The stage is almost set for what should be a very interesting Final Four.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs came out of nowhere to make the Elite Eight of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 1999. Gonzaga would lose to the eventual national champions in the Connecticut Huskies in the West Regional Final, but only by five points. The surge by Gonzaga would see their head basketball coach Dan Monson leave to become the head basketball coach of the Minnesota Golden Gophers which paved the way for assistant coach Mark Few take over.
For a decade Few was an assistant coach at Gonzaga and he has gone on to make the most of his opportunity at the tiny school in Spokane, Washington since he’s been running the show.
In 2000, the Zags got back to the NCAA Tournament, and to show that 1999 wasn’t a fluke , they were able to reach the Sweet Sixteen. In each year under Few, the Zags have made the NCAA Tournament joining the Michigan State Spartans, Wisconsin Badgers, Duke Blue Devils, and Kansas Jayhawks as the only men’s basketball programs to reach the tourney in each year over that stretch. But unlike those basketball powers, the Zags were never able to reach the Final Four.
From 1999-2016, Gonzaga would reach the Elite Eight twice, while always being the team that nobody wanted to face as they became the nation’s top “bracket buster”. The Bulldogs would also earn the respect of the tournament’s selection committee as they periodically would receive a high seed in the tourney, but they were unable to get over the hump. In 2013, Gonzaga was the top seed in the West Region, but they fell in the second round to the Wichita State Shockers.
Success for Few and Gonzaga has led to him getting quality players going to Spokane as players such as forwards Robert Sacre, Adam Morrison, and Domantas Sabonis have gone on to play in the NBA. But even these players were unable to get the Zags to the Final Four. However 2017 has been the year where it has all come together for Gonzaga.
The Zags began this season ranked 14th in the Associated Press’ Poll as they were once again expected to be the team to beat in the West Coast Conference. And being that the WCC is not looked at as a power conference for basketball, Gonzaga has to always take care of their business in the non-conference portion of their schedule.
This season the Bulldogs would knock off the Florida Gators, Iowa State Cyclones, and Arizona Wildcats who all went on to make the NCAA Tournament which paved the way for them to steam roll the competition in the West Coast Conference.
The team that was expected to give Gonzaga the biggest problem within the West Coast Conference were the Gaels of St. Mary’s. However in three meetings this season which included the WCC Tournament, the Zags defeated the Gaels by a combined 51 points. Gonzaga only tasted defeat once this season as they lost at home to the BYU Cougars 79-71 on February 25. And when the loss occurred, Gonzaga’s skeptics wondered if they could beat out the Pac-12 Conference to get the top set in the West Region.
However the selection committee would reward the Bulldogs and give them the top spot in the West Region. Just like 2013, the Zags began the NCAA Tournament by playing in Salt Lake City, Utah. And after defeating the South Dakota State Jackrabbits by 20 points in the first round, they would meet an upstart Northwestern Wildcats team in the second round.
Northwestern had never made the NCAA Tournament prior to this in spite of the fact that their basketball program has existed since 1905. Northwestern’s tournament debut brought out their fan base in droves as there was a sea of purple in Salt Lake which included actress and alum Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Gonzaga would race to an 18-point halftime lead and it eventually reached 25. But Northwestern would claw back into the game which saw the momentum shift to their side. And the tighter that the game got, the more that the fans in the arena shifted to the Wildcats. This was reminiscent of what we saw in 2013 at the same venue when Gonzaga was unable to overcome the surge of Wichita State. However this time Gonzaga would have enough to advance to the Sweet Sixteen as they defeated Northwestern 79-73.
The Zags would then travel to San Jose, California to meet the West Virginia Mountaineers whose full-court press was expected to give the Bulldogs some problems. But it was Gonzaga’s defense that answered the bell as they limited West Virginia to just 26% shooting and got the 61-58 win. And for the second time in the last three years, the Bulldogs were going back to the Elite Eight.
But unlike 2015 when Gonzaga had to deal with Duke who would go on to win the national championship, this time they had to hold off the upstart Xavier Musketeers. Xavier entered the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed, but they didn’t play like it as they upset the Maryland Terrapins, Florida State Seminoles, and Arizona. Arizona was the team who was expected to give Gonzaga the biggest problem in the West Region, and with them eliminated, the Zags were off to the races.
Gonzaga took a 10-point lead to the locker room at halftime over Xavier and they never took their foot off of the throttle in the second half as they cruised to an 83-59 victory which will see them participate in the Final Four for the first time in school history as this is the cherry on the top for the work of Few.
Over the years bigger schools around the nation have attempted to lure Few away from Spokane, but to no avail as he is happy where he is at. Unlike some coaches who chase the money, Few has chosen to build a program at a school where there is no pressure. And although that there have been critics of Gonzaga when they’ve fallen short in the NCAA Tournament, they are eating some humble pie right now.
Make no mistake about it that Gonzaga won’t be intimidated of being on the big stage when they step on the court this Saturday at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona to meet the South Carolina Gamecocks who are also making their first trip to the Final Four as both squads will be out to show that they belong. But for Few and his Zags, this is another opportunity to show that they are among the elite basketball programs in America in spite of the fact that they are not a traditional power.
You can expect former Gonzaga players such as Basketball Hall of Famer John Stockton along with his son David who played under Few, and countless others which includes Morrison, Sacre, and Blake Stepp to be in attendance as this Final Four appearance will be a culmination of their hard work and contributions to this program as current players such as junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss who leads the team in scoring at 16.7 per contest and senior center Przemek Karnowski who gives the Bulldogs a burly low-post presence will have the spirit of former players with them.
But for Few he is living the American dream as he and his team are a part of a Final Four in 2017 that represents the little guy. And Gonzaga winning it all would mark the second consecutive year in which a small Catholic school was crowned as national champions.
It’s time for the Villanova Wildcats to party like it is 1985 and it is well deserved. This past Monday night, the Wildcats upset the North Carolina Tar Heels to win their first national championship in men’s basketball since they pulled of an upset of the Georgetown Hoyas 31 years ago. In the mode of the City of Philadelphia, Villanova embraced the role of the underdog throughout the NCAA Tournament, and when it was over, they were cutting down the nets at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.
When the game-winning shot from Villanova junior forward Kris Jenkins went through the net, it not only gave the Wildcats a title, but it also gave validation to the Big East Conference which was left for dead a few years ago through conference re-alignment that revolved around football, and a city in Philadelphia that has been taking it on the chin recently in sports.
But to understand Villanova’s run to the title, you have to understand where and how it started.
Before current Villanova head basketball coach Jay Wright embarked on a coaching career, he played collegiately at Bucknell University from 1979-1983. From there Wright would enjoy stints with Rochester and Drexel as an assistant coach before Villanova head basketball coach Rollie Massimino added him to his staff in 1987. In Wright’s first year as an assistant coach with Villanova, the Wildcats made the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. Wright would remain as an assistant coach with Villanova until 1992 when Massimino became the head basketball coach for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels as he took his young protege to Las Vegas with him.
But Wright would finally get his opportunity to become the man in charge of his own program when he became the head basketball coach of the Hofstra Pride in 1994. In eight years at Hofstra, Wright would compile a record of 122-85 which included leading the school to the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and 2001.
Wright had shown that he could lead a basketball program to success which led to him getting the call from Villanova in 2001 to bring their program back to the top of the Big East Conference.
When Wright came to Villanova, the Big East Conference was in a stretch that was dominated by the Connecticut Huskies who had won the conference tournament three times since 1996 along with winning the national title in 1999. And whereas that Villanova was a respectable team, they were not a team that was looked at as a title contender within the conference.
In Wright’s first three years at Villanova, the Wildcats were an up and down team. But by the 2004-2005 college basketball season, Villanova was back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999. Wright was doing it his way with a four guard lineup that featured Allen Ray, Mike Nardi, Kyle Lowry and Randy Foye as this quartet helped the Wildcats reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the first time 1988. By the following season, the Wildcats finished second in the Big East which was good enough for them to earn the top seed in the Midwest Region for the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats would lose to the eventual national champion in the Florida Gators in the regional final in 2006, but Wright had shown that he had a team that could hang with the nation’s top teams while he also showed that he could recruit as three players from that team in Foye, Lowry, and forward Dante Cunningham all made and are still in the NBA.
During that time the Big East would be the most competitive basketball conference in the nation as each night was a gauntlet in the 16-team league. In 2009, the Big East would become the first and only conference to produce three, one-seeds in an NCAA Tournament, while two years later, they became the first and only conference to send 11 teams to the Big Dance. But through it all, Villanova and Wright found themselves right in the middle of it as they never got lost in the wash.
In 2009, the Wildcats found themselves back in a regional final for the second time in four years. But this time they would face a familiar foe in the Pittsburgh Panthers who were a conference rival along with being an in-state rival.
The game took place at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, but it could have easily taken place at New York City’s Madison Square Garden which had been home to so many memorable conference tournament games between these two schools. And it typical Pitt-Villanova fashion, the game came down to the very end with Wildcats guard Scottie Reynolds hitting a shot in the waning seconds of the game to send Villanova to their first Final Four appearance since 1985. And even though that Villanova lost to eventual national champion Tar Heels in the National Semifinal, Wright showed that he could get his team to the big stage.
Villanova would continue to be a fixture in the NCAA Tournament, but early round exits began to plague the program. From 2010-2014, the Wildcats would make the NCAA Tournament four times, but they were never able to make the Sweet 16 which included them being bumped out three times by a lower seed which began to plague Wright and his program. Wright heard it all from him concentrating too much on guard oriented teams, to simply not having a unit that could get it done in March, but he simply kept trudging along.
When the new Big East Conference made its debut in 2013 with longtime schools such as Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and the Syracuse Orange no longer in the conference, Villanova was looked at as the team that could run the conference. The last three years has seen Villanova do that as they’ve won the Big East Conference Title in the regular season in each year, but 2014 and 2015 would also see the Wildcats get upset in the tournament in the first weekend.
The Wildcats enjoyed a tremendous regular season which saw them become top-ranked team in the Associated Press’ Poll for the first time in school history. Villanova would enter the 2016 NCAA Tournament with a record of 29-5, but after losing the Big East Tournament Final to the Seton Hall Pirates, the Wildcats had to settle for the two-seed in the South Region as opposed to the top-seed in the East Region which would have given them the chance to play near to their campus in Philadelphia.
But ‘Nova still had the opportunity to play at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York for the first two rounds of the tournament which they made most of with convincing victories over the UNC-Asheville Bulldogs and Iowa Hawkeyes respectively. That theme would continue in the regional semifinal against a former Big East Conference foe in the Miami Hurricanes with a 23-point victory that set up a meeting in the South Regional Final against the Kansas Jayhawks.
As mentioned the other day, Kansas is one of the blue bloods of college basketball which included some people picking them to win the national title this year. And whereas in year’s past that would have seen Villanova not be able to rise to the occasion, they dictated the pace against Kansas throughout the contest which saw them pull off the 64-59 upset and earn Wright’s second berth in the Final Four.
In the National Semifinal, it would be Villanova against the Oklahoma Sooners, but in reality, it was the Wildcats against Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield. Hield averaged 25 points per game this year along with being the Naismith Player of the Year. Hield was coming off of a 37-point performance against the Oregon Ducks in the West Regional Final and many people expected Villanova to be another blip on the radar for him.
But from the opening tip, Wright’s defensive strategy was front and center as it was committee of dark blue jerseys around Hield each time that he touched the basketball. Hield was held to 9 points as Oklahoma was steamrolled by ‘Nova 95-51 in what amounted to the largest blowout in Final Four history.
Villanova’s victory would set the stage for a meeting this past Monday night against the North Carolina for the national title. There’s a deep tournament history between the Wildcats and Tar Heels, but it is Carolina that had the 5-1 advantage going into Monday night; however, Villanova’s lone tournament victory over North Carolina came in 1985 en route to winning the national title.
From the opening tip Villanova showed that they weren’t intimidated by a North Carolina team that had a size and depth advantage on them. Throughout most of the first half, the Wildcats had the lead in spite of the fact that Jenkins was in foul trouble. ‘Nova would find themselves trailing 39-34 heading to the locker room at halftime. North Carolina had finished the first half strong and you almost expected one of those vintage Tar Heel runs that would have solidified their sixth national title.
But to start the second half, it was ‘Nova that was dictating the pace with smart basketball that featured the likes of senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono, and senior forward Daniel Ochefu. With about five minutes left in the game, the Wildcats found themselves with a 10-point lead as they could smell a national title.
However Carolina was not going to be a pushover as they clawed back into the game. With under 15 seconds left in the game, the Wildcats found themselves clinging to a 74-71 lead as there were roughly 75,000 people in attendance in Houston that possessed sweaty palms and anxious hearts.
Carolina senior guard Marcus Paige took advantage of Ochefu’s aggressiveness as the big man went for a steal that wasn’t there which gave him just enough space to launch a desperation three-pointer as he avoided the maddening defense of Arcidiacono. The game was now tied at 74, but when Wright called a timeout, he had 4.7 seconds on the clock which was just was the doctor ordered for Villanova.
Wright’s play was set, and North Carolina helped Villanova out by not guarding Jenkins who was making the inbounds pass. Arcidiacono drove the ball up the court with two Tar Heel defenders on him. The senior point guard abruptly found the calm, cool, and collected Jenkins who was trailing the play as he was more than happy to take a shot that would make him a household name forever. Jenkins’ shot was good and Villanova found themselves on top of the college basketball world in the same fashion that they did 31 years ago when they upset Georgetown as they once against pulled an upset.
But Villanova’s title win represented so much as it marked the second time in the last three years that a school from a non-power conference won the national championship. However unlike Connecticut that did it in 2014, Villanova doesn’t have a Division-I football program. The Wildcats did this in the face of a system that isn’t set up to see the little guy consistently succeed, but they did. ‘Nova’s victory gives respect to a Big East Conference that has gotten back to its roots of basketball as all 10 current schools are committed to one another which is the first time in a long time that this is the case for the league.
Villanova’s win also puts Wright in that rare air as his program isn’t known for recruiting the one-and-done players or McDonald’s All-Americans. But with his ability to send players to the NBA, along with a national championship on his resume, Wright should be able to walk into any high school gym in the Northeast Region as get a player that he wants.
Wright will have to replace the contributions of Ochefu and Arcidiacono who were big parts of the Wildcats title run with Arcidiacono being the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. With the emergence of junior guard Josh Hart during the NCAA Tournament, there is the possibility that he could leave school early, but if he comes back, Wright would have a strong nuclues with him, Jenkins, and freshman guard Jalen Brunson who is the son of former NBA point guard Rick Brunson.
And when Villanova gets their victory parade this Friday in the City of Brotherly Love, they’ll be greeted by a city that appreciates them for their toughness, grit, and flair for the dramatic which is something that Philly is all about. Heroes may walk off into the sunset, but they are not easily forgotten.
During a typical men’s college basketball season it isn’t a shock to see the Syracuse Orange make the Final Four, but this isn’t that typical college basketball season. Last year Syracuse was looking to avoid the hammer of the NCAA as they self-imposed sanctions on themselves for all postseason tournaments last spring due to past infractions that dated back to 2007. And with a reduction of scholarships along with head basketball coach Jim Boeheim being suspended for the first nine games of this college basketball season by the NCAA, it appeared to be over for Syracuse before it truly started.
Syracuse would go 10-3 in their non-conference schedule which included a pair of losses to their former Big East Conference foes in the Georgetown Hoyas and the St. John’s Red Storm. But after the Orange would lose their first four games in Atlantic Coast Conference play, their overall record dropped to 10-7 which didn’t create a ton of confidence for their fan base in Central New York.
The ‘Cuse would get it going under Boeheim as they would reel off eight victories in their next nine games which included wins over NCAA Tournament bound teams in the Duke Blue Devils and Notre Dame Fighting Irish. But just as Syracuse had struggled when the Atlantic Coast Conference season began, they finished in the same fashion as they lost five out of their last six games which included getting bumped off by the Pittsburgh Panthers in their first game of the ACC Tournament.
Syracuse would finish the regular season with a conference record of 9-9 to go along with an overall record of 19-13 as it appeared that a trip to the NCAA Tournament would be far-fetched. But in a bit of a shock on Selection Sunday, Syracuse found themselves in the field of 68 with new life as they earned the 10th-seed in the Midwest Region.
After Syracuse’s famed 2-3 zone was too much for the Dayton Flyers as they cruised to a 70-51 victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Orange got a reprieve when the Michigan State Spartans who were the two-seed in the region, along with being a national title favorite were upset in the first-round by the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders which opened up the bracket. Syracuse would use this to their advantage with an impressive 75-50 win over Middle Tennessee State which paved the way for the them to head to Chicago, Illinois for the Midwest Regional Semifinal.
In the Sweet 16, Syracuse would take on the Gonzaga Bulldogs who had a definite size advantage over the ‘Cuse. And even though that the Orange had spotted Gonzaga an early lead, they never lost focus as they clawed back for a gritty 63-60 victory. Syracuse’s win would set up a rematch with a conference foe in the Virginia Cavaliers. The Cavaliers had squeaked past Syracuse in late January with a 73-65 win in Charlottesville. But this contest would be on a neutral floor with a different Syracuse team.
Virginia was the top seed in the Midwest Region and they showed that superiority by taking a 14-point lead to the locker room at the half. Virginia was in possession of a 15-point lead late in the second half before Syracuse managed to chip away as they were forced to abandon their zone and Boeheim instead opted to press and trap. But the defensive adjustment worked for Syracuse as an efficient Virginia team became turnover prone and the momentum shifted from one shade of orange to another at the United Center. Syracuse would finish the game on a 29-8 run to win by the final score of 68-62 which gave them their sixth Final Four appearance in school history, and their first as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But whereas in year’s past Syracuse was expected to be here, this year has not been the case as everything has been against them, but they are still standing. The NCAA sanctions that Syracuse was hit with robbed them of depth and size this season which has put a strain on their team. This year Syracuse senior forward Michael Gbinije is fifth the nation this year in minutes played with 37.9 per contest while senior guard Trevor Cooney isn’t that far behind at 36.3 per game which means that the ice bath has become very popular in Central New York after the games. But with everything going against Syracuse this year, they still have Boeheim.
Boeheim is a lifer at Syracuse as he played basketball there from 1963-1966. From 1969-1976, Boeheim was an assistant coach for the Orange before ascending to the head coaching ranks. Boeheim’s record is 988-346, but if you ask the NCAA, he only has 880 victories to his credit and he has seen it all during his Hall of Fame career. And Boeheim’s skill and wizardry have been on display during the spring as the Orange have become the Cinderellas of this tournament. But Boeheim and Syracuse are doing what the truly successful do which is to not get mad, but to get even. When Syracuse was slapped with NCAA sanctions, it would have been very easy for them to tank the season and finish near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference. However with the coaching ability of Boeheim, the leadership of Gbinije and Cooney, along with the emergence of freshman forward Malachi Richardson, the Orange are just two victories away from their second national title in school history.
The run by Syracuse this spring will undoubtedly help them in recruiting as Boeheim is showing that he can still get it done in spite of the sanctions that were levied against his program. Boeheim and Syracuse fought to get some scholarships returned which they did, while they’ve earned nothing but respect on the court as the find themselves at the holy summit of college basketball which is the Final Four.
It’s been 27 years since the hip-hop group De La Soul had the hit song “Buddy” which had a mix of different elements of music that created a funky style which captivated their fan base. Now in 2016, there is another buddy hit that is sweeping the nation; only this hit is on the hardwood.
Oklahoma Sooners senior guard Chavano “Buddy” Hield is living the dream. Hield represents a rarity in men’s college basketball as he is a four-year senior. Hield is the big man on campus in Norman, Oklahoma as he making an institution that is known for its football prowess take a big time shine to basketball.
Hield entered the collegiate ranks as relative unknown when he joined an Oklahoma program for head basketball coach Lon Kruger in 2012 that was simply seeking to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009. As a freshman, Hield would average 7.8 points per game as he helped the Sooners make it back to the NCAA Tournament. And by the time that Hield’s junior season had finished, he had been named as the Big 12 Conference’s Player of the Year as he averaged 17.4 points per game while helping Oklahoma reach the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year. Hield would have the opportunity to leave school early for the NBA Draft last spring, but as he decided to return to Oklahoma for his senior year, both he and the school have benefited.
As this college basketball season began, Hield was no longer an unknown as he was on the Naismith Player of the Award watch list. And whereas some guys are unable to live up to that hype, Hield has embraced it.
Oklahoma’s season began with an 84-78 victory over the Memphis Tigers of the American Athletic Conference, and in the game Hield went for 30 points and 8 rebounds. December 7 would see the Sooners take on the Villanova Wildcats of the Big East Conference at Pearl Harbor, and although that Hield had a poor shooting day, he still managed to get 18 points in a 78-55 victory. Later that month Oklahoma would face another Big East team in the Creighton Blue Jays; who were unable to stop Hield as he got them for 33 points in the Sooners 87-74 win.
By the time that Big 12 Conference play began in January, Hield had scored in double figures in each of Oklahoma’s non-conference games, while going for at least 30 points four times. But on January 4, Hield put his stamp on this college basketball season when he went for 46 points on the road against the Kansas Jayhawks. It took three overtime frames to decided the contest between two of college basketball’s titans, but when it was over Hield had gone for 46 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists in 54 minutes of game action. And even though that Hield had fouled out during Oklahoma’s 109-106 loss to Kansas, he still managed to receive a standing ovation from the folks at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas.
Not until Oklahoma’s Big 12 Tournament Semifinal loss to the West Virginia Mountaineers was Hield held to single-digits in scoring this season. And Hield’s exploits led him to once again being named as the Big 12 Conference’s Player of the Year as he became the first player since Raef LaFrentz of Kansas in 1998 to win the award in consecutive years.
By the time that the NCAA Tournament rolled around, there were many observers that expected Oklahoma to make a deep run with Hield at the forefront; and he has not disappointed.
After breezing past the Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners in the first round, the Sooners had to buckle down against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams in the second round. And when the Sooners needed it the most, Hield stepped up to the tune of 36 points in their 85-81 victory. In the West Regional Semifinal, Oklahoma didn’t need Hield to be at his best as it was team victory in their 77-63 win over the Texas A&M Aggies. But in the West Regional Final with the Sooners first trip to the Final Four since 2002 on the line, Hield sealed his legacy at Oklahoma as he was a one-man wrecking crew to the tune of 37 points which included 8 three-pointers. Since the Oregon Ducks couldn’t stop Hield on Saturday night, the only thing left for them to do was have a front row seat of the show being that he was putting on as he was named as the MVP of the West Regional.
What has helped Hield the most is that he is calm, cool, and collected being that no situation appears to be too big for him as he has brings the laid back aspect from his native Bahamas on the court with him. Although Hield’s birth name is Chavano, he received the nickname of Buddy due to his mom’s love for the television show “Married With Children” after David Faustino’s character of Bud Bundy. Now whether it’s the name of Chavano or Buddy, everyone in the State of Oklahoma knows Hield’s name as he has captivated the state. And as the Final Four is set to take place this Saturday at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, there will be plenty of story lines with Hield at the forefront.
The same Villanova team that Hield helped to defeat by 23 points earlier this season stands in the way of Hield and Oklahoma as the school is looking to make their first appearance in the title game since 1988 while seeking their first national title in school history. And if Hield is able to help Oklahoma win that elusive first national title, that would put him in the same breath in Norman with the likes of Billy Sims, Brian Bosworth, and Adrian Peterson who are Oklahoma Football legends.
The Big East Conference has a long and storied men’s basketball history which dates back to its inception in 1979. The glory days of the Big East were in the 1980’s with iconic players such as Georgetown Hoyas center Patrick Ewing and Syracuse Orangemen point guard Dwayne “Pearl” Washington. In 1985, the Big East became the first and only conference to date to send three schools to the Final Four when Georgetown, along with the St. John’s Redmen, and Villanova Wildcats made it, with Villanova winning the national title.
But unlike other power conferences, the Big East didn’t have the luxury of all of their members fielding a Division-I football team which led to several attempts at expansion by the conference to keep the football institutions happy.
When the Big East dipped its hand into the football arena, they brought in the likes of the West Virginia Mountaineers, Miami Hurricanes, and Virginia Tech Hokies to the conference due to their football prowess. But the Big East would remain a divided conference with some school administrators wanting to concentrate on basketball, while others wanted to focus on football.
In 2004, Miami and Virginia Tech would bolt the Big East in favor of the Atlantic Coast Conference which provided a more lucrative football television deal. The following year, the Boston College Eagles who were a charter member of the Big East Conference in 1979, would also leave the conference in favor of the ACC.
The Big East would be left to scramble as then conference commissioner Mike Tranghese had to find schools to fill voids in both football and men’s basketball. And just as the ACC had raided the Big East, Tranghese would now set his sights on Conference USA as he was able to lure the Cincinnati Bearcats, Louisville Cardinals, Marquette Golden Eagles, South Florida Bulls, and DePaul Blue Demons to come on board as the conference appeared ready to stay afloat.
The Big East would sacrifice their football status, but they would more than make up for in men’s basketball as they became the envy of the college basketball world as the tradition of quality basketball games on a nightly basis would continue.
In 2009, the Big East became the first and only conference to have three schools earn a number one seed for the NCAA Tournament as the Connecticut Huskies, Pittsburgh Panthers, and Louisville pulled off the feat. In 2011, the Big East would set another record as they sent 11 of their 16 basketball members to the tournament. And from 2007-2013, all but one Final Four saw at least one Big East school make it.
But in 2011, after a stellar Big East Tournament which featured the outstanding ability of Connecticut guard Kemba Walker, the curtain appeared ready to drop on the iconic basketball conference when Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (who was a basketball member, but not a football member) decided to join the Atlantic Coast Conference. Shortly after that announcement, the West Virginia Mountaineers agreed to join the Big 12 Conference while the Rutgers Scarlet Knight would be headed to the Big Ten Conference with Louisville joining the ACC in 2014. Tranghese had resigned two years prior to these revelations and his replacement in John Marinatto couldn’t keep school administrators happy which appeared to spell the end of for a once glorious basketball conference.
But of those 16 schools, seven didn’t field Division-I football teams. The Providence Friars and Seton Hall Pirates, along with Marquette, St. John’s, Georgetown, Villanova, and DePaul are catholic institutions who wanted to get back to the basketball roots of the Big East while also wanting to make the conference up of catholic schools. These basketball institutions would keep the Big East name, along with the conference records while they decided to play on. And after getting the Xavier Musketeers and Butler Bulldogs to leave the Atlantic 10 Conference, along with talking the Creighton Blue Jays into leaving the Missouri Valley Conference, a new Big East Conference would be on display in 2013.
As the new Big East made its debut, it didn’t possess some of the historic rivalries such as Georgetown-Syracuse, or Pittsburgh-Connecticut, but it still had a heartbeat as all 10 schools were committed to each other. 2014 would be tough on the Big East as no team from the conference would make the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Last year would see the Big East send six schools to the tournament with Xavier being the conference’s lone representative in the Sweet Sixteen as they were still clinging to their notion of being an upper echelon basketball conference.
When the 2016 NCAA Tournament rolled around, the Big East had five schools in the field of 68, and for the second consecutive year, Villanova would be a number one seed as they were looking to exercise some demons.
In 2014, Villanova struggled in the postseason as they lost in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament in spite of having the best record in the conference. That loss would cost Villanova a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament as they fell to the two-line. But in the round of 32, the Wildcats would run into a former conference foe in UCONN, and the familiarity with one another was too much for Villanova to handle as they lost 77-65. In 2015, Villanova would get that one-seed, but they fell once again in the Round of 32; this time to the North Carolina State Wolfpack who had too much size for them.
And although that Villanova had won 62 games in their first two years in the new Big East, they couldn’t help the conference get the full respect that it was seeking as they were coming up short in March.
This year’s Villanova team entered the NCAA Tournament with a record of 29-5, but a loss in the Big East Tournament Championship Game to Seton Hall cost them their chance at a one-seed and the East Region which went through their home city of Philadelphia. Villanova would find themselves with a two-seed, but they wouldn’t have to travel that far for their first game as it would be at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. However short trips to open the tournament have not always equated to success for Villanova as they were eliminated on the first weekend in 2010 by the Saint Mary Gaels in Providence, Rhode Island, while their lost to Connecticut in 2014 came in Buffalo, New York, with last year’s loss to N.C. State coming in Pittsburgh.
But Villanova entered this NCAA Tournament with a chip on their shoulders as they won their first two games by and average of 24.5 points. The Wildcats would not cool down when the Sweet 16 rolled around as a barrage of perimeter shooting and solid defense stifled Miami en route to a convincing 92-69 victory. And now all that stood in the way of a Final Four berth for Villanova and the Big East would be a meeting in the South Regional Final against the Kansas Jayhawks.
Kansas is one of the blue bloods of college basketball as they’ve won three national championships, to go along with 14 Final Four appearances, and a litany of All-Americans over the years which includes Basketball Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain.
But after the first half of play this past Saturday night, Villanova led Kansas 32-25 as the scrappy team from Philadelphia was dictating the pace. As expected, Kansas would start the second half with a surge which saw them take a five-point lead on the Wildcats. And just when you expected Villanova to wilt under the pressure, they were able to rise to the occasion as they dictated the pace down the stretch to get past Kansas 64-59 for their first Final Four berth since 2009.
The win by Villanova was vindication for their head basketball coach Jay Wright who has taken his fair share of criticism as his program has come up short in the NCAA Tournament while also showing that the Big East Conference can still be a player in college basketball. Wright has done it his way which means that he recruits player to fit his system, and unlike other programs, he rarely brings kids to Villanova that will leave school early for the NBA Draft.
Coming out of high school, Villanova senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono had offers from big programs such as Syracuse, but he chose Villanova due to the fact that he is a native of Pennsylvania while it is also the alma mater of his parents. Arcidiacono has been a four-year starter at Villanova, along with being a four-year captain which also saw him be named as the Big East Conference Player of the Year in 2015 as he is an extension on the court of Wright. Junior guard Josh Hart is a versatile player for Wright as he is the team’s leading scorer with 15.3 points per game while junior forward Kris Jenkins gives the Wildcats a needed toughness. But Villanova wouldn’t be in the Final Four if it were not for the recent emergence of senior forward Daniel Ochefu.
On the season Ochefu is averaging 10.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, but he gives Villanova a presence in the middle at both ends of the floor which is something that the Wildcats have not always had under Wright as that has typically been their demise in the NCAA Tournament. In the victory over Kansas, Ochefu had 10 points and 8 rebounds, but it was just his overall presence in the middle that prevented Kansas from getting easy baskets close to the rim.
So now we have a Villanova team that will be playing the Oklahoma Sooners this Saturday evening in the National Semifinal, just two victories away from their first national championship since 1985. And whereas that we’ll see the Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conferences also represented in the Final Four, here is the Big East that was left for dead just a few years ago as these power conferences raided their football schools. When the Big East rose to prominence in the 1980’s, they did it while competing against basketball powers such as the ACC and Big Ten. The Big East didn’t back down then, and the same can be said now as they are solely focused on basketball. When Villanova takes the floor this Saturday at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, not only will they be representing themselves, but they’ll also represent the other nine schools in the Big East which will open doors for the conference as far as national exposure, and recruiting as this is a conference that is here to stay.
Greatness is the best word to best describe Duke Blue Devils men’s head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. Fresh off of winning his fifth national championship at Duke, Krzyzewski is flying high. Krzyzewski has five national titles to go along with 12 appearances in the Final Four and his two gold medals in the Summer Olympics as the head coach of the United States Men’s Basketball Team. Coach K has drawn the admiration from folks on the collegiate level to those in the NBA for his innate ability to win and get his message across at the same time.
Krzyzewski has been at it at Duke since 1980 and he has sent a litany of players to the NBA that includes Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, and current NBA Players such as Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving and Los Angeles Clippers shooting guard J.J. Redick just to name a few. Krzyzewski has won more games than anyone else in the history of Division One men’s college basketball and he has accomplished it because he knows how to roll with the punches.
Since 1980 when Krzyzewski first arrived at Duke, the landscape of college basketball has changed dramatically. Gone are the days of the four-year players in college basketball as the idea of playing for free and the name on the front of the jersey has been pushed aside in favor the money and the chance to play in the NBA. In the old days, it was the seniors and the head coaches who were the big men on campus. But now freshman arrive to college as stars with their own entourages. And instead of Krzyzewski shying away from the new school he has embraced them.
From 1990-1992, Duke made three consecutive Final Four appearances with consecutive national championships as a part of it. The 1992 Blue Devils were led by upperclassmen such as Laettner and swigman Brian Davis who were seniors along with junior point guard Bobby Hurley. And when Coach K got Duke back to the Final Four in 1994, it was senior forwards Hill and Antonio Lang that carried the team.
But when Coach K missed the majority of the 1994-1995 season as the result of back surgery, he took time to reflect and adjust his style. And once he returned to Duke in search of rebuilding his beloved program, his new philosophy worked. In 1997, Krzyzewski brought in a group of highly touted players to Duke that included forwards Elton Brand and Shane Battier. Brand and Battier would help Duke get back to the Final Four in 1999. But Brand would leave school to become the first overall pick of the 1999 NBA Draft while Battier would stay all four years in helping Duke claim their third national title under Coach K in 2001. Along with Brand, sophomore guard William Avery and freshman swingman Corey Maggette would leave Duke in 1999 in pursuit of their NBA dreams and Krzyzewski didn’t slow down a bit. Duke’s 1999 freshman class consisted of point guard Jason Williams, small forward Mike Dunleavy, and power forward Carlos Boozer. This trio would team with Battier who was a senior in 2001 to help Duke and Krzyzewski claim their third national title.
And as Krzyzewski and Duke continued to have success in the 2000’s in the Atlantic Coast Conference but falter in the NCAA Tournament, the professor went old-school in 2010 as he claimed another national title with a team that wasn’t loaded with stars.
But since then Krzyzewski has seen his fair share of one-an-done prodigies play for him at Cameron Indoor Stadium from Irving, Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers, and Milwaukee Bucks small forward Jabari Parker. This season it was a trio of freshman in point guard Tyus Jones, swingman Justise Winslow, and center Jahlil Okafor the led Duke to the promised land. And if and when these freshman decide to bounce for the NBA, Coach K won’t skip a beat as the top high school basketball players in the United States want to come to Duke because they know that he can help to get them to the NBA.
Krzyzewski played college basketball at Army under Hall of Fame basketball coach Bobby Knight. Knight developed the reputation and nickname of “The General” and when he left Army in 1971 to become the men’s head basketball coach of the Indiana Hoosiers, he continued to rule with an iron fist. Knight was one of the most successful basketball coaches ever as he led Indiana to three national championships. But after Knight’s last Final Four appearance in 1992, his remaining years on the sidelines that were split between Indiana and the Texas Tech Red Raiders were unceremonious at best. Whereas Krzyzewski adjusted to the game, Knight never did as he still believed in his “my way or the highway” philosophy. Because of this, Knight’s style alienated him from a new generation of top-tier basketball recruits and he left the game with a whimper while Coach K is still at the top of the heap.
Krzyzewski was able to adjust which goes back to his time working with the United States Olympic teams. Prior to taking over as the United States head basketball coach in 2006, Krzyzewski was an assistant coach for Chuck Daly during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics for the famed “Dream Team”. With the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley on that team, Krzyzewski saw more than ever what it was to deal with multiple personalities and also to treat men as men. Krzyzewski primarily deals with young men at Duke, but as the head coach of United States Men’s basketball, he has received supreme admiration from some of the current best players in the NBA such as Cavaliers small LeBron James, Clippers point guard Chris Paul, and Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant. Bryant has had a long affinity for Krzyzewski as Duke would have been his college destination had he not decided to make the jump straight from high school to the NBA in 1996.
So when Krzyzewski cut down the nets this past Monday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, he merely added to his glowing resume. Krzyzewski has sent countless players to the NBA and more importantly turned boys into men. Where some coaches have basketball programs, Krzyzewski truly has a basketball family which is why they always come back to show him the same love that he has always showed them.