March Madness: Villanova stamps itself as nation's elite in Final Four run
VILLANOVA, Pa. — The Final Four had been set for decades: Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky were crowned as college basketball's royalty.
They are the bluebloods of basketball — where deep NCAA Tournament runs are the norm, NBA prospects play, hardwood rules the sports landscape and an air of superiority reigns in programs rich in tradition and with alumni rich enough to help fund state-of-the-art practice facilities or arenas.
Grandpa might tell you UCLA or Indiana should still be in the mix. Maybe the kids like Michigan State or Arizona.
But a fifth team has firmly crashed the field: Villanova. Its fans turn up their noses at the Philly schools while the team turns up the heat in the Big East and is positioned for a second national championship in three years.
The road to the best program in hoops may start where the original rules of the game are housed at Kansas, hit Tobacco Road, head to the home of the one-and-done prospect in Lexington but it ends on the Main Line, a wealthy stretch of Philadelphia suburbs home to Villanova.
Don't believe it? Take a look at the Wildcats' resume by the numbers headed into Saturday's Final Four game against Kansas (31-7):
- 134. Wins (and counting). The most by any program over a four-year span.
- 30. The magic number for Villanova. The Wildcats have won 33, 35, 32 games the previous three years and are 34-4 this season.
- 6. Sweet 16s under coach Jay Wright.
- 3. Final Fours since 2009.
- 1. National championship under Wright in 2016.
- 420. Wins under Wright, the most in team history.
There's another number worth noting: $60 million. It's the expected cost of the renovation funded by donors of Villanova's on-campus arena when it reopens next season. The Wildcats played this season at the home of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, the Wells Fargo Center — where they went a sparkling 11-1.
Any way you count it, the Wildcats' decade of dominance has turned their blood as blue as their "V'' logo.
"We consistently had very good players," Wright said. "It's a part of guys staying healthy, guys staying in the program, good recruiting, getting lucky in recruiting over a period of time."
The Wildcats soared to the top of the AP Top 25, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and won another Big East Tournament title without a senior on the roster. Jalen Brunson, named Tuesday to the AP All-America team, Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo carried the Wildcats in stretches in tournament wins over Radford, Alabama, West Virginia and Texas Tech.
"We played the two best teams in the Big 12 and now we're getting THE best team in the Big 12," Wright said. "We know it's going to be tougher."
The 2016 team trumps the underdog '85 champs that shocked the sport for best in Nova history.
With two more wins, this year's team should stand alone.
"You've got guys that won a national championship. There's not too many teams that get to play in the game, play in the Final Four with guys that have won it," Wright said Tuesday. "It's a totally different dynamic than the '16 team and I like it."
KU-Villanova is regarded as a real title game of sorts before the winner plays Loyola or Michigan on Monday in San Antonio.
"The good thing is, I think our guys have a good understanding and respect for everybody in this tournament, so I don't think they would even think that this is the national championship game," Wright said. "Our guys wouldn't think that way."
Villanova might have seemed more worthy of a spot alongside the Blue Devils, Tar Heels, Jayhawks and Kentucky Wildcats to the casual fan had it not been for some upsets as a single-digit seed in the tournament. The Wildcats lost in the first weekend as a 1 or 2 in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017. Surely another Final Four or two would have made them a more popular pick to win it all in office pools rather than a potential target as an upset special.
But it can't be ignored that Wright has brought the program to heights that not even his mentor and 1985 championship coach Rollie Massimino could achieve.
The idea of christening a dazzling new arena with a championship banner raised to the rafters would be appropriate — hanging in the rarified air as college basketball's top team.