BOSTON (AP) — When Villanova coach Jay Wright talks to his players about the Wildcats’ 2016 national championship, he wants them to remember what it felt like before they took the court, not after they cut down the nets.
“There’s a certain hunger when you’ve never been there that can elevate you, too, that you just want it so bad,” he said on Saturday as he prepared to play Elite Eight newcomer Texas Tech for a spot in the NCAA Final Four.
“When you’re in it for the first time and you’re advancing, you’re so excited. You’re so hungry. That can be your advantage,” Wright said. “We’ve got to remain humble, and we’ve got to be more hungry than Texas Tech, and then hope some of our experience pays off.”
No. 1 seed Villanova will face the third-seeded Red Raiders on Sunday at TD Garden, a matchup of tournament veterans vs. a team that is so unfamiliar with this level of March Madness that coach Chris Beard had to ask his players what the next round is called.
“We just made the — what’s it called? The Great Eight?” he asked his players after beating Purdue on Friday night to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time in the program’s 93-year history.
“Elite,” guard Keenan Evans corrected him.
“The Elite Eight our second year together,” Beard said. “We’re blessed to be here, but I think we’ve earned the right to be here.”
Villanova (33-4) has made seven trips to the Sweet 16 just since Wright arrived on campus in 2001, going on to the Elite Eight four times while making two trips to the Final Four. They won it all in 2016, and then last year bowed out in the second round.
That set off alarms for Wright.
“It kind of felt like our team last year, that kind of hit us,” he said. “We kind of had two similar seasons in a row. … You go into the NCAA Tournament, you’re a 1 (seed vs. a) 16. It’s crazy to say, but I kind of felt like it was just business as usual.”
Guard Phil Booth said Wright hasn’t done anything different to keep the team hungry.
But he doesn’t need to.
Only four players on the current team were on the roster when the Wildcats beat North Carolina for the 2016 title, including Booth and guards Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson.
“I don’t think this team needs any pumping up,” Booth said. “I don’t think anybody feels complacent.”
Here are some other things to look for in Sunday’s game:
As Texas Tech (27-9) practiced, the Big 12 could claim three of the last eight teams still playing. (Kansas State was scheduled to play Loyola-Chicago later Saturday night, with Kansas facing Duke on Sunday.) That wasn’t surprising to the Red Raiders, considering the conference schedule they had to slog through.
“We battled every night,” Evans said. “Close games, just like tournaments are, and tournament teams every night in the Big 12. So it definitely prepared us for this.”
The Red Raiders went 11-7 in the conference, losing four straight games to close out February. But the last two were to ranked teams — Kansas and West Virginia; they lost again to the Mountaineers in the conference tournament.
The Big 12 put seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, and four advanced to the Sweet 16. Other leagues had more — the ACC had nine — but not as many advanced.
“The Big 12 is just a grind. It’s well-documented,” Beard said. “Hall of fame coaches. Every team has NBA players as prospects. Every team has a great home court, including us in Lubbock. … So the grind is just brutal when you’re in it, but I think it does pay dividends when you get out of the tunnel.”
The big debate in the Texas Tech locker room isn’t about politics or even whether to guard the player attempting a full-court inbounds pass in the final seconds.
It’s about music. More specifically: Some of the players think Beard plays too much country music.
In Lubbock, Texas, them’s fightin’ words.
“We have a deal where they get three songs and I get one. That’s the ratio. Unless we lose, and then I get three, and they get one,” Beard explained. “So, win. It’s a winner’s world.”
Evans said he is warming to it.
Some of it.
“I don’t know any of the song names,” Evans said, “but you’ll catch me singing along to some of them.”
“You like ‘Mama Tried,’ by Merle Haggard,” Beard informed him.
“Yeah,” Evans said. “That one.”
Ever the coach, Beard used it as an opportunity for teaching.
“Diversity is the spice of life,” he said. “That’s what makes our country great. Look at the room today, everybody’s different. Diversity is America. Diversity is the beauty in life.
“So I tell the guys: Justin (Gray), what’s your favorite food?
“Man, I really like seafood.
“All right. Do you eat it every day?
“No, that’s crazy.
“Exactly. So why should you listen to hip hop every single day?” Beard said. “It’s diversity. This is where we’re going with this. So we believe in it.”
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