SAN ANTONIO, Texas — While the Villanova players and coaches lingered in an Alamodome locker room late Monday, black NCAA Champions baseball caps on their heads and iPhones in their hands, the commissioner of the Big East Conference made a momentary move from the periphery of the celebration to its center. Leaning on its edge was a wall-sized whiteboard with a depiction of the 2018 NCAA tournament bracket on it, with the word VILLANOVA at the bracket’s center, and Val Ackerman held the championship trophy in front of it for a photograph.
Ackerman had, for her own reasons, as much cause for delight as anyone in the room. She had overseen the Big East’s reconstitution in 2013 from a 16-school powerhouse to a league of 10 private schools that prioritized basketball over football, and in the aftermath of Villanova’s second national title in three years, the symbiosis between the conference and its crown-jewel program has never been clearer. Villanova is elevating the new Big East, and the new Big East is elevating Villanova.
“It was never going to be the same,” Ackerman said. “You can’t recreate what Dave Gavitt had in 1979 or what it became over a period of decades. But our confidence was that it could still be something special. We could go back to our roots, take this focus on basketball and make it nationally competitive, do it when other conferences are focused on football. Right now, we’re in great shape.”
She meant the Big East. She could have meant Villanova, too. In tracing and accounting for the program’s rise into arguably the best in college basketball, one trend stands out. Whether by causation or correlation, once the Big East pared itself down to 10 colleges and universities, nine of which have Catholic affiliations, Villanova’s program took off like a rocket. Yes, Jay Wright and the Wildcats had recorded eight seasons of at least 20 victories, four appearances in the Sweet 16, and one appearance in the Final Four in the conference’s previous iteration – among programs, such as West Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh, that chased the revenue of big-time football. But over these last five seasons, the Wildcats’ average record is 33-4. They’ve won four regular-season Big East championships, three conference tournaments, and, of course, those two national titles.
Wright has long chalked up Villanova’s immediate dominance of the new Big East to a matter of timing: The program was on an upswing, and the conference was no longer the gauntlet it once had been. “We happened to be good at that time,” he said Monday night. True, but relative to a Big East with 15 or 16 teams, the Wildcats weren’t that good. In 2012-13, the last season of the old Big East, they went 20-14, including 10-8 in the conference, a mark that today would have people wondering if Wright had lost his mojo.
But the distance between Villanova and the Big East’s other nine teams has in some regards narrowed over time. Villanova did not win the regular-season championship this season; Xavier did. In fact, the Wildcats lost more games to Big East opponents – four, to St. John’s, Butler, Providence, and Creighton – than they had in any previous season since the conference’s realignment. On Monday night, not long before ‘Nova’s 79-62 victory over Michigan in the national-title game, Wright and Ackerman spent a few minutes chatting about how well the Big East’s regular season had prepared Villanova for the postseason.
“Everything we saw from those teams in the Big East,” Wright said, “we saw in this tournament.”
In those teams from the Big East, they also see similar programs with similar profiles, and those shared characteristics are a benefit. Much was made during the tournament of Wright’s recruiting strategy, his search for elite players who are willing to stay in school for more than one year and embrace basketball’s place within the holistic culture of a university. It has become a point of pride within the program that the Wildcats don’t need one-and-dones to thrive. “Would we mind ’em? No. Do we need ’em? No,” said former Villanova player Josh Hart, now a rookie with the Los Angeles Lakers. “We have a blue-blood program – the best program in the country right now with the best coach in the country right now. One-and-done guys don’t win. We’ve got high-character guys who are talented, who want to buy into something bigger than themselves.”
Wright has mastered this approach – and the salesmanship that accompanies it – but within the conference, the approach is not exclusive to him or Villanova. Since 2014, as the Washington Post recently noted, the Big East has produced just two one-and-done players – a pittance compared to the ACC (15), the Pac-12 (12), the SEC (11), or the Big 12 (seven) and half as many as the Big Ten (four). In an October 2013 interview, just before the Big East’s first post-realignment season, Ackerman billed the conference’s teams as having “that sort of ideology, that coherence of view. It’s about academics and athletics in the right balance.” That description might sound like it belongs on the back of a brochure, but if the conference’s entire ethos is more attractive to a particular kind of athlete with a particular perspective, it makes it easier for Wright to draw the kind of players he’d want to draw anyway.
“It does probably help,” he said. “They want to be at a basketball school. They don’t necessarily need to be at a big state school. They want to be somewhere where basketball is really important, and if you care about what the environment is, you’re going to like the schools, as opposed to, ‘I don’t care where I go. I just want to get there and get out.’ I think they really like the culture of these schools and the competitiveness of this league.
“I don’t think it’s major, but I think it helps. It definitely doesn’t hurt.”