You’re not compelled to root for Villanova. College basketball divides the local fan base into a half-dozen smaller constituencies. There are thousands of enthusiasts with cherry-red sweatshirts or Holy War scars who struggle to cheer for the Main Line Wildcats.
You must, however, admire what is happening here. As Jay Wright’s defending National Champions head into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, the magnitude of their greatness cannot be overstated.
This is the best college basketball team in our history. They stand to be the top local team, any sport, since those Flyers of the mid-1970s.
Over the past four years, Wright’s team is 128-16. They are 16-0 in Big Five games, a feat never before accomplished. They’ve been in the AP top three at some point in each of those four seasons, and a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tourney.
And, of course, they aim to become the first team since Florida in 2007 to repeat as champions. Vegas odds put their chances around 11 percent. I’ll take the over.
Nova soared to a 31-3 record this season even after losing four-year stalwarts Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu. These Wildcats feature two seniors, high-scoring guard Josh Hart and forward Kris Jenkins, whose title-winning shot against North Carolina last April ensured he never has to pick up a check in his life around these parts.
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The other top contributors are freshman or sophomores – Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall. There’s no reason to believe this is Villanova’s last year scraping the top of the standings.
It’s all about the architect. Nova, with 10,000 students, is the smallest school to win the national title since, well, Nova in 1985. Jay Wright competes against – and beats – the Enormous State U’s, with their unlimited recruiting budgets and one-and-done McDonald’s All-Americans.
He does it with a plug-and-play formula, where every kid fits a role. Arcidiacono graduates – Brunson steps in at point guard. The kids all stay three or four years, allowing Wright to build around a system, rather than adapt everything (and sell his soul) to the next NBA lottery pick just looking for short-term parking.
It’s smart basketball – getting in the passing lane, knowing how to rotate. And it looks to be sustainable for seasons to come.
We’ve seen brilliance in local hoops over the years. The 2003-04 St. Joe’s team that topped the polls with Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. The John Chaney Temple teams of the late 1980s that clawed to the Elite Eight. Old Heads recall La Salle in 1968-69 or Penn in 1970-71.
But no program has maintained excellence as Wright has done here. And now?
Even as the top seed, Nova drew a tough road to the Final Four. Wisconsin is on the horizon, followed by Virginia or Florida, and then the Evil Blue Devils of Duke. That doesn’t mean Nova can’t repeat, but it makes it a tougher chore.
Watch it, enjoy it. And even if your loyalties lie with another Big Five team, don’t fail to recognize the historic magnificence of this team.