody feels sorry for us. We’re not asking for any (sympathy). It’s just part of college athletics, when you do it the way we do it.”
ROAD TO MINNEAPOLIS: 2019 NCAA tournament schedule and results
For five consecutive seasons, the Wildcats entered the NCAA tournament seeded No. 1 or No. 2, coming off a regular season in which they lost five games or fewer. This year, they arrived as a No. 6 seed and finished 26-10.
Their struggles were largely the byproduct of youth. Four players used Villanova’s championship run last summer as a springboard to the NBA, including two players who were expected to be key contributors this year. Donte DiVincenzo, who was a redshirt sophomore, went 17th overall in the NBA draft and is now with the Milwaukee Bucks. Omari Spellman, a redshirt freshman, was the No. 30 pick and is now in the G League.
All told, four Wildcats were chosen in the first 33 picks of the draft.
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“We got caught young here, you know?” Wright said. “It’s not anybody’s fault. We try to do the best we can to keep our roster, but when two guys do what Donte and Omari did, (it’s difficult).”
Instead, Villanova relied on players like Saddiq Bey, a true freshman who was a late commitment to the Wildcats last year and wound up starting the majority of the season. It fielded an undersized roster without a player taller than 6-foot-9 and asked its newcomers to not only contribute right away, but also lead.
“Demanding sophomores be like juniors and seniors on the team, making freshmen not to be freshmen we asked a lot of them, and they responded,” said senior point guard Phil Booth, Villanova’s leading scorer in the 2016 national championship game. “I think this team will be, in years to come, very good. Next year they’ll have a lot of talent and a lot of experience and they’ll learn from games like (the Purdue loss).”
Wright isn’t sure if next year’s team will have enough experience to make another title run, but he knows it will have enough depth.
Sophomores Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels will be counted upon for leadership roles. Bey will be expected to make significant strides. And Villanova will welcome a recruiting class that features four top-70 prospects, according to ESPN — including McDonald’s All-Americans Bryan Antoine and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
“(It’s) a challenge,” Wright said. “It’s a different kind of challenge then when you have a team that’s predicted to win the league, but we’re going to enjoy that challenge. We’re going to grow again and build it up again.”
Wright said he sometimes pauses to think about what the program has accomplished over the past three years — the national-title runs, the individual achievements of his players, the development of guys like Booth and Paschall. He knows it will be difficult for Villanova to replicate this sort of run.
“(But) if that’s the best I ever get, I’m a blessed guy, you know?” Wright said. “If that’s the best thing that happens in my career, I’m pretty blessed.”
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.