Not all national championships are created equal. Duke’s 2010 title was won by the least-memorable champion the Blue Devils have ever produced. It was another drop in the ocean for a school that’s captured five national titles in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, if Gordon Hayward would have banked in his half-court buzzer-beater to give Butler the 2010 championship, it would have been the biggest moment in the university’s history and forever changed the landscape of college basketball. The trophy looks the same no matter who ends up holding it, but there’s much more at stake every March and early April than just a piece of hardware.
The 2016 national championship, which Villanova won by beating North Carolina, 77–74, in one of the greatest games ever played, was especially significant. A Carolina win would’ve certainly been a big deal for a fan base that had to endure plenty over the course of the past year: the fallout from a massive academic scandal, the disappointment of the Panthers losing in the Super Bowl after starting last season 14–0, and the burden that must come with continuing to pretend that the carbonated cough syrup locals call Cheerwine doesn’t taste like liquid garbage. But Villanova winning its second national title has much bigger ramifications for the upcoming season and beyond.
The most powerful power ranker in college basketball is here to power-rank all of the things that have changed thanks to Villanova’s victory over North Carolina.
6. Basketball in Philly Just Might Matter Again
I’ve always thought of Philadelphia Big 5 basketball as being a lot like Jay Leno’s stand-up routine or traveling on an airplane — I’ve chosen to believe older people who have told me how great it used to be, even though everything about my personal experience has indicated otherwise. Penn has never been relevant in my lifetime; La Salle was relevant for only a little over a week in 2013; I’m not sure if I knew that Saint Joe’s existed before the 2003–04 season; and if someone claimed that the pinnacle of Temple basketball came when Khalif Wyatt almost single-handedly upset top-seeded Indiana during the 2013 tournament, I probably wouldn’t argue. Villanova’s claim to fame has been pulling a national title out of its ass in 1985 and getting bounced early in seemingly every NCAA tourney since.
The idea of there being five Division I teams, all with rich history, located within a stone’s throw of one another, has always piqued my interest as something that could be one of the coolest traditions in college basketball, especially when the Palestra gets tossed into the equation. It’s just that the Philly Big 5 that was sold to me has never really meshed with reality. Villanova’s winning the Big 5’s first national championship since the advent of the 3-point line will hopefully change that. America won’t begin paying attention to all of the Philly schools, but people will certainly pay attention to the defending national champion, which figures to be a preseason top-five team.
If one or two of the other four schools can find a way to take advantage of Villanova’s spotlight and upset the Wildcats during the next few seasons — a tough task considering that Nova has won its past 14 Big 5 games and at least a share of seven of the past 10 Big 5 crowns — maybe college basketball fans will take notice and the profiles of those schools will rise. The Big 5 is a long way from getting back to what it used to be, but Villanova’s national championship is a huge step in the right direction.
5. Big Cities Still Deserve a Seat at the College Basketball Table
Pretend for a second that you’re stupid and have no prior knowledge of the way college sports work. Isn’t it weird how basketball is king in city parks and blacktops across America and yet all the best college basketball programs can be found in places like Lexington, Lawrence, Durham, and Chapel Hill? It doesn’t take long to uncover the factors that led to this, of course, but on the surface it seems strange how college basketball players are one of the few groups of people whose best talent seems to migrate from massive metropolitan hubs to places that would be nothing without their local universities, instead of the other way around.
This wasn’t always the case. Up until Villanova’s first national championship in 1985, huge metro areas often produced college basketball’s best teams. City College of New York won the NCAA title in 1950. La Salle claimed its only championship in 1954. Bill Russell and San Francisco took home back-to-back titles in 1955 and ’56, and Cincinnati repeated as champion in 1961 and ’62. Loyola Chicago won it all in 1963. John Wooden brought 10 national titles to Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s, and Georgetown won one for D.C. — beating fellow metro powerhouse Houston — in 1984. Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana, and North Carolina still built their empires in those years, but the pre-1985 national championship split between college towns and big cities definitely skewed toward the cities.
Of the 31 national champions that have been crowned since 1985, only three — UCLA in 1995, Maryland in 2002, and now Villanova in 2016 — came from schools located in one of the 25 most populated metro areas in the United States. Over the years, college basketball has developed a reputation as a rural sport, to the point that it sometimes feels like outsiders think fans solely follow it because they don’t have nearby NBA teams to cheer for. Villanova’s national championship helps fight these stereotypes, even if it could be argued that the Wildcats don’t have a professional basketball team anywhere close to them, either.
4. Villanova Is Officially a Good Program and Not Just One That’s Had Good Teams
This is a crucial distinction when it comes to the unimportant task of slotting college basketball programs into a caste system. What’s it take to be considered a blue blood? At what point can a university be considered a “basketball school”? What does “mid-major” mean, anyway? Fans love trying to determine a college basketball hierarchy, even if the results don’t matter much and there aren’t clear criteria for how to go about it.
Take Florida, for example. Do the Gators have a great program? Or did they just have one great coach for almost 20 years in Billy Donovan? Florida won consecutive NCAA titles in 2006 and ’07, but will it remain perennially relevant 30 years from now? What about schools like Gonzaga, Wichita State, and Butler? Have they sustained enough success or cycled through enough coaches to prove that their programs have staying power? And do you really even need both to be categorized as a good program?
It’s hard to make sense of everything, which is why answers to these questions will vary depending on whom you ask. But one thing is certain: Winning national titles 31 years apart, with both coming as a result of insanely memorable NCAA tournament runs, removes whatever doubts may have lingered about the Wildcats. Villanova has cemented its case as one of the very best programs in college basketball, and it will take at least a couple of decades of failure to undo what’s been built.
3. The New Big East Has Been Legitimized
The dissolution of the original Big East in 2013 left the college basketball world in hysterics. You couldn’t watch any of the conference’s games that year without hearing the commentators sound like they were on the verge of tears as they traded stories about commissioner Dave Gavitt’s genius or how the former players and coaches tried to beat the hell out of each other every chance they got. It might have seemed like overkill to casual fans, but this wasn’t a season-long obituary for just anything. This was the greatest basketball conference to ever exist and one of the driving forces behind college basketball’s exploding popularity in the 1980s and ’90s. When it fell apart, it left a handful of storied programs like Villanova, Marquette, and Georgetown in what was essentially conference-realignment limbo.
So when these programs joined with the likes of Butler, Xavier, and Creighton — three schools tagged with the “mid-major” label for years — to create a new league that kept the Big East name, it made sense that many worried the new conference would be college basketball’s version of a shitty Hollywood franchise reboot. Even if you didn’t view the new Big East as a conference of castoffs and mid-majors, the fact remained that it was made up of nothing but private schools with relatively small alumni bases and no FBS football programs; its TV contract with Fox meant the Big East could fall off the radars of hoops fans who left their TVs tuned to ESPN all season. The on-court product was great from the start, but the Big East still faced an uphill battle trying to convince the rest of the country that its brand of basketball mattered as much as the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC.
That required context. When Xavier beat Villanova last February, we were supposed to believe that it proved Xavier was really good. But the Xavier so many of us were familiar with was the underdog from the Atlantic 10, and shedding that perception would take a while. What if the result meant Villanova was bad more than it meant the Big East had multiple national title contenders? How could we be sure that Villanova and Xavier weren’t both overrated?
Oh. Well, that’s certainly one way of answering that.
2. College Basketball Doesn’t Have to Be a One-and-Done Arms Race
The 2016 NCAA tournament was the 10th since the start of the one-and-done era, as the NBA made high schoolers ineligible for the draft in 2006. And while freshmen now seem to dominate most casual college basketball conversations, they don’t exactly dominate the game itself, as the only teams to win national championships by playing the one-and-done game have been Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015. Of course, that’s not to say that schools should stop recruiting one-and-done guys. Plenty of teams led by those players — Ohio State in 2007, Memphis in ’08, and Kentucky in ’14 and ’15 — could’ve won national titles if a few breaks had gone their way. It’s just that playing the one-and-done game is far from the only way to get to the mountaintop.
The ACC last season perfectly illustrated the idea that there are many ways to accomplish the same goal. North Carolina, which loves to push the tempo, was obviously good enough to win the national championship. So was Virginia, which played at the slowest pace in all of college basketball. Notre Dame had one of the most efficient offenses in the country but was terrible at defense, yet the Irish reached the Elite Eight and could have conceivably gone all the way. And Louisville was probably good enough to contend for a national title, too; the Cardinals played phenomenal defense even if they couldn’t score to save their lives (and were ineligible for last season’s tournament after self-imposing a postseason ban as a result of their recruiting scandal).
Villanova won its 2016 title in the most old-school way imaginable, with no transfers or expected lottery picks on the floor, with upperclassmen doing most of the heavy lifting, with a handful of guys who all could have been considered the team MVP, and with an emphasis on defense just as much as on offense. It’s easy to get sucked into the Duke-and-Kentucky vortex and believe that every national title will go to a blue blood and that the rest of the country should be happy just to make the Final Four. But the reality is that success can be found in all sorts of ways — that’s the very thing that makes college basketball so beautiful.
1. Jay Wright Jokes Are Dead
Making fun of coaches is one of college basketball’s great pastimes, and it’s a tradition that takes on many forms. Insults can range from lighthearted (“Mark Few has no eyebrows”) to accusatory (“John Calipari pays recruits”) to conspiratorial (“Coach K faked his back problems in 1994”) to arguably complimentary (“Bob Huggins doesn’t give a shit about anything”). Villanova coach Jay Wright has always been a handsome and well-dressed man who makes a ton of money, leads a pretty straight-laced life away from basketball, and seems like an all-around good dude. But there was one thing the college basketball world always had on him (outside of starting bullshit rumors): his reputation for losing in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. It opened the door for jokes about how it’s in Wright’s CBS contract to lose in the tourney’s first weekend so he can spend the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight working as a studio analyst.
Welp. It was fun while it lasted. Now we’ve got nothing on the guy. I’m sure fans of Villanova’s rivals will think of something, but let’s be real — making fun of a rich, handsome man at the top of his profession who has a squeaky-clean image is nothing more than jealousy rearing its ugly head. Making matters worse, not only has Wright reached the pinnacle of college basketball coaching, but when he got there he couldn’t even stop being the coolest motherfucker on earth for half a second to celebrate.
Ugh. I hate so much that a man this perfect exists and I’m not him.