When we talk about the best teams in college basketball, the discussion inevitably starts with Kentucky and then moves its way to Virginia, Duke and Wisconsin. From there, it meanders west through Big 12 country, hitting Kansas before moving on to Arizona and making a token mention of Gonzaga.
This discussion inevitably leaves behind one question. What about Villanova?
It’s true that the Wildcats have been a top-10 team all season and they opened this week sixth in the polls and seventh in the kenpom.com rankings. Scores of bracket projections, including ours here on SI.com, have had them locked into a 2-seed in the NCAA tournament. Yet, they never seem to get mentioned alongside the best teams in the country and are widely considered to be comfortably behind Wisconsin and Kansas in the seed-line pecking order.
Why is this the case? Villanova doesn’t have a well-known star, like Jahlil Okafor or Frank Kaminsky or Karl-Anthony Towns or Stanley Johnson. Sure, college basketball fans know Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston, but you aren’t going to find either of them rated highly on NBA draft boards. Ryan Arcidiacono is the only Wildcat who plays at least 30 minutes per game, and he’s just barely over that threshold at 30.1 mpg. Today’s Big East is not the powerhouse it was before the great conference shakeup, at least at face value. All of those could contribute to Villanova flying under the radar that so easily picks up the other top teams in the country, but it would do well to notice the blip growing ever brighter.
One game is unlikely to change the perception of Villanova. However, the Wildcats’ 74-68 victory over Providence on Wednesday night checked off a lot of important boxes. It was their first road win over a top-50 team and, of course, the Friars aren’t just any well-regarded squad. They rank 22nd in RPI and own wins over Notre Dame, Butler and Georgetown. The Wildcats now have seven top-50 victories, eight if you want to cheat just a little bit and include No. 51 St. John’s. Only five other teams have that many: Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin, Kansas and Oklahoma.
Villanova, which entered the game ranked ninth in adjusted offensive efficiency, also picked up the impressive win on an off-night from leading scorer Hilliard, who averages 13.3 points per game. The senior shot just 5-for-13 from the floor, including 1-for-5 from three, finishing with 16 points. Arcidiacono scored 20, connecting on three of his six attempts from distance, and all nine of his free throws. Daniel Ochefu was a perfect 7-for-7 from the floor, pouring in 19 points of his own. Even on what was a bad night from Hilliard, the Wildcats scored 1.19 points per possession and shot 50 percent as a team.
At the under-12 timeout in the second half, Villanova led by just three points. Over the next three minutes, Ochefu and Josh Hart went on a two-man 11-0 run, putting the Wildcats up 48-34 and forcing a Providence timeout. From that point forward, the Friars’ deficit never got slimmer than six points.
LaDontae Henton nearly carried the Friars to what would have been their best win of the season. He scored 23 points, shooting 6-for-13 from the floor and 8-for-11 from the line. However, Kris Dunn struggled mightily, needed 20 field goal attempts to score 17 points.
Say what you will about the Big East not being what it once was, but the fact is it remains one of the best conferences in the country this year. It’s likely going to send at least half of its membership to the NCAA tournament (Villanova, Providence, Butler, Georgetown and Xavier) with the strong possibility of an additional two teams (St. John’s and Seton Hall). That would give it one of the largest delegations in the field this season. According to KenPom, the only conference that rates higher than the Big East is the Big 12. Yes, even the ACC, with its bevy of Final Four contenders, ranks behind the Big East.
Right at the top of this underappreciated conference is perhaps the most underappreciated elite team in the country. Villanova may be easy to ignore in January and February, but that may prove impossible in the month that matters above all in college basketball.