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Expect an early NCAA tourney exit from free-falling Villanova

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Here's the only office pool advice you'll get from me until the NCAA tournament brackets are released: Take whoever draws Villanova, and pencil that team into the second round.

What else are we supposed to think after watching the Wildcats fall Tuesday night for the fifth straight time and the 10th time in 15 games? They led lowly South Florida by 16 points at halftime of their first-round Big East tournament game  before self-destructing in the second half and getting beat 70-69 on a barely contested driving layup from Anthony Crater with five seconds to go.

Villanova's nosedive has been enough for some to suggest that a team that climbed as high as seventh in the AP Top 25 in January doesn't belong in the NCAA tournament, but the truth is the Wildcats are likely going to make it with room to spare. Victories over the likes of UCLA, Temple, Louisville, Syracuse and West Virginia make Villanova's profile superior to that of most of the teams fighting for the last at-large bids in the field.

What's of greater interest is whether the Wildcats can possibly emerge from this tailspin quickly enough to salvage a first-round victory from the No. 9 or 10 seed they'll likely receive.

It was only a year ago that Villanova lost six of 10 games to end the season after a 20-1 start, narrowly escaped Robert Morris' first-round upset bid and then fell meekly at the hands of Saint Mary's and Omar Samhan in the round of 32. Similarly, Texas started 17-0 and ascended to the top of the polls last year before finishing the season with 10 losses in its next 17 games including a first-round NCAA tournament flameout against Wake Forest.

For this year's Villanova team to avoid a similar fate, coach Jay Wright is going to have to do a dramatic makeover on his team between now and next week. Starters Corey Stokes and Mouphtaou Yarou are coping with various nagging injuries, the guards aren't defending off the dribble and more than anything, the once-confident Wildcats appear to lack poise, swagger and leadership. {YSP:MORE}

After scoring 49 points in the first half on 59.3 percent shooting against South Florida, the Wildcats crumbled at the first hint of adversity in the second half. They were so tentative on offense that every possession appeared to come down to Maalik Wayns or Corey Fisher trying to beat their man off the dribble as the shot clock ticked down.

Falling on the first day of the five-day Big East tournament does mean the Wildcats will have some time to rest and recuperate before their first-round NCAA tournament game, but even Wright couldn't spin that as a real positive.

"That's going to be an advantage, but I still think for our group it would have been nice to get a few wins and get ourselves feeling good," Wright said in his postgame news conference. "That would have been better, but we're going to have to settle for resting up and getting healthy so that wherever we go, we're ready to play."

Villanova's talent-laden starting lineup certainly has the potential to win a first-round game and put a scare into a higher seed two days later.

Based on the past two months, however, everything about the Wildcats suggests they're headed for a first-round exit.

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