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Villanova looks ready to repeat, maybe now we’ll start paying attention

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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.

Why?

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?

Josh Hart (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, and Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

 

VIDEO: Jordan Bell’s spectacular chase-down block

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Oregon big man Jordan Bell has been the best player on the floor for the Ducks against Kansas, totally changing the way that Kansas wants to play with his defense.

As of the time of this posting, he had nine points, 11 boards, seven blocks and three assists, but his impact is not solely limited to the shots he swatted — every Kansas player that gets into the lane is very aware of the fact that Bell is lurking around the rim.

The thought of him changes shots.

The best block he’s had today came midway through the second half, when he snuffed out a dunk attempt from Landen Lucas with an impressive chase-down block:

No. 1 Gonzaga reaches first Final Four with win over No. 11 Xavier

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It took 18 long years, but after Gonzaga exploded onto the national scene with a Cinderella run that came one possession short of the Final Four in 1999, after the program followed up that run with back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, after 19 straight trips to the NCAA tournament marred by moments of unfathomable heartbreak, the nation’s preeminent mid-major success story is finally headed to the Final Four.

What will the ‘Gonzaga is overrated’ crowd say now?

Armed with a roster that included a pair of blue-chip guards in their back court, a trio of high-major transfers and a McDonald’s All-American and future first round pick coming off the bench, Mark Few knocked off No. 11 seed Xavier, 83-59, on Saturday night to win the West Region and punch his first ticket to the final weekend of the college basketball season. Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 23 points, eight boards and four assists and Johnathan Williams III, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player, added 19 points and nine boards as Gonzaga buried 12 threes and jumped out to an early lead they would never relinquish in a game that never felt like it was in doubt.

And with that, the monkey on Mark Few’s back is now gone.

“It means everything that we could deliver for guys like this,” Mark Few said after the game. Few had been the winningest NCAA tournament coach without a Final Four on his résumé. “They believed in us when they came. This is what we wanted to do and set out to do, and these guys were unbelievable. I could not be happier for all these guys, all our former players and all of Zag Nation.”

Whether or not that monkey was deserved is a fair question to ask. Gonzaga has had an incredible amount of success in the NCAA tournament. They’ve won at least one game in 16 of the 19 NCAA tournaments, including this year, that they’ve been a part of, including five of the six years in which they were a double-digit seed. In 13 of the previous 18 NCAA tournaments they played in, they advanced as far or further than their seed suggested they should have. Only five times did they lose to a team that was seeded lower than them. They’ve won 17 WCC regular season titles and 15 WCC tournament titles during that span.

What they’ve done, the consistency of the success that they’ve had, is not something done easily.

And it’s not something that should be overlooked when you consider where this program was in the early 90s. When Few was hired as an assistant coach in 1990, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. The program, located in Spokane, Washington, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for recruiting, had never been to an NCAA tournament. The school didn’t even have a weight room for the team.

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

“Players would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of every school year and turn them back in nine months later,” wrote Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg earlier this week. “Sneakers were the only gear players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required proving the old ones had a hole in the bottom.”

Within five years, Gonzaga was in the NCAA tournament. Within nine years, they had won the league and reached the Elite 8. Within 15 years, the school opened up a sparkling, $25-million, 6,000-seat arena, chartering flights for road games and recruiting trips.

Today, Gonzaga is arguably a top ten program in the sport

It is, quite literally, college basketball’s best rags-to-riches story.

They shouldn’t need this to justify their standing in the sport. Few shouldn’t need this to legitimize himself as something more than a coach feasting on a conference that can’t compete.

“My legacy is I guess built on a lot of other things,” Few said on Friday. “It’s built on the respect my players have for me and how they feel about they were treated and coached and developed and all that.”

“I’m schlepping along right now like vastly far behind my father who is 54 years a Presbyterian minister, man. He’s saved thousands of souls. He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know. And that’s kind of the legacy that I’m looking at.”

But that’s not how our sport works.

March means everything.

If you can’t win on the biggest stage, if you don’t have that level of success when all eyes turn to college basketball, then everything you did during the previous four months is written off.

It’s not fair.

But that’s just how it is.

And now, nearly two decades removed from their introduction into the national consciousness, Gonzaga’s detractors no longer have that leg to stand on.