How do you know when a college basketball program has crossed that ethereal line that separates the great from the truly elite?
How about when it wins the national championship and that’s not good enough.
Villanova proved last season that it deserves to walk with Kansas, Duke, Indiana and UCLA when it upset blue blood, North Carolina, to win the university’s second NCAA Tournament title. But the Wildcats failed to win last season’s Big East Conference Tournament at The Garden, despite being the No. 1 seed.
The Wildcats, who lost to Seton Hall in the title game, once again are the No. 1 seed. The disappointment of not winning the league tournament is greater motivation this week than defending the national championship.
Welcome to an exclusive club, ‘Nova.
“I would have much rather have won it (last year) and be dealing with the challenge of doing it again,’’ said Villanova coach Jay Wright. “The only positive of not winning it is the guys are hungry.’’
They have reason to be.
Villanova (28-3) almost surely will get a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament unless the Wildcats lose their first game in the Big East tourney. The Wildcats face the winner of tonight’s St. John’s–Georgetown game at noon on Thursday.
The Red Storm (13-18) are rebuilding under the greatest player in program history, Chris Mullin. Georgetown (14-17) had a disappointing season under John Thompson III. These two programs helped build the Big East into one of the nation’s top conferences in the ’80s and ’90s.
“That’s what we’re gearing towards,’’ Mullin said when asked the importance of St. John’s winning its first Big East Tournament game since 2011. “The opportunity is right there and we have to go seize it.
“That’s what I want from [our team], but you have to go get it. Having a good practice, having a good shoot around, feeling good before, that’s all good, but you have to go perform. That’s the great part about it.”
Xavier (19-12) meets DePaul (9-22) in tonight’s second game. The winner takes on No. 2 seed Butler (23-7), which swept Villanova this season. Yes, the Bulldogs owned the Wildcats, handing the defending national champs two of their three losses.
But ‘Nova has more of an eye on Seton Hall (20-10) and redemption. The Pirates play what should be one of the best games of the day when it takes on high-scoring Marquette (19-11) at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday. The other can’t-miss game is Providence (20-11) against Creighton (23-8) at 9:30 p.m.
If you could only sit behind one coach’s bench for a game, it should be Providence. Friars coach Ed Cooley is a witty, hilarious, abrasive, intelligent stream of unconscious dialogue with players and officials. Oh yes, he gets his teams to play as hard as any in the nation.
The Hall beat Villanova, 69-67, at its own game last season. The Pirates were tougher for 40 minutes.
“I think we were just shocked about how we played,’’ ‘Nova point guard Jalen Brunson said. “We didn’t play Villanova basketball.’’
Wright has molded his program based on the origins of the Big East – a league founded in Northeast cities where basketball rules. Many of the players have faced each other in high school and AAU ball.
No team succeeds in the Big East unless it can win a rock fight. That passion rises to the rafters like the steam created by rain hitting the sidewalk on a hot summer day.
“I just don’t think there is any conference in the country that has the intensity and passion in the stands like The Garden,’’ Wright said. “I don’t feel teams get after it in conference play like they do in the Big East. There’s some vibe being in The Garden, being in Manhattan, the Big East, the physicality.
“I watch all of the other games, they’re great. But there’s something unique about The Garden, especially if you make it to Friday or Saturday. Friday or Saturday night in New York City at The Garden, the intensity is off the charts.’’
This season holds special meaning for the league and The Garden. It marks the 35th year that one team will cut down the nets at the World’s Most Famous Arena. That team gains an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. As many as six others also could dance.
If Villanova wins, life among the elite doesn’t get any easier. The Wildcats will then face the pressure of trying to follow a regular season and conference tournament championship by defending an NCAA title.
Those questions can wait a week. There’s a league tournament title up for grabs.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: Villanova forward Kris Jenkins was asked if his buzzer-beating, three-point shot that toppled North Carolina, 77-74, for the national title has changed him.
“What shot?’’ said Jenkins. “I’ve made a lot of shots.’’
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Villanova guard Josh Hart is the only player in the league to score in double figures in every game this season. He can take over a game.
Seton Hall power forward Angel Delgado is a beast. Delgado and Purdue center Caleb Swanigan led the nation in double-doubles with 25. Delgado sets up his beach chair and towel in the lane, and dares anyone to throw sand on him. Bad idea.
PREDICTION: Villanova. The Wildcats may be a little lacking in depth, but they know how to win, have a high basketball IQ and play with brass knuckles. A third matchup with Butler would make for a riveting title game on Saturday evening.