November 12, 2015

(AP) - Villanova could stand to raise some funds for a new trophy case.

The Wildcats opened last season winning the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, New York. That was just a warmup for 12 straight wins and a Big East championship. Then it was three more wins and a Big East tournament championship.

Josh Hart even earned conference sixth man of the year honors, pointing everything toward celebration on the Main Line.

Except for one thing - the Wildcats again flopped in March, when college basketball matters most.

Thirty years after Villanova won an improbable national championship, the top-seeded Wildcats were booted in the second game of the NCAA Tournament by North Carolina State.

The Wildcats have been ousted in the first weekend every season they've made it since they played in the 2009 Final Four. That's a 3-5 record that has raised some questions if the Wildcats can ever truly become elite under coach Jay Wright.

They'll try again this season, ranked 11th in the AP Top 25 and the Big East favorite heading into Friday night's opener against Farleigh Dickinson.

Wright said he's looked hard at fixing the tournament problems.

''It's more from the coaching standpoint than the players,'' he said. ''It's little tactical things we could do. It's two years in a row playing a 1-16 game or 2-15 game, then going to a high-level game the next game. Maybe the coaching staff - me - didn't do a good enough job in between those games.''

Wright said the regular season can't be considered anything but a success but added, ''I get it'' why his program is judged on March alone.

Hart, guard Ryan Arcidiacono, forward Kris Jenkins and forward Daniel Ochefu all return from a team looking to prove it really is built for the long haul.

But it's the new kid in town that could give the program the jolt it needed as Villanova tries for its first national championship since 1985.

Jalen Brunson, a 6-foot-2 guard and McDonald's All-American, is the most highly touted recruit to hit campus in years. Brunson is the son of former Temple star and NBA player Rick Brunson. He was unanimously named the Big East Rookie of the Year and could help the Wildcats erase their March doldrums.

Wright said Brunson was an intelligent, gritty guard who might be around for only one or two seasons, a rarity for a program built on the strength of upperclassmen.

''I know one thing that concerns me is that he's gotten so much hype, that when people hear hype, they expect Andrew Wiggins,'' Wright said. ''He's not that.''

Brunson scored a game-high 13 points in an 80-45 exhibition win over Pace on Sunday.

Ochefu had 10 points and 12 rebounds, and the development of the senior's post-up game could be key. He often deferred to Villanova's outside shooters last season, scoring in double figures just six times in the final 18 games while posting only one double-double. He averaged a team-leading 8.5 rebounds.

Villanova almost certainly needs Arcidiacono to step up after the senior point guard slumped late last season, averaging 6.3 points on 34.2 percent shooting in the final six games. Still, he earned co-Big East player of the year honors as the floor general for the conference champions. The Wildcats are 30-2 over the past two seasons when he scores in double figures.

"Arch has been a warrior since he was born," Ochefu said. "You can tell that by the way he plays. It's been a great journey over the years with me and him."

Hart could play a bigger role as he joins the starting lineup after being named MVP of last year's Big East tournament, where he averaged 17.7 points on 21-of-29 shooting.

Fairleigh Dickinson (8-21) should provide the Wildcats with an easy opener. The Knights are tied for the third-youngest team in the nation, with 11 of their 13 players being freshmen or sophomores. Redshirt junior Tyrone O'Garro, who transferred from Monmouth last fall, is the captain despite having yet to play a game for Fairleigh Dickinson.

This is coach Greg Herenda's third season at the helm after going 18-42 in the first two. The Knights haven't had a winning season since 2006-07 and are picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Northeast Conference.

Villanova has won all three meetings, with the last coming in 2009.

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