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Mike Lopresti | | March 28, 2022

Villanova has won two titles in six years but somehow isn't the biggest story — yet — in New Orleans

Villanova and Duke advance to the Final Four

Duke has the centerpiece story. Perhaps you’ve heard the coach is retiring. 

Kansas now has more all-time wins than any other program in the nation, having passed Kentucky over the weekend. Which is yet another reason for Big Blue Nation to be ticked off about the Saint Peter’s game.

North Carolina continues on its eternal high flight path, with another new face in the pilot’s seat. Hubert Davis is the fourth coach to take the Tar Heels to a Final Four in the past 25 tournaments.

So where does that leave Villanova this week? Kansas coach Bill Self has an answer. 

“The best program in America the past six or seven years.”

It’s a crowded marquee in New Orleans. Villanova might not quite have the long-term traditional tonnage as the other three gilded programs in this Final Four but consider two things: Jay Wright is 20-3 in the NCAA Tournament since 2016. And if the Wildcats are the last team standing next Monday night, that will be three national championships in seven years. You have to go back to the John Wooden UCLA empire to find that sort of thing.

Too bad about Justin Moore. A team captain and one of the go-to Wildcats is out after tearing his Achilles, and that might have Final Four forecasters fleeing Villanova. But remember, picking against these guys is picking against the way they do things, and the way they do things usually works awfully well. 

"Just making sure we play Villanova basketball every time we step on the floor,” Collin Gillespie was explaining after the regional final win over Houston.

MORE: Lowest seeds to make the men's Final Four 

Fine. But could you remind us again just what Villanova basketball is supposed to look like? 

You figure rebounding, working the defense, nailing 3-pointers when needed. The last time the Wildcats played Kansas in the Final Four, they made 18 of them. This year, it’s included rarely missing a free throw. And finding ways to win. They do that a lot.

It’s also sweating the little things. Take ball fakes by the shooters. Wright was discussing how much that helped against the aggressive Houston defenders, who were eager to swat anything in sight.

“We don’t chart them, but we try to teach the guys how to use them and when to use them. When we watch film, we look for opportunities. You know what, we probably should (chart them).”

Anything else?

Being physical. After the Wildcats went body-to-body with the tough bunch from Houston, Caleb Daniels said, “it was like playing against our own selves.”

Unity. You win a regional championship, you celebrate and take a confetti shower on the court, right? But the first thing – the very first thing – Gillespie did Saturday when the Houston game ended was to rush over to injured teammate Moore, who was sitting on the bench and probably feeling a bit lost. “Just to try to cheer him up,” Gillespie said of his reason. “I’ve been in that position before. I know what it feels like. I don’t ever want to see him by himself.”

Also on the list is understanding the responsibility to carry on from past Villanova winners.

“Back then it was amazing to watch those guys from the sidelines. I had front row tickets to some of the greatest Villanova basketball players to ever put on the jersey,” Jermaine Samuels said of the 2018 champions. “You take all those experiences with you and you try to emulate them and do the things they do, and put the work in like the put in and just pray that it works out for you.”

Same for Gillespie. “Now we play for those guys. Those guys came before us and they taught us how to play Villanova basketball and what it means to wear a Villanova jersey.”

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said it was a clash of two successful cultures in San Antonio. Which begged a question.

FINAL FOUR: Coach K makes 13th Final Four

What’s Villanova’s culture?

“I hope part of our culture is humility,” Wright said. He mentioned the Houston game, when a big chunk of the Cougars’ defense was aimed at stopping Gillespie. So the team’s top point producer just became a facilitator.

“They just weren’t going to let him score,” Wright said. “So he didn’t have to prove that he could make big shots. He could get shots for his teammates and that comes with humility. If you’re arrogant and you feel like you’ve got to show what you can do, then maybe you don’t make good decisions." 

“We try to teach them how to be intelligent players and make the right decisions at the end of games.”

Every Villanova fan knows the most shining example of that.

Final seconds, 2016 national championship game against North Carolina, score tied, senior Wildcat guard Ryan Arcidiacono pushing the ball upcourt. How many seniors would try to make the play themselves in that situation? Ninety-nine percent? But Arcidiacono, with the chance to be the big hero, instead flipped a pass to the teammate he was sure was open. Kris Jenkins, who swished it at the buzzer. Game, set and championship.

“It was an honor to run that play,” Arcidiacono said that night.

Villanova basketball.

So here they are again, the same uniforms, the same intentions, just a different cast. They have won 23 of 26 and that should make them as big a threat as any of the other heavyweights, except the loss of Moore badly hurts the cause. Still, this is Villanova, with the target on it collective backs all winter in the Big East. That means something. It gives a team steel, and an identity.

“Everywhere we go in our conference it’s sold out, and I think our guys get used to that,” Wright said. “We talk about that; being able to control what we can control. We can’t get caught up in emotion. We’ve got to stick together and we’ve got to talk to each other about sticking together.

“I don’t know if I’ve figured (this team’s identity) out, because we keep trying to grow and keep getting better. I think they’re getting better every day, and that’s what we’ve got to do this week. We’ve got to get better.”

Wright has not had a long bench, and with Moore out, some lightly-used reserves will have to step forward. One is named Arcidiacono. Chris, Ryan’s younger brother.

It’s Final Four week and the long blue line continues in Jay Wright’s program. The Wildcats might be banged up, but they are too hard to beat and too good at winning to be lost in the crowd. Even this regal crowd.

That’s Villanova basketball.​


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