The last time Villanova was at the World's Most Famous Arena--Madison Square Garden--it didn't go so smoothly for the Wildcats.
Trailing by two against the Seton Hall Pirates, Villanova was able to get one last shot at tying or taking away the game after Isaiah Whitehead missed his second free throw. The ball zipped to Ryan Arcidiacono, and his last-second heave for the win fell a few feet short of reaching the rim.
The Seton Hall bench quickly cleared, as the Pirates swarmed the middle of the court in exuberant celebration, while the Wildcats felt the agonizing pain of defeat in the Big East Tournament championship game. There weren't going to be any back-to-back conference title celebrations, but there would be something bigger.
A lot has happened since that nightmarish trip to New York in March: Blowout wins and hard-earned victories at Brooklyn and Louisville in the NCAA Tournament, a buzzer-beating three to stand on top of the world in Houston, a trip to the White House, the ESPYs, and a tour in Spain to go sightseeing and play a few games.
Much like rock stars on a world tour, the defending champions were swamped by the press on Tuesday for Big East Media Day. There were no silent gazes like in their previous trip to the Garden, only smiles and a leftover giddiness from the six-month long celebration that isn't dying down anytime soon on Villanova's campus.
"Going to the White House was crazy," said Wildcat senior Josh Hart, as he retold a story he's shared many times before--all with the same child-like excitement. "Once President Obama came in, everyone was quiet like ‘Whoa, this is the president.’ I wish people were able to see that reaction right when he walked in. I wish we could have a still frame of everyone’s face wide-eyed in amazement. It’s definitely surreal, it’s something you grow up watching and to be able to go through it--it's a crazy feeling."
It's a sensation that's new for Hart, who is this year's preseason pick for Big East Player of the Year, national championship hero Kris Jenkins, co-captain Darryl Reynolds, and even head coach Jay Wright, all of whom were in attendance at Madison Square Garden.
They were able to enjoy a 35-5 season, and the program's first national title since 1985, which was before any of the current players were born and when Wright had just got his coaching career going as an assistant at Rochester.
The senior trio is getting used to the fanfare, as well as becoming senior captains. With the graduation of 1,000 point scorers Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, they are expected to take an even greater leadership role than what they experienced in their previous three years at Villanova.
"Embracing the senior leadership role is something that’s always tough," Jenkins said. "A lot of people depend on you, you depend on yourself. We have a great young group of guys. We have great teammates here. Everyone here is willing to learn and be helped."
They have approximately one month left until the season begins to get accustomed to the new position, as the Wildcats open up the regular season against Lafayette on Nov. 11. It will be the first step of the long journey that comes with a college basketball season and the first opponent in the Wildcats' title defense.
As the narrative shifts from not being able to get past the first weekend to their ability to repeat as national champions, Villanova remains steadfast in the face of outside pressure.
"Defending? We’re not defending anything," Hart said. "No one could take that away from us. That was last year. No one will be able to take this ring off of our finger."
They also offer a sense of refocusing for the year ahead. Last season may have taught them that, as their play on the court dispelled any heat from pundits.
"Everyone is doing their job," Reynolds said. "You guys are asking questions, we’re answering them. We just gotta remain true to ourselves, realize that our focus has not changed a ton. We hear it, but you’re always going to hear something. Last year, it was we’re not going to make it past the first round, we’re not going to make the Final Four, we’re not going to win a championship. Now, it’s can they repeat? Can they do this? Everyone’s doing their job. It’s not anything we feel some type of way, it’s just we have to stay committed to each other overall."
The expectations will be high for the Wildcats, but it's certainly nothing new, just like how it has been for the last few years.
Once again, they were tabbed the unanimous pick to sit atop the Big East in the preseason poll. Having Jenkins and Hart return after testing the NBA Draft process certainly helped that decision, but it's a different looking team. Villanova will do without Arcidiacono and Ochefu, who have played important parts over the last four years.
With Jenkins and Hart returning for their senior seasons, Wright did not have to worry about having to replace four starters going into the next season, which would have been the largest roster turnover since coming to the Villanova. Reynolds will step in for Ochefu, while Jalen Brunson now becomes the main facilitator on the floor. It remains to be seen who will fill in the fifth slot in the starting lineup.
While the Wildcats finish up with one last month of preparation for the basketball season, the rest of the conference is gearing up for them.
"I think Georgetown is going to be pretty good, I think Creighton is going to be pretty good," Wright said. "Probably more teams capable of winning it this year than any of other year before. Those top five teams have a chance of winning it, and the other teams all have a chance of being in the NCAA tournament, so this could be the best year for our league."