VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) -- Villanova's descent from Big East elite to opening-round act at Madison Square Garden can be tracked one collapse at a time.
The Wildcats (12-18, 5-13 Big East) lost games this season after squandering a 20-point lead to Notre Dame; 18-point leads to Marquette and Connecticut; a 10-point lead to Saint Louis; and even a nine-point lead over Santa Clara. Hold on to those advantages and win those games, and Villanova might be in contention for an NIT bid, or at least a second-day start in this week's Big East tournament in New York.
Instead, the Wildcats, seeded 14th, will take on 11th-seeded Rutgers (14-17, 6-12) on Tuesday. Villanova nearly wasted all of a 19-point lead against the Scarlet Knights last week before hanging on for a 77-71 win.
Villanova needs to win all five games in New York for an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, which would extend its March Madness run to eight straight seasons. Barring that thunderbolt of luck, the Wildcats could miss out on postseason play for the first time in coach Jay Wright's 11 seasons.
"This season has definitely not been easy," Wright said. "But if you're in coaching for a long time, you have these seasons sometimes. And you don't enjoy every moment of it."
There's been very little to enjoy this season on the Main Line. Guard Maalik Wayns has been a bright spot. Freshman forward JayVaughn Pinkston has loads of potential. Otherwise, this has been a disastrous year of epic meltdowns and lengthy losing streaks the Wildcats can't wait to forget.
They must pull a UConn to keep their tourney hopes alive. And winning five straight in the conference tournament, like the Huskies did last season, is no easy task for a team with one two-game winning streak since November. The Wildcats started 4-0, then, poof! The good times stopped rolling.
Villanova's 13 Big East losses are a staggering amount for a program that lost only twice in conference play in 2005-06 and five times three other seasons under Wright.
Wright, of course, is nowhere close to the hot seat. Not after he led the Wildcats to the round of 16 in 2005, the regional final in 2006, the Sweet 16 in 2008, and the Final Four in 2009. The Wildcats were eliminated on the first weekend in each of the last two tournaments.
He might still lead the Wildcats into a postseason bracket this season. The College Basketball Invitational accepts teams with losing records and will likely talk to the Wildcats about filling one of its 16 spots. Wright would listen, because the underclassman-heavy roster could use the practice time.
"The toughest thing about playing in that, would be the people asking you, 'Villanova in the CBI?'" Wright said. "That's tough when you're used to being in the NCAA tournament. But when you go to practice and you're together as a team, that's fun."
Wright has been at a loss to explain how his team keeps coughing up double-digit leads. The Wildcats put their own unfortunate twist on the old Jerry Seinfeld joke about a lost rental car reservation: The Wildcats know how to take the big lead, they just don't know how to hold the big lead. And that's really the most important part of the game, the holding.
"I think everybody on the outside can see that we can hang with any team in the Big East, we just have to finish it," guard Dominic Cheek said. "Now, we can prove it, because it's a fresh start for everybody."
The Big East tournament might not be the right spot to prove anything. The knack for wasting leads stretches back to last season's tournament when Villanova squandered a 16-point edge by making only four field goals in the second half of a 70-69 loss to South Florida.
Wright blames inexperience for part of the troubles down the stretch. The Wildcats have no contributing seniors and five freshmen.
"They have not lost their focus. We just aren't good enough yet to win these games as a team," Wright said. "It's not that we don't have good enough players, we're just not good enough as a team and that comes down on all of us."
To assess the enormity of the task at hand this week, consider this: The Wildcats need to win five straight games to advance to the NCAA tournament. That would equal their conference win total for the entire season.
"We all pack for five days," Wright said. "Connecticut did it. That's what you have to believe and why not? There's no reason to go and play if you don't believe that."
Wayns, who earned a spot on the All-Big East second team, knows matching the UConn feat is unlikely.
"You can look at it, but that's like once in a lifetime," Wayns said. "You really can't try to just dream on things like that, but it's definitely possible. You don't want to go in thinking about that."
The CBI or an early date with the offseason likely looms this week for Villanova. The reality is, they have to answer to 12-18, and that's not pretty.
But Wright promises better days are on the horizon.
"I'm disappointed, but not discouraged," he said. "I see hope."