Villanova has sights set on repeat national championship

VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Villanova slipped on the national championship rings, raised the national championship banner and hit the road on a victory circuit that had almost as many stops as a Wiz Khalifa summer tour.

Khalifa even made a cameo appearance at Villanova as part of a championship celebration. The Wildcats shared laughs with President Barack Obama. Rollie Massimino danced at the title party.

The Wildcats were feted with parades and presentations, first pitches and first pucks, and ordinary Big East players morphed into overnight college basketball sensations.

Villanova has basked in the spotlight for seven months after beating North Carolina in one of the NCAA Tournament's all-time greatest games. It's now time for the Wildcats to try to defend - defend? - the championship.

''Nobody can take the ring off our fingers,'' 6-foot-5 swingman Josh Hart said. ''We're not defending nothing. We're a team that can make a deep run in March.''

Again the Big East favorites and ranked fourth in the AP preseason Top 25 , the Wildcats should be on the short list of teams to beat for a championship. They went 31 years between winning it all. They'd like to shorten the next gap to one year.

Led by Hart and title game star Kris Jenkins, the Wildcats are in prime position to become the first team to go back to back since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

''Just cutting down that net again would be great,'' Hart said.

The Wildcats wouldn't have to search far to find a ladder. They kept the one they used in Houston to snip the nets after they beat the Tar Heels on Jenkins' buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

Hart, the Big East's preseason player of the year, will begin his senior season on The Associated Press' preseason All-America team . Hart averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds last season for the Wildcats and considered turning pro.

He wants two-time national champ stamped on his bio for next year's NBA draft.

''A couple of people told me that when they were going through the draft process, they were like, `It was a storybook ending, and you can basically ride off into the sunset,''' Hart said. ''Riding off into the sunset in that way this year would be crazy.''

Coach Jay Wright, who is 354-157 with two Final Fours in 15 seasons at Villanova, said a national title has only boosted the Wildcats' confidence.

''That's not something they lose. That confidence is inside them,'' he said. ''That experience is inside them. You're never going to take that away. Usually it's harder to control your ego than it is to pump somebody up. The challenge is really our ego and staying humble and hungry and getting better.''

Get better?

That could be scary for the rest of the Big East. The three-time defending conference champs have improved their record in the league (16-2 each of the last three years) and a top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament is usually a mere formality.

Here are some of the challenges ahead for the reigning national champs:

FREE OMARI

Omari Spellman, a 6-foot-8 highly recruited forward, was expected to become Villanova's big man in the frontcourt this season. The NCAA declared the freshman academically ineligible for this season because Spellman did not complete his initial eligibility requirements in time.

That leaves more minutes for Darryl Reynolds and freshmen Tim Delaney and Dylan Painter.

But Spellman would have carried a load left by Daniel Ochefu's absence and made the Wildcats more potent inside. The Villanova fans chanted ''Free Omari!'' at their national championship celebration. He'll be free - just not until next season.

WON'T YOU STAY

Spellman was an expected stud and sophomore guard Jalen Brunson had one-and-done potential until he eased into his team-first role in the starting lineup.

Wright has never had a one-and-done player leave for the NBA and the Wildcats have made tournament runs on the strength of four-year players like Ochefu, now with the Washington Wizards, and point guard Ryan Arcidiacono.

Wright said that approach won't change as champs.

''We're trying to find kids that appreciate what Villanova is all about,'' he said. ''People say it must have helped you in recruiting. We're recruiting the same guys. We're trying to find the best guys for Villanova that can make it to the NBA, not the best guys for the NBA.''

WRIGHT WAY

Wright said he had nothing more than ''simple, casual'' conversations with NBA team executives about jobs open at the next level. Wright, who has dealt with job offer rumors for a decade, said he does not have NBA aspirations.

''I don't,'' he said. ''Would I like to coach in the NBA? Would I like the challenge? Yeah. But I don't want to give this up. You've got to give this up to do it. I don't want to give it up. If I ended my career and I never got to coach in the NBA, I'd be far more happier saying I got to coach at Villanova for a long time.''

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

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