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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.


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.

Late run sparks Villanova past West Virginia, into Elite Eight

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BOSTON — It is always just a matter of time before the avalanche comes.

And when it does, you better hope that lead you have is big enough to withstand what’s coming.

For No. 5-seed West Virginia, it was not. With 11 minutes left on Friday night in Boston’s TD Garden, the Mountaineers led 60-54 and had seemingly wrestled control of the game from the No. 1-seed in the East Region. Less than five minutes later, after the Wildcats hit four of their next five threes, Villanova had taken a 76-66 lead by going on a 22-6 run, and West Virginia was never able to recover.

Jalen Brunson led the way for the top-seeded Wildcats with 27 points and four assists while Omari Spellman finished with 18 points, eight boards and three blocks and Mikal Bridges chipped in with 16 points despite playing relatively poorly — by his standards — on Friday.

With a 90-78 win, Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of tonight’s game No. 2 Purdue-No. 3 Texas Tech.

That’s the way that it works with this Villanova team. Armed with the most potent, high-volume three-point shooting attack in college basketball — maybe in the history of college basketball — fans of their opponents are just waiting for the inevitable.

On Friday night, Villanova shot 13-for-24 from three, which is damned-impressive and exactly what we expect at the same time, but the game was won during that five-minute surge when West Virginia just didn’t have an answer.

VIDEO: Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall with mammoth dunks for Villanova

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Villanova took the lead on West Virginia and turned the tide of momentum with a pair of emphatic dunks in transition.

It started with Omari Spellman, who had an unbelievable sequence, spiking a shot into the floor before throwing down a put-back dunk all over a defender:

A couple of possessions later, Eric Paschall finally did the impossible.

He dunked on Sagaba Konate:

I am having way too much fun at this game.

No. 1 Kansas into Elite Eight with win over No. 5 Clemson

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OMAHA, Neb. — Once Kansas found its stride, Clemson had little chance of keeping pace – even after a late stumble.

The No. 1 Jayhawks ran away from the No. 5 Tigers with a second-half flurry that powered them to a 80-76 victory Friday night at CenturyLink Center to put them in the Elite Eight on Sunday against either Duke or Syracuse.

Kansas moves on to the Midwest Region final on the back of a second-half offense that Clemson had nearly no success in slowing until the final minutes, when the Tigers turned a 20-point laugher into  a six-point nail-biter.

Malik Newman paced Kansas with 17 points while Devonte Graham 16 and Udoka Azubuike 14 and 11 rebounds.

Clemson got 31 points from senior Gabe DeVoe, but there just wasn’t enough help around him for the Tigers to keep things competitive after the Jayhawks hit them with three-consecutive 3s in the opening minutes of the second half to open up a 20-point lead.

Clemson was already hanging on by a threat after it shot just 35.7 percent from the floor and committed eight turnovers. DeVoe’s 12 first-half points kept the Tigers afloat, but they never enjoyed a lead before halftime.

The Jayhawks, meanwhile, had five players  score at least six points in the first half, including 10 from Azubuike, Their usual strengths – 3-point shooting (4 of 13) and Devonte Graham (1 of 7) – were absent in the first half, but Clemson was unable to take advantage as Kansas continued to get quality looks inside and stops on defense.

The Jayhawks previously played Syracuse in December, beating the Orange by 16 on a neutral floor in Miami. They haven’t faced the Blue Devils, though they have already shared a building with them once this year in the Champion’s Classic. Kansas topped Kentucky, 65-61, while Duke defeated Michigan State, 88-81, that November night in Chicago.

VIDEO: Mikal Bridges tries to dunk on Sagaba Konate, gets denied

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There really is nothing better in this world than seeing someone who is typically a great dunker take flight to try and dunk on Sagaba Konate of West Virginia, because it never, EVER ends well for the dunker.

See: Bridges, Mikal:

Auburn AD Greene gives Bruce Pearl a vote of confidence

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Speaking publicly for the first time about head coach Bruce Pearl, new Auburn athletic director gave his embattled head coach a vote of confidence.

Greene was on an in-house podcast produced with the voice of Auburn sports, and was asked about Pearl’s standing in a pod that lasted less than five minutes and felt more like a press release than anything else.

“He’s been a tremendous blessing for the Auburn family,” Greene said. “The FBI investigation is a long process. We’re going through that process to make sure that we, as a university, are doing what it is that we’re supposed to do to comply. Coach Pearl has been excellent in that regard and I look forward to continuing to work with him as we continue to do the very best to support he, his staff and the student athletes of Auburn University.”

This is the first time since former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested that a member of the Auburn athletic department had spoken so positively about Pearl. In the fall, Auburn’s president Steven Leath lamented Pearl’s lack of cooperation in the investigation, but just last week released a statement saying Pearl is “working with university officials as part of our due diligence.” Pearl said after his team’s 84-53 loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA tournament that he would like to return.

There has been speculation that Pearl’s job was in jeopardy ever since Auburn was mixed up in the FBI’s complaint. Two players were forced to sit out this entire season after the FBI alleged they had received money funneled through Person from a runner for an agent and a financial advisor.

“One of the challenges that we have facing the industry is college basketball,” Greene said. “We want to make sure we work incredibly hard to clean up the game, to make it as pure as it can possibly be so that our student-athletes can enjoy the intercollegiate athletic experience. one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that the state of college basketball is not in a good place right now and I’m a little bit disappointed that auburn is involved in that, but that doesn’t take away from the excellent job that Coach Pearl has done.”