For the first time since 2009, the Wildcats will be representing the Big East Conference in the mega-showcase event for the sport of college basketball. It's been a long seven years since Scottie Reynolds, Dante Cunningham, and Corey Fisher among others squared up with eventual National Champion North Carolina in The Motor City, and a lot's obviously happened. The Big East of 'old' is now gone, as are its most prominent powers. The ACC is now the super-league in the sport, with the Big 12 and Big Ten giving it chase. The Big East has mostly been above average, but its tournament successes, or lack thereof, have done some damage to its perception. It's been hard to ignore.
Also hard to ignore going into this year's NCAA Tournament was Villanova's lack of postseason success. It was no secret to anybody. It was the biggest elephant in the room. Since that trip to the Final Four in 2009, 'Nova's come up empty handed since then. From 2010-2015, Jay Wright's 'Cats appeared in the NCAA Tournament five times, and each time, they could not get through the first weekend.
Saint Mary's, George Mason, North Carolina, UConn, and North Carolina State. These were the teams who knocked out Villanova in those five appearances. In the cases of George Mason and UNC, it's tough to be hard on 'Nova. They were a No. 9 seed in both those instances, and lost to the higher seed. For the other three, it was a little more glaring. Villanova was a No. 2 seed vs. the Gaels and Huskies, and a No. 1 seed a year ago against the Wolfpack. All three times, the Wildcats failed to live up to their seed's expectations, and were unceremoniously sent back to Philadelphia completely punch-drunk.
What's true though in the last three seasons is this: You would be hard pressed to find a more consistent and successful team than the Villanova Wildcats. Whatever your opinion of the Big East in its current state may be, it's not tough to argue two things:
1) Villanova has been the flag bearer for the conference.
2) They have run through the league effortlessly.
In the past three seasons, 'Nova has posted three consecutive 16-2 records in Big East play, amounting for an astonishing record of 48-6 over that time period. The last time they lost at The Pavilion, the Big East had 15 teams. They won a Big East Tournament title and appeared in the championship game the year after. Again: Whatever your opinion is of this version of the Big East Conference is, you cannot ignore the successes that 'Nova has had against its peers. It's tough to win consistently in the realm of college basketball, and credit ought to be given where its due to Wright and his team for doing so year after year.
That's what's made it so frustrating for Villanova fans these past few seasons. They would painlessly rack up wins against Big East opponents, and then run into bad matchups in by far the toughest playoff in sports and get sent packing. The cycle would repeat itself, and the same cliches would get tossed out into the mix. They could not get over the hump, and it seemed that the frustration would never end.
That's what makes this year so satisfying for Villanova fans.
That hump? 'Nova hopped over it with a pogo stick souped up with springs that could take them to the moon and back. Those matchup problems? The script was flipped. 'Nova became a problem for its opponents, instead of the other way around. Prior to the Elite Eight matchup with Kansas, they were taking down opponents with blistering performances from the field, something they could not get to fall their way in years past. Villanova's margin of victory leading up to the Elite Eight was at an average of almost 21 points. They were doing damage at an unreal level, likened to the way they would bulldoze through conference play these last three years.
The win over the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday night did many things. Did it validate the Big East Conference? It's tough to say. Outside of Villanova, the conference sent four other teams to the NCAA Tournament. None of them made the second weekend. It's tough to be lamenting over Butler and Providence. The Bulldogs and Friars both were not favored vs. UVA and UNC, but they each showed lots of fight against the No. 1 seeds in their region. The Pirates, who seemed destined to do damage after a dream season, were dismissed by 11-seed Gonzaga. Xavier, who many believed was a legit contender to get to Houston had their dreams shattered by Wisconsin and a Bronson Koenig buzzer-beater that left them listless.
A conference's success in the NCAA Tournament does not necessarily mean that your conference is good, but it certainly doesn't help. The ACC is getting bloated with love and adoration while the Pac-12 is getting hammered. Would the Big East be getting shellacked by the national media if Villanova's lack of tournament success continued in 2016? Yeah, probably. It's been a proverbial punching bag for the last few seasons, and that would have likely continued. You'd likely see us put a Crying Jordan face on our logo and we would have all trudged through it.
So does Villanova's win mean the Big East gets its much desired validation? It might have to wait a little bit longer, but there were significantly large steps taken back towards it after its flag bearer took down the mighty No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament from one of the premier conferences in the sport, and a blue blood, too. There's nothing wrong with the feeling of solidarity that Big East fans from Omaha to Indianapolis to Milwaukee to Jamaica, Queens among others have felt, either. Make no mistake about it: Big East fans were getting sick and tired of the narrative being tossed around that none of their teams could win the big one. Once 'Nova did, fans from nearly every fanbase made like The Rock laid the smackdown on the doubters and naysayers. Deservedly so, too.
But be careful of toeing the line between solidarity and having the feel of a certain conference to the south that thumps its chest each fall to no end.
What Villanova's victory and subsequent trip to the Final Four does do, however, is validate a program that has had bountiful amounts of success the last three seasons. It validates a coach in Jay Wright who has been one of the best coaches in America for quite some time and got snake bitten over the course of a seven-year period. It also gives him and the Wildcats quite a lot of vindication too. Something that's been harbored for quite some time.
Villanova's victory also props the likes of Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, two seniors who have gone through it all since arriving on campus, up high into program lore. It also helps the Wildcats make some history, as for the first time ever, there are players on this Villanova team that have both made the Final Four and won a Big East Tournament title.
What's more, and perhaps most importantly, is that Villanova's Elite Eight win means something else:
The Wildcats are 80 minutes of great basketball away from winning a National Championship.