BUFFALO - In the quiet locker room after the game, as the players sat in their places staring straight ahead into nothing, the assistant coaches gathered in a huddle to the side, looking at box scores and replays, trying to pick apart what separated winning from losing for Villanova on Saturday night. At the locker stall on the end nearest the door, a dark blue suit coat rested on a hanger, waiting for its owner to return from analyzing the very same things for public consumption.
"It's not frustrating," Jay Wright said, just a few feet away in the concrete corridor of KeyBank Center. "It's basketball."
That's the reality of the game that binds them all. College basketball is about a group of 18-to-22 year olds throwing a rubber ball at an iron rim and about attempting to control all the things that might happen in the process. Good luck, and, ultimately, that's often what decides the games.
"Things can happen," Wright said. "You don't get buckets. We didn't get buckets. But you can still get a stop. The plays they made at the end . . . the three by [Bronson] Koenig on the baseline out-of-bounds, that was huge. You've got to stop that."
Even as he said it - seeing the X's of the other coach beating his O's in a critical moment - Wright knew that every final score is a densely-woven quilt of events, not a single thread. On the play he mentioned, Koenig inbounded the basketball to the wing, faked as if he was going to run to the opposite corner, then darted back around a screen to accept the return pass and make his three-point shot. It was really good execution, and Villanova's defender on him didn't have much of a chance. Nevertheless, there were still two minutes to play in a three-point game that the Wildcats would eventually tie.
"In the end, we didn't have the final response that Wisconsin did," Wright said.
The truth is that there were just as many things that had to happen for Villanova to lose on Saturday night as had to happen a year ago for the Wildcats to win each of their six games in the NCAA tournament. Basketball gives and it takes, and searching for overarching reasons for why it works one way one season and another in the next is pointless. Rubber balls, iron rims, 18-to-22 year olds.
Focusing on the three times the outgoing senior class found disappointment in the NCAA's rather than the one time it went the entire distance is more than just seeing the hole instead of the doughnut. It's missing the point entirely. All of those seasons were really the same, because to reach this level against this competition, you need great players, great coaching, and a willingness to play along the cliff's edge of disaster every game. Sometimes you fall, but if you don't run that close to the edge, to that very limit of your ability, then you can't win, either.
From a purely basketball standpoint, it can be said that Villanova badly missed center Daniel Ochefu this season. The Wildcats were good on the interior, but they were great a year ago because Ochefu solidified everything and forced teams to focus on more than just Villanova's traditional spread-and-slash offensive game on the perimeter. On defense, when the Wildcats ran into a team with height, Ochefu matched it. They didn't have that same answer this time around. If you want to mark that as a failing of the program, go ahead, but recruiting very talented, 6-foot-11, four-year players isn't going to happen for anyone on an annual or even quadrennial basis.
"I was mistaken about something last year," Wright said, a week or so ago. "I didn't realize until after we won it, how intelligent they were. I didn't think they were dumb, but I didn't realize the intelligence level of Arch [Ryan Arcidiacono] and Daniel, and how much it had an impact on separating us from all the distractions. They were able to look at all of it for what it was and say, 'That's not helping us. Let's just focus.' They weren't saying it because I told them to, they were saying it because they figured it out."
Wright also said the current group had the same qualities, but maybe there was an intangible level of pressure or distraction that came with having to defend a national championship. Maybe focus isn't as easy to capture when everyone wants a picture with you, or when you get to Purdue in mid-November and students are already camping out in anticipation of the game. Maybe all that wasn't bad ultimately, but it was different.
"This isn't fun right now," Wright said as he prepared to leave the hallway, find his suit coat and begin the trek toward next season, "but it will be a great learning experience for the guys coming back."
The learning never stops, and neither does the challenge of dancing on that edge of the cliff. It isn't frustrating. It's just basketball.