When Villanova tips off its national title defense season at home tonight, lifting their championship banner high into the rafters, the celebration will be a warning sign for every team they face this season: Come and get us.
Just seven months removed from the national championship thriller, head coach Jay Wright has done his best to keep this year’s team grounded. “We have to focus on one day at a time, getting better each day,” Wright said at Nova’s media day in October. “Our practice facility, if you walk on the court, there’s no banners up in there, there’s no pro jerseys. It’s just our core values on the wall and what we do that day. So, it’s one day at a time, getting better each day. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s a challenge. We talk about it a lot.”
Wright said that while most teams are thinking ahead, his Wildcats have had to talk a lot about last year, making it more difficult to simply focus on the task at hand. And that’s because Wright had a really good team last season. Really, really good.
Yet, maybe, this year’s team can be better.
Villanova started the 2015-16 campaign ranked 11th in the Associated Press Top 25 and ninth in the USA Today Coaches Poll. After winning the title last season, this year’s Wildcats are picked fourth and third, respectively. Like this season, the Wildcats were picked to win the Big East last year. And while a team ranked in the top 10 is expected to do well in the NCAA Tournament, few expected Wright and his charges to be cutting down the nets in Houston last season. This season, expectations are much higher.
Remember, even when last year’s tournament started, Villanova wasn’t awarded a No. 1 seed despite more wins and fewer losses than three of the four teams on the top line. And yet, Nova rolled through March and into April, beating up on UNC Asheville, Iowa and Miami by an average of 24 points per win to reach the Elite Eight, tasked with facing the top seed in the entire tournament, Kansas, to get to the Final Four. We know the rest: Nova beat Kansas 64-59, then faced red-hot Oklahoma in the Final Four and trounced them, 95-51, the most lopsided defeat in Final Four history.
Then came the title game against North Carolina and, well, magic:
And so, Nova Nation, which hadn’t felt that kind of glee since the mid 1980s — when today’s Main Line moms were still just Radnor rugrats — got to parade down Market Street as champions again. Only, some things have changed since April. This is predominantly the same team as last season, but the 2016-17 lineup is missing two starters who played a key role in bringing home the title. Ryan Arcidiacono is gone, undrafted this spring but signed in the summer by the Spurs, now plying his trade in the NBA Developmental League. Daniel Ochefu is gone too, hooking on with the Washington Wizards this summer, appearing in two games this NBA season.
“No matter what you did last year,” Wright said, “everyone is a different person this year. So we have different challenges, and we lose two outstanding leaders on the floor and three walk-ons who were great leaders. We have challenges, and if we recognize the challenges and don’t concentrate on our accomplishments, we have a shot.”
Wright thought he had a replacement for Ochefu in five-star recruit Omari Spellman, but the NCAA is awful, and ruled Spellman ineligible to play this season. That loss will undoubtedly hurt the Wildcats as they launch their title defense, but the rest of the roster is still very good, and they’ve almost all been-there-done-that before.
Nova lost 22.5 points per game from last season’s 77.9 average with the departure of both seniors, losing their top assist man and best rebounder as well. But this Nova team is far more experienced than last year’s — cutting down nets will do that for a team — with four seniors, three juniors, two redshirt sophomores, a sophomore, two redshirt freshman and just one eligible freshman in Dylan Painter, the fourth-rated player in the state of Pennsylvania. Painter isn’t the only newcomer to the court, however, as Fordham transfer Eric Paschall should have an immediate impact. Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins turned themselves into household names last March, and the duo will be tasked with becoming leaders for this season.
Villanova has the talent, but they also have a target on their backs now. So can they win it all again or what?
Villanova is ranked fourth in the AP poll, receiving four first-place votes. Duke was a near unanimous first pick (58 first place votes out of 65), while Kentucky is ranked second and Kansas third. Oregon is fifth behind Nova, with national runner-up North Carolina sixth. Fellow Big East representative Xavier is seventh — more on them in a minute — while the top 10 rounds out with Virginia, Wisconsin and Arizona.
In the Coaches Poll, Duke is atop that list with 27 of the 32 votes, while Kasas is second and Nova third. Kentucky, Oregon, North Carolina, Virginia, Xavier, Michigan State and Wisconsin round out the top 10.
What does that mean? Not much, come tournament time. The beauty of college basketball is that good teams just need to worry about getting hot in March and working for a favorable seeding. Last year’s Final Four featured just one team (UNC) from the AP preseason top five, though three teams from the top 11 made it to Houston. Good teams are going to stay good, but the best teams in the preseason don’t always win. The last time the preseason No. 1 ended the year by winning the national championship was 2008-09, when Carolina cut down the nets after starting the season atop the rankings.
Of ESPN’s 31 college basketball prognosticators — seriously 31 of them — eight have Villanova returning to the Final Four, but none have the Wildcats winning the title. Twenty-one have Duke winning the title, and just one has a Final Four without them. Certainly anything can, and will, happen.
For fans looking at a repeat, history isn’t on Nova’s side. The last team to repeat as national champions was Florida in 2006 and 2007 under Billy Donovan. Before that, Duke repeated in 1991 and 1992 under Mike Krzyzewski, the only two times a team has repeated as national champions since the 1973 UCLA Bruins capped a run of seven-straight titles.
It’s been 10 years since Florida’s back-to-back titles, and in that span the NCAA champion has not returned to the Final Four in any season.
- 2016 Villanova, Oklahoma, UNC, Syracuse
- 2015 Duke, Wisconsin, Michigan St., Kentucky
- 2014 Connecticut, Wisconsin, Florida, Kentucky
- 2013 Louisville, Wichita St., Syracuse, Michigan
- 2012 Kentucky, Louisville, Kansas, Ohio St.
- 2011 Connecticut, Kentucky, VCU, Butler
- 2010 Duke, Butler, Michigan St., WVU
- 2009 UNC, Michigan St., Villanova, Connecticut
- 2008 Kansas, Memphis, UCLA, UNC
- 2007 Florida, Ohio St., UCLA, Georgetown
For context, the last time Villanova won the national title, back in 1985, Rollie Massimino’s team finished the following season 23-14, bowing out in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Wright hopes to do better this season.
The Big East
Nova is picked to win the Big East for the third straight season, but they will have some other solid teams to contend with this year. Xavier was also a No. 2 seed last season, but they were ousted by Wisconsin in the second round of the tournament. The Big East, as a conference, had five teams in last year’s NCAA tourney.
Matt Norlander of CBS Sports ranked every Division I team this year, and while he picked Villanova fourth in the nation, he has Xavier fifth. He also has Creighton 23rd, a team in a position to play Big East spoiler this season. Remember, anything can happen in a short tournament, as none of those three teams won the Big East Tournament crown last season. That went to Seton Hall, of all teams. So even if Nova is the best team now, and should be the best team in March, that doesn’t mean much of anything come Madness time.
I’ll be honest, I expected Wright to be coaching an NBA team right now. Instead, the hottest coach in America (take that however you wish, Main Line moms) opted to stay at Villanova and make a go of things again. Yes, I’ve conspiracy-theorized that Wright could stay at Villanova just long enough for Brett Brown to be fired by the Sixers and stroll down Broad Street to take over a young NBA team full of stars, but at least for this season, Wright is right where he wants to be.
“[Last year] was a lot of fun,” Wright said at Nova media day. “As a basketball person, going through those six games in three weeks, was as thrilling as it gets. It’s everything you dreamed it would be. You’ll never forget it. It will always be a part of you. You look forward to the challenge to try to do it again and get as close as you can, and that’s what we’re thinking about right now.”
Villanova opens the season at home against Lafayette, then travels to 15th-ranked Purdue on Monday. Their out-of-conference schedule is, honestly, kind of a joke this year — Lafayette, Purdue, Western Michigan, probably Wake Forest and Mississippi State in a November tournament, Charleston, the Big Five schools and American — so expect the Wildcats to be highly ranked when the Big East season begins. Nova may not repeat, but Wright’s team will certainly be in the conversation for most of the season.