Jay Wright’s Wildcats are not only mainstays at the top of the Big East — they’re consistent national championship threats. And it’s a fact that defies belief.
For the fifth time in the last seven Big East tournaments, confetti rained down on the Villanova Wildcats as they raised the tournament championship trophy to the roar of thousands of Wildcats fans at Madison Square Garden Saturday night.
Honestly, few would blame you if you thought the scene was getting a little old.
Villanova’s been good for a long time — basically since 2005, when Jay Wright finally got the program rolling in his fourth season. Since then, the Wildcats have been to the Final Four three times and won two national championships. They’ve had five 30-win seasons and been to nine straight NCAA Tournaments. They’ve also finished first or second in the Big East regular season standings in each of the past nine years.
On its own, what Wright has done is remarkable; enough to put him in the Hall of Fame. But here’s what you might be forgetting: At Villanova, a private school of about 7,000 undergrads outside of the Power 5 structure (and yes, that matters in basketball), this level of excellence is supposed to be impossible.
The College Sports Arms Race
It’s always been about the money. But at no point was that more true than in 2013 when the old Big East broke up, leaving Villanova in a conference without Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame, Pitt, Cincinnati, West Virginia, and until recently, UConn.
“I was scared when [the Big East] first broke up,” Wright told reporters after Villanova’s conference championship game win over Creighton. “When you look at what [Commissioner] Val Ackerman and her staff have done, you look at what FOX Sports has done, you look at the production of this tournament, where this league is, I would have never thought we could be here.”
There was reason for Wright to worry. The Orange, Cardinals, Irish, and Panthers were all off to the ACC, a league that signed a new media rights deal in 2019 that pays out $240 million per year. West Virginia landed in the Big 12, whose deal is worth $200 million per year.
The Wildcats? They were left in a conference that, at the time, FOX deemed to be worth only about $42 million per year on TV.
Those other schools were also joining conferences with big-time football and the potential for major bowl payouts. The Big East, meanwhile, does not sponsor football at all. In men’s basketball, where over a billion dollars in revenue gets split among participating conferences based on how far its teams advance during the Madness of March, the other schools were also at an advantage: In the ACC, Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia are all Big Dance stalwarts. In the Big 12, Kansas plays that role, with Baylor more recently joining the fray.
And the Big East? When the new league formed, Georgetown was the only other member school that had been to a Final Four since 2004.
It’s not like Villanova has some massive university endowment to make up for these economic differences, either. The $1.12 billion it boasts isn’t nothing, but it pales in comparison to some of the major state schools that compete in the power conferences, like Michigan ($17 billion) and Virginia ($10.5 billion), or the private schools that also have Power 5 money coming in like Notre Dame ($18 billion) and Duke ($12.7 billion).
TV contracts and endless pools of cash don’t win basketball games, sure, but those Power 5 schools have used that embarrassment of riches to their advantage. They pump millions into state-of-the-art facilities, throw money at top-tier coaches, and are able to play on ESPN networks all season. It’s no coincidence that they also get the best players.
In this year’s graduating high school class, 25 of the top 30 recruits, as rated by ESPN.com, are committed to Power 5 schools.
Make no mistake: Villanova gets good players and spends significantly on men’s basketball. But Wildcats starters Justin Moore, Brandon Slater, and Eric Dixon were all ranked outside of the top 50 in 247Sports’ composite rankings. Collin Gillespie, who is arguably the best point guard in the country, was ranked 200th in his class.
As for facilities, Villanova has done well for itself, upgrading Finneran Pavilion in recent years and spending $18.5 million on a new practice facility for its basketball programs. But compare that to Texas, which is spending $60 million on its new practice facility and is set to open a new arena next year that comes with a $338 million price tag.
Nobody is going to argue that Big East schools don’t have a significant advantage over, say, true mid-major leagues. It’s why the conference is consistently ranked in the top five in men’s basketball and why it routinely sends close to half its members to the Men’s NCAA Tournament. But there’s a difference between having a really good program in a really good league and having one of the top programs in the sport, consistently, over the past decade. Those teams should be Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas — programs with an even richer history to go with every institutional advantage imaginable.
But for Wright, all it’s taken is a league that could prepare his team for the trials of March on a stage so large that he could still pull the talent he needs to develop.
“There’s so many great coaches in this league and they don’t rely on talent,” Wright said, adding that Big East schools typically don’t bring in one-and-done players. “You get to see everything you’re going to see in the NCAA Tournament.”
Wright said that Big East coaches are great at the X’s and O’s, and used this tournament as an example. St. John’s frustrated the Wildcats defensively and nearly pulled off a mammoth quarterfinal upset. The next night, Wright saw UConn build on what the Red Storm did and again almost pull it off in the semifinals. Then, in the championship game, Greg McDermott and Creighton held Villanova to just 54 points and 33% shooting from the field.
Nova did not lead by more than eight points at any time in the tournament.
He felt similarly on Saturday night to how he did after the conference championship game in 2016 when the Wildcats lost to Seton Hall. That night, he recalled, Pirates coach Kevin Willard had his team defend the Wildcats in a way no team had all season.
“It forced us, going into the tournament, to prepare for that if someone did it again,” he said. “And a couple of teams did — and we were ready.”
Villanova won the national championship that year — its first since 1985.
This year, Villanova is a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s South Region and will begin its March Madness journey on Friday afternoon against Delaware. FanDuel gives them +390 odds to return to the Final Four and +2000 to win the national championship.
They’re not the favorites to cut down the nets in New Orleans. But if it happened, would anyone really be shocked?