After finally leaving “Bubbleville” Villanova wonders what comes next

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

After playing four games in the bubble of Mohegan Sun Arena, Jay Wright and the Villanova Wildcats know this college basketball season will be unique.

After a week and four games – two more than anticipated – Villanova finally left ”Bubbleville” earlier today and headed home.  No, things didn’t go quite as expected for Jay Wright’s 3-1 Wildcats, who arrived at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT number three in the land but departed number 12 following an 81-73 overtime loss to Virginia Tech Saturday.

Despite that game, which was punctuated by a scoring table blunder with the game on the line, Nova’s bench also missed; Wright feels the overall experience in what promises to be a season like no other could potentially pay big dividends down the line for the coach.

“One thing I’ve learned is to predict in this environment is crazy,” said Wright following Tuesday’s 87-53 romp over Hartford, a game put together in just a matter of hours after a number of teams had to shut down their programs for two weeks due to positive COVID-19 test results. “We’re gonna take it one day at a time.”

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“I’ve really learned the mental impact this has on young guys, especially when they thought they were gonna leave twice.  They’re mentally strong, but I wouldn’t push them another game. They need a mental break.”

“Physically they’re good, after playing four games in seven days.  But the mental aspect of being in a bubble for this long is impactful.  So if we get a chance to go to the NCAA tournament this will have been a great experience for us.”

Notice the word “If” which has more to do with the uncertain state of the college game being played during a pandemic than the Wildcats‘ pedigree.  At the same time, they were beating Philly native John Gallagher’s Hawks; their previous scheduled Hawks opponent – from Saint Joseph’s – was on COVID-19 hold.

So is Temple, which was originally supposed to play Virginia Tech. That cancellation resulted in the Hokies playing ‘Nova instead.  And fellow Big Five rival Penn won’t even have a season since the Ivy League has called all winter sports off.

Meanwhile, the finals of the Maui Invitational took place today– in Asheville, NC.

As Wright and Gallagher have quickly discovered, the only sure thing this season is that nothing is certain. “This is just the way the college basketball season is gonna go,” explained Gallagher, who once played for Phil Martelli at St. Joe’s and confessed to being the only kid on his block who rooted for Patrick Ewing and Georgetown to beat then bitter rival Villanova in the 1985 NCAA title game. “I really believe you have to be prepared for anything.”

“Everybody in the country has to adjust be ready to do things on the fly.”

Speaking of flying, Villanova is scheduled to play number 17 Texas, fresh off upsetting No. 14 North Carolina on Matt Coleman’s buzzer-beater for the Maui title, Sunday in Austin.  As of now, that game is still on, though anything can happen over the next four days.

“I’d have concerns about going anywhere right now,” said Wright, who got big performances off the bench from Eric Dixon (14 points, 10  rebounds), Cole Swider and Brandon Slater (13 apiece) in the Hartford blowout after admitting to milking his starters so much against the Hokies they ran out of gas in O.T. “but saying that I’m not an expert.”

“I’m learning like everybody, having to make all these decisions 1:00 in the morning. No one’s been in this position before.”

“One of the things we’ve learned during this pandemic is you never know.  I would’ve never, ever imagined we’d play four games up here and I’m sure they’re praying I don’t call them back now and say we’re staying for another two days.”

“ I do feel we need to get them out of here.  It’s been a great life lesson and they’ve been really resilient. But I would definitely come back up here if the situation presented itself.”

It well might, considering the Big East season is set to get underway next Friday at Georgetown, before DePaul and Butler are slated to come to Nova’s Finneran Pavilion, which will be empty other than media and players’ family members. Three days later, they’re supposed to face Virginia at Madison Square Garden, a game featuring the last two NCAA champs.

That should give the man who’s led the ‘Cats to the top of the NCAA heap in 2016 and 2018 a pretty good idea of where this team stacks up. He already knows a lot, having seen them knock off Boston College and Arizona State to win the 2K Empire Classic, before blowing a 12-point lead to Virginia Tech in the last nine minutes.

That loss came about when they surrendered a flurry of 3 pointers down the stretch, compounded by missing the front end of three one-on-ones.  Of course, that final one-on-one – Justin Moore clanking one off the rim – should have been a two shot foul, since it was Tech’s 10th of the half.

Somehow the refs and everyone else missed it, setting the stage for a wild sequence where the Hokies took the lead, only to have Moore send it into O.T. by sinking a pair from the stripe with1.2 seconds left when he drew a foul on the inbounds play.  But Tech quickly took control in overtime and never looked back, that loss dropping ‘Nova out of the Top 10 two days later.

It shouldn’t take long before they’re back. “If they’re hitting threes like did tonight they’re not losing to anyone in the country,” said Gallagher, after the ‘Cats drained 15 from beyond the arc, the 20th time they’ve done so in recent years, “Villanova to me looks like a group played together for 10 years.”

Not quite, but the Wildcats not only play like their predecessors, they talk like them.  Just like Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson they say they just want to play “Villanova basketball” and do whatever it takes to get a win.  Led by super soph Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Collin Gillespie, Moore and Tulane transfer Caleb Daniels, these ‘Cats figure to be a potent force as long as they can avoid any dreaded COVID pitfalls.

It’s a refreshing contrast from Wright’s favorite 3-7-1 NFL team, where the biggest question has become “When will the Eagles put (Jalen) Hurts in the driver’s seat?”

Drawing upon another sport soon to get started, Wright says when it comes to “March Madness” the NCAA should follow the NBA’s lead.  “I have great admiration for what the NBA went through with this bubble for months,” said Jay, who’s still slated to serve as Gregg Popovich’s Team USA assistant in Tokyo should the Olympics ever come off. “This is really safe and convenient.”

“I’m a little optimistic about the NCAA tournament after experiencing this bubble and thinking what they’re capable of. Very optimistic we’re gonna pull it off.  But the way I’m looking at this season every day we play a game is a blessing.”

So the season which will be like no other is underway for the Villanova Wildcats and the rest;  a season where we can only hope for one thing.

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