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  • At the moment, Villanova is as dominant a program as Florida was a decade ago, and as Duke was in the early 1990’s. And as Georgetown was in the early 1980’s, in the glory days of the Big East.
By Charles P. Pierce
April 03, 2018

SAN ANTONIO – I think the most obvious evidence that the game had ended came with 4:23 left. That’s when Villanova’s backup point guard, freshman Collin Gillespie, ran amok on the Michigan baseline, dribbling back and forth until Wolverine center Moritz Wagner fouled him and sent him to the line. It was the fourth foul on Wagner, who was a major part of Michigan’s entire offense all night. At the moment Gillespie was running him ragged, Wagner was sucking air like a F-16. 

“I don’t let nerves get to me,” Gillespie said. “I’ve been playing basketball for 18 years of my life.”

The most unfair moment came when Mikal Bridges, soon to be appearing in a draft lottery near you, decided to get hot with three minutes left and Villanova ahead by 19. This is what happens when you were the best team when the season started, the best team when the NCAA tournament started and you were even better at the end, when you won it for the second time in three years. In 2016, Villanova won on a Kris Jenkins buzzer beater. On Monday night, a whole bunch of shots beat the buzzer, and the Wildcats cruised, 79-62. They won their two games at the Final Four by a total of 33 points. They owned this event as surely as San Antonio did.

“I knew we were good,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “But you don’t think you can win this. I thought after the West Virginia game, I knew we had a shot. You get into the mindset—don’t screw this up. You’ve got a really good team here, really good kids. You’ve got a shot here.

“And, on the other side, it’s a constant struggle. Don’t screw this up and don’t be afraid to fail. It’s a struggle in your mind and it was until about three minutes left tonight.” 

It was a tournament in which Villanova established itself as the rightful heir to an institutional basketball bloodline that once looked as though it had died out, that once looked to have infected itself so deeply with football that it never would recover, a league that had scattered its history to the four winds, or to the Big Ten, whichever was more convenient. It was something brought from the past into a shining present, a gift from history, a memory recovered at last. 

There were those of us that loved it back in the day, when John Thompson and Jim Boeheim and Lou Carnesecca roamed the sidelines and Pearl Washington was lighting up Madison Square Garden. The Big East Conference was the hottest ticket in town. Then, of course, it all came apart, the way conferences do these days. It invited football into the party, and football is heroin to athletic directors. They expanded swiftly and ludicrously—Louisville? West Virginia—it was an attempt to create a football conference out of a basketball league. There were better football conferences out there, so the football schools left, took their basketball teams with them and, by 2013, the Big East looked to be just another relic of the go-go 1980’s, like Mr. T, the savings and loan industry and Loverboy. HBO even made a television documentary about the rise and what seemed like a permanent fall. 

Then, something remarkable happened. Ten schools without big-time football, and several without football at all, including charter Big East schools Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s and, yes, Villanova, decided to put the Big East back together again in its original form—as a basketball conference made up of like-minded schools.

Marquette had joined the league during the mad expansion it had undergone trying to survive. The Big East brought in solid programs like Creighton, Xavier and Butler; Butler joined fresh off back-to-back appearances in the national championship game under Brad Stevens, now the coach of the Boston Celtics. Under the leadership of commissioner Val Ackerman, and a renewed commitment to what in another context might be referred to as traditional values, the league became a return to the late Dave Gavitt’s original brainchild. 

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There have been some lovely rivalries that have developed in the new league. Xavier-Butler is a must-watch, and Villanova seems to have the devil’s own time getting untracked against Marquette in Milwaukee. St. John’s brought home Chris Mullin just in time for him to coach against Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown’s team. (The last time I saw those two in college, Mullin was getting planted by Ewing every time he crossed the lane in a national semifinal against the Hoyas.) There was only one thing that was missing—a super program to give the league some real national swagger, and to force all the other teams in the league to improve in order to stay competitive. In the old Big East, it was Thompson and his truculent, stone-tough Hoyas. In the new Big East, it’s what Jay Wright has wrought at Villanova. The new league needed what Wright has brought to it—a cool and mature team that shares the ball, shoots the daylights out of it and is able to turn up the defense when it needs to do so. 

“Initially,” Wright said, “I was scared to death because I’d been an assistant in the old Big East and then as a head coach in the old Big East. I knew I thought it was the best conference in the country. But what I learned, over time, is that we’re authentic. Everybody’s basketball. Everybody’s metropolitan, private school. We play each other, home and away. We want to be the best we can be, and it’s amazing how far authenticity can carry you. It’s really surprised me and, for us, it’s the best league in the country.”

The Wildcats do not crack easily and they are almost inhumanly versatile. It is almost as though they study the landscape of a game for the first 15 minutes or so until they decide to use whatever of their talents allow them to take you apart most easily. On Monday night, the pregame conventional wisdom was that Michigan’s “length” on defense was its best chance to win. But it was Villanova that, after Moritz went off for 11 points in the game’s first nine minutes, decided that it would let Donte DiVincenzo handle the offense for a while and win the rest of the half with its defense. It held Michigan to four points over the last five minutes of the half. When you looked up, the teams were leaving the floor and Villanova was ahead by nine.

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“They played very good defense,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Everybody talks about their offense, but I think that what’s really underrated is how good they are defensively.” 

Most of the credit goes to Wright, a coach whose sharp uptown wardrobe belies the long stretches of woodshedding he did, beginning as a graduate assistant at the University of Rochester in 1984. (Some Twitter wag commented on Saturday, when Villanova squashed Bill Self and Kansas, that Wright looked like a Wall Street scoundrel while Self looked like the FBI agent sent to bring him down.)  He has built a remarkable and durable program; over the past four years, he has won two national championships and has put up a dazzling 129-17 record. At the moment, Villanova is as dominant a program as Florida was a decade ago, and as Duke was in the early 1990’s. And as Georgetown was in the early 1980’s, in the glory days of the Big East. 

“I mean, you can’t put this into words,” said Wildcat star Jalen Brunson. “I just love my brothers. I love my team. I love the ‘Nova Nation. This is spectacular. We play for the ones that came before us. They set the tone. It’s on us to keep up the tradition, man. I just love these guys. I love them to death.”

The Big East has a dynasty again, and a dynasty from one of its original members. And, if you open the historical eye, and then squint a bit, you can see John Thompson glaring down at a referee, or Louie Carnesecca mad-dancing in front of the bench, or Rollie Massimino turning into a mass of quivering rage. You can see Patrick Ewing slapping the ball away, Chris Mullin draining that southpaw jumper and Eddie Pinckney snaking through for a tip-in. Pearl Washington is still alive and so is Dave Gavitt. Squint hard enough and you can see them all smile at what has become of what they started, at the return to a nearly forgotten beginning. Seems like old times.

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