NEW YORK — What has been the biggest story in college hoops this season?
That’s a serious question.
I’m asking you.
What has been the biggest story in college basketball this year?
Because I think the answer is obvious: It’s Duke. From the hype they had in the preseason to the injuries they suffered early in the year, from the tripping to the season-long hunt for the latest dirty play from Grayson Allen, from the losses that came from internal dysfunction to a team that put themselves in a position to earn a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday, “Is Duke Back?” turned into the topic of discussion every time the Blue Devils played.
If it wasn’t Duke it was probably Lonzo Ball and how the second-coming of Jason Kidd turned UCLA into a powerhouse while his father spent Lonzo’s entire college career explaining to anyone who would listen why his eldest son is the best basketball player that has ever graced us with his presence.
And if it wasn’t Lonzo Ball, it was Kansas, right? They have the National Player of the Year in Frank Mason III and a potential No. 1 pick in Josh Jackson, and the Jayhawks are currently sitting at No. 1 in the country despite the fact that they’ve barely gone a week without another arrest getting made public.
Then there’s The Malik Monk Show, and Gonzaga’s pursuit of a perfect season, and the soap opera that is the tenure of Tom Crean at Indiana, and Northwestern finally getting to the NCAA tournament.
What about Villanova?
After their 74-60 win over Creighton in the Big East tournament title game on Saturday night in Madison Square Garden, they are the dual-Big East champs led by a first-team all-american that is currently in the best position to repeat as national champions since Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer were playing for a scholarship, not their fourth contract after a decade in the NBA.
And yet, it feels like this is a storyline that has flown under-the-radar for so much of the season.
“Will Villanova repeat as national champions?” should be the biggest talking point with Selection Sunday 24 hours away, but I honestly cannot remember the last time I was asked that question, be it on radio or TV interviews, on Twitter, by a friend over text, anything.
The easy answer is Villanova’s league affiliation. The Big East’s television deal is with Fox, meaning that their games are typically played on FS1 instead of ESPN, and I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial when I say that games played on that channel get noticeably less attention. That’s before you consider the size of the Villanova fan base. The university is relatively small when compared to the enrollment of schools in the Power 5 conferences, and in the Big East, that is hardly unique. In the day and age where media is a supply-and-demand economy, there just isn’t the demand for Villanova that there is for Kentucky or Grayson Allen or LaVar Ball.
What’s the point of talking about Villanova if no one wants to listen to that?
It’s also important to note that Villanova doesn’t have the kind of individual star power that other teams across the country have. Josh Hart is a phenomenal college basketball player — and I don’t say that lightly — but his game is best described as that of a scrappy blue-collar junkyard dog. He’s a senior and a borderline first round draft pick that’s summed up perfectly by his game-winning bucket in Friday’s semifinal win over Seton Hall: an and-one, putback layup off of an offensive rebound.
He’s a winner, just like everyone else on the Villanova roster, but winners hardly move the needle. Hart gets every loose ball, locks down the man he’s guarding defensively and thrives within the confines of Villanova’s offense. That makes him great. But in an era where virality is king, Hart, like Villanova, just doesn’t have the pull.
Because here’s the truth about the Wildcats: By now it’s all just so routine.
Villanova is 31-3 and a dual-Big East champion. During the four-year reign of Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, the Wildcats have now won four Big East regular season titles, two Big East tournament titles, a national title and 128 games. In their worst season, they went 29-5. They’ve never lost more than three games to Big East foes in a single season and never more than five games, total. They’ve done it by developing players over the course of four years, keeping the names you get to know and love on campus long enough for you to remember their name.
In the one-and-done era, Villanova is a throwback. They are what we always say we want college basketball to be. Half their roster belongs on ‘The All He’s Still In School?’ team.
That’s why we expect Villanova to do what they’ve done this season. Hell, they expect it of themselves. Villanova’s celebration on Saturday was as muted as you’ll ever see in a tournament title game, consisting of a few hugs, a couple high-fives and Kris Jenkins holding a sign. Villanova eventually got around to cutting down the nets, smiling and enjoying the moment — they were happy to win after all — but this wasn’t the culmination of anything for the Wildcats.
This was just the next step, a step they believed was coming even though they lost two starters last season, they’ve spent the majority of this season playing with Phil Booth and have been without Omari Spellman, the five-star freshman that was supposed to replace Daniel Ochefu as the only player in the program that is a threat to score with his back to the basket, since October, when he was ruled ineligible to play this year.
And that, by the way, is what makes this story even more impressive and important.
Given the pieces they’ve lost, this group probably shouldn’t look like they’re ready to repeat.
But they do.
The only real surprise we get with Villanova comes when and if they lose, and even that is a change from last year, when the expectation was that the Wildcats would win every game until March. Once there, they would get picked off in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Winning a national title is the best way to change a narrative.
But spending the better part of two years as the best team in college basketball, heading into Selection Sunday as the reigning national champions and the projected favorite to be slotted as the No. 1 overall seed, is apparently not enough to get us to talk about them.