If, in March of 2013, you told Dickie V that Villanova basketball would win 10 out of 13 Big East championships (combined regular season and tournament) and 2 NCAA titles over the next 7 years he would probably need to run to the restroom.
But that is indeed what happened. (Villanova winning not Dickie V’s 5 symptom digestive relief). A surprise to many of us who knew the old Big East. So how did we get here?
The Last Year of the Old Big East
It’s the 2012-2013 Big East Basketball season. The Avengers is dominating the box office, Obama is president, Gangnam style is still being played to death on the air waves, the Harlem Shake is starting to go viral. Life is pretty good.
Georgetown, Marquette, and Louisville all share the regular season conference title. Ranked Big East teams are: Louisville (2), Georgetown (8), Marquette (15), Cuse (16), Pitt (20), and Notre Dame (23). Louisville ends up winning the Big East tournament enroute to an NCAA title.
Nowhere in the picture is Villanova. They hadn’t won a Big East regular season since 1995 nor a Big East tournament since 2006. Even those were one-offs, Nova hadn’t had any real sustained success since the 1980s when they went to Elite Eights in 82, 83, 85, and 88. They, of course, won the 1985 NCAA championship as an 8 seed (the highest seed to ever win it) and were even unranked in the final AP poll prior to the 85 tournament.
The Dawn of the New Big East
Even among the new Big East teams Nova was merely in the mix rather than a front runner. Here are Nova’s final Kenpom rankings from 2010-2013 in order: 17, 28, 85, 53.
The conference as a whole was kind of like a box of chocolates… you didn’t know what you were gonna get. The Catholic 7 were not exactly dominating any sustained periods towards the end of the old Big East. Butler, Xavier, and Creighton had been strong in their respective conferences but they were coming from mid-major or quasi high-major conferences.
An argument could be made that Georgetown and Marquette were poised to compete for the new Big East coming off of their stellar 2012-2013 campaigns. Butler looked strong coming off of 2 straight NCAA title games in 2010 and 2011 (even after losing coach Brad Stevens). Wildcard Xavier had been to Sweet Sixteens in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2012.
Nova’s recruiting was good but it was not anything near amazing. From 2010-2013, the Wildcats averaged fourth in recruiting rankings among teams heading to the new Big East. Georgetown, Xavier and Marquette were consistently above them in those years.
There was a power vacuum to fill, but the Wildcats were not necessarily expected to fill it. By no means were they expected to dominate as they have.
Nova Becoming Nova
Upon the formation of the new Big East in 2013, Nova began dominating almost immediately.
A chief advantage was having Jay Wright firmly in position (since 2001). They had a top-notch coach (though he wasn’t known as such yet), his system in place, and even had some moderate success (NCAA tourney berths every year after 2005 except 2012).
Wright looked to the NBA for his philosophy and found it in the 7 seconds or less Phoenix Suns. Relying on pace and space, offensive efficiency, 3 point shooting, and defensive versatility Wright built Nova’s program and eventually took a run at NCAA record books. The Wildcat’s 2016 tournament run featured 2 of the top 10 most offensively efficient NCAA tournament games of the analytics era. Their 2018 season saw records for the most made 3-pointers on the season (464), most triples in a single NCAA tournament (77), and most in a Final Four game (18).
But how did they just do this? The stats are cool but it doesn’t explain how Nova made the jump. As I wrote earlier, Nova’s recruiting had been good but not amazing prior to the new Big East. However, those recruits fit Jay Wright’s system and developed beautifully in it. And, of course, with success came better and better recruiting classes.
Following the model of the 7 seconds or less Suns and many NBA teams since, Wright focused on recruiting versatile players. Athletes like Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges, Donte Devincenzo and Saddiq Bey could play the wing mostly interchangeably. Bigs like Omari Spellman and now Jerimiah Robinson-Earl stretch the floor and still hold their own defensively. Note that there is no one on Nova’s current roster taller than 6’9″, which is not uncommon for them.
They’ve also had amazing consistency at the PG position to fill that Suns Steve Nash role and drive the offensive engine. Its been one continuous succession from Ryan Arcidiacono to Jalen Brunson to Colin Gillespie. (Enrolling next year is Angelo Brizzi who seems to fit that mold as well).
All of this put together made Nova benefit more than anyone from the breakup of the old Big East. Here are their NCAA tournament seeds since 2014: 2, 1, 2, 1, 1, 6. They may have had the same success had the old Big East not broken up, but it seems likely that some of those old foes would have been able to win the conference and knock the Wildcats down a seed or 2. Maybe they would even steal a recruit along the way (as we have seen UConn do from other Big East mates since news broke of them rejoining the conference). Instead, Nova has been able to run through the new Big East like a buzz saw.
They have become professional… clinical… They have become a machine. So much so that Jon Rothstein’s tag line for them is fittingly:
Nova is a dynasty at this point, all that remains to be seen is if they can become a college basketball Blue Blood. I previously wrote that Nova only needs a couple more years of winning to reach that status.
After that, we’ll see how many Big East and national accolades they can rack up before Jay Wright gets pulled away to coach in the NBA. (JK Villanova fans, I’m sure the 7 of you are very upset by that joke… JK again).