In winning the national championship, Villanova finds redemption for the Big East
The Big East and the old 'Catholic 7' find success amid division
SAN ANTONIO – Jay Wright was afraid. No, it was more than that.
Conference realignment has done many things to many people. To those who coached, loved and played in the old Big East, some hearts had been torn out.
Beginning in 2003, television market forces mandated that what was left of the once-proud, 14-team mix of private, public, football and basketball schools would not endure in that form.
In conference realignment, Big East foundations such as Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College had long since left. Over a decade's time, what was left was haggled over like it was a multi-million dollar estate sale.
What emerged from a lot of crying, court battles and cringing was the so-called "Catholic 7." Those East Coast-based metropolitan, private, Catholic basketball-only schools (St. John's, DePaul, Georgetown, Villanova, Seton Hall, Marquette, Providence) were going to make a go of it in a landscape that demands you play football to matter.
They retained the Big East name. They went about the task of recreating their relevance.
"I'd been an assistant in the old Big East and head coach in the Big East," Wright said. "It's all that I knew. I thought it was the best conference in the country. I always compared it to SEC football. It was the best.
"So I was scared to death."
Scared the Big East would die. Television mandates that big-time football makes the most money. The surviving Big East schools not only didn't play FBS football, they were worried about playing top-notch Division I basketball.
Monday proved not only has it thrived, but it is back to being among the best basketball conferences in the country. Villanova won a second title in three years, dissipating those fears about surviving in a major-college conference.
"You can never take away what the old Big East had or was," current Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said. "We can still make it great in a different way. Villanova is leading the way.
"I remember games our first year of the reconfiguration were more like the old Big East rock fights. You know, 51-50 games. I don't know what Villanova's points per game was, that wasn't happening in our league five years ago but something has changed."
Actually, Nova won it all again as the highest-scoring team in the land (more than 87 points per game). It set all-time records for threes in the NCAA Tournament (76) and in a season (464).
Forget the rock fights, Wright's teams can be as stylish as his suits.
"I'm just sort of fascinated by the style of play, the three ball," said Ackerman, a Hall of Fame player herself. "The green light that so many of these guys had to send it up from three-point land.
"I do think the NBA game has had an influence on college basketball; college players emulating what they see in the pros. But it seems like the skill level has also improved."
Monday's achievement couldn't be more rejuvenating in these troubled times. A small, private Catholic school in the heart of Philadelphia has the best basketball team in the land without playing football.
It won with no seniors and no one-and-dones. The Wildcats coach was born on Christmas Eve in Churchville, Pennsylvania, for gosh sakes.
"What I learned at the time is [the Big East is] authentic," Wright said. "Everybody is metropolitan, everybody is a private school … we are what we are. It's amazing how much authenticity can carry you.
"For us it's the best league in the country."
Xavier and Villanova were both No. 1 seeds this year.
"I resented the fact when those other teams left," John Thompson said of the conference realignment that stripped bare the old Big East. "But in the meantime that's an old Big East team that won the national championship."
And that made the old Georgetown coach smile, sitting courtside Monday night after doing color for the game on national radio.
Monday was a victory for Villanova, the Big East and fair play. You can bet the NCAA types were smiling. After a season of upheaval a team and coach that do it "the right way" were champions.
"Right now in Division I athletics, the money from football really drives a lot of athletic programs," said Bruce Rasmussen, NCAA selection committee chair and Big East expert as Creighton's AD.
"But at those schools basketball is in the back seat.
"At our schools, basketball is driving the bus. It is our identity. We talk about them being students first. You see at Villanova those kids are three- and four-year students who also happen to be athletes. There is a difference."
That difference might as well have been a two-hour PSA for the NCAA on Monday. Brunson – saddled with foul trouble – scored only nine points. He is expected to have pro aspirations after playing three seasons.
It took a kid who sounded so Philly he needed a cheese steak to steal the show. Redshirt sophomore teammate Donte DiVincenzo may have the same aspirations after coming off the bench to score a career-high 31 points.
Who cares if he is from Wilmington, Delaware. This has the feel of an old Big East team through and through. Thirteen of the 15 players on the roster are from Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts and Virginia.
On Monday, they might have proved they retained both the conference name and the basketball too. A bunch of respectful East Coast kids who are as class as their coach's suits won it all for the second time in three years.
"This Villanova team is a throwback to the era when the Big East, at times, shined among all of college basketball," said ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla, a former Big East coach himself at St. John's. "As tough and gritty as this team is, that would have allowed them to fit in the old Big East. These guys are way more skilled.
"A 60-point game in the old days would win you a game in the Big East. This Villanova team can beat you with incredible skill but also grit and toughness."
You have to remember what Monday night meant to those who were worried about a powerful basketball presence in the Northeast. Remember, Big East basketball invented the "Big Monday" tradition on TV.
ESPN and the Big East grew up together. The league formed in 1979 as more-or-less a cable programming venture to feature Eastern basketball.
It took on a life of its own. Thompson and Jim Boeheim were fierce rivals. Georgetown and Villanova won back-to-back titles in 1984 and 1985. Syracuse and Connecticut went back-to-back in 2003-04.
"The old Big East should go in a museum somewhere. There will be never be another old Big East," Fraschilla said.
"But this Big East plays great basketball in its own right and it has fit into the modern era of the three-point shot, more skill, shorter shot clock.
"You look at the teams now, they're kind of antithesis of the old days."
Villanova backed that up on Monday night by backing up its '16 title. If the Big East is back, perhaps it never left.
"It was a relaunch," Ackerman said of the new league. "We had the name but we had to live up to the name. How do we take this great history, this memory people have of these great teams and great coaches and reinterpret it in the modern way? Deep into the second and third year we were still telling people who was in the conference."
Wright had coached with legend Rollie Massimino. As head coach, he didn't reach his first Final Four until 2009, now finds himself in a galaxy of stars. Wright, along with Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, are the only active Division I coaches with multiple national championships.
"I thought the new league would be successful but to win two national championships in three years was beyond what anyone thought," said Mike Tranghese, the old Big East commissioner who helped form the league with Dave Gavitt 39 years ago.
On Monday, these Wildcats came from the new Big East to the old Southwest to show the entire country what they had been missing.
"I hope it restores confidence in what college basketball is all about," Ackerman said. "Great coaching, great play. Doing things the right way, 100 percent graduation rate. Senior leadership. They build character.
"They were not fazed."
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