At the start of the 2013-14 season, many people declared the Big East dead after Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and more left for greener pastures. For so long, the Big East had set the bar for excellence when it came to college basketball. Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin led their respective schools and the Big East to national prominence and were instrumental when the Big East reached its pinnacle. In 1985, Ewing led the Georgetown Hoyas, while Mullin was the driving force for the St. John's Redmen, each bringing their team to the Final Four. Even though Ewing and Mullin had star power, the team that cut down the nets at the 1985 was upstart Villanova. In one year, the Big East had three of the four members of the Final Four, a feat that was never accomplished up until 1985.
As time went on, the Big East kept on adding to its reputation as a powerful basketball conference. Passing through the league were Hall of Fame caliber players such as Ray Allen and Allen Iverson. Magical moments would occur during the Big East tournament such as the epic 6 overtime game between Syracuse and UConn in 2009. Yet many of these universities, who made their reputation in the Big East, abandoned the conference.
During the remodeling of the Big East in 2013, it became a conference that had ten universities that did not have Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision programs. Gone were Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and UConn just to name a few. Basketball fans were no longer going to see Syracuse vs Georgetown or Pittsburgh vs. West Virginia on a yearly basis. UConn, which has won four national titles since 1999, keeps on being shunned by the major conferences. Many people were calling the Big East a dormant conference that should be relegated to mid-major status.
Yet, since the onset of the reformed Big East, Villanova has compiled an astonishing 48-6 conference record, translating to a winning percentage of .888. In all three seasons, Villanova has been the regular season conference champion. There was also a Big East tournament crown in 2015 and an appearance in the 2016 Big East Final, which many have made ‘Nova back-to-back conference tournament champs, had it not been for Isaiah Whitehead’s heroics.
There have also been other solid teams during the first three years of the Big East. Teams such as Providence, St. John's, Creighton, and Butler have had stints in the top 25. Xavier made a Sweet 16 run in 2015 and Seton Hall, on the strength of their sophomore class, won the Big East tournament. But none of the programs have had the consistency of success that Jay Wright and crew have had in the last three years. Each of these teams had flashes of greatness in the Big East but Villanova has been great since the inception of the Big East. While some would still critique the Big East because it is not a mega conglomerate of 16 schools that can feast off football revenue, Villanova legitimized its program and conference this spring.
In 2014 and 2015 the Wildcats were unable to have successful runs in the NCAA tournament after being ousted in the field of 32 both times. Certain people believed that just like all the other Big East teams, ‘Nova would have a short stay in the NCAA tournament. What occurred was exactly the opposite, as Villanova played the best basketball a team could play in their biggest games.
In the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament, Villanova won by an average of 24 points until Kansas gave them a close game but the Wildcats still won 64-59. In the national semifinal, ‘Nova absolutely manhandled the Oklahoma Sooners by a 95-51 scoreline. The victory was a measure of revenge for a loss at Pearl Harbor earlier and it also set up a national title game berth.
And that NCAA title game between North Carolina Tar Heels and Villanova Wildcats was epic. In a back and forth game the final moments were legendary. The Tar Heels were fighting to erase a late game deficit and finally tied the score on Marcus Paige’s off-balance three-point shot. As difficult as the shot was, it was not the last shot of the game. Ryan Arcidiacono was able to push the ball up the floor into the hands of Kris Jenkins and as the buzzer sounded Jenkin’s shot went in and will live on in eternity with other great shots such as Lorenzo Charles’ and Christian Laettner’s.
In a span of three years Villanova was able to expand on its basketball legacy. The Wildcats not only imposed their will on their conference opponents, but after heartache in previous seasons, legitimized their program by being the last team standing in the NCAA tournament. And now, the 2016-17 season can just add to the aura that now surrounds Villanova basketball.
Photo: Eric Gay/AP
-(1) Villanova faces (5) West Virginia in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament