Villanova does not need to take a blood test.
The championship DNA is printed on the program. It’s why Villanova coach Jay Wright noticed assistant coach Mike Nardi talking to senior Collin Gillespie near the end of the Wildcats’ 50-44 victory against Houston in the Elite Eight. Nardi, a former Villanova guard from 2003-07, was telling the team’s go-to shot maker to pass up those looks.
Why would Gillespie do that? It is part of the Wildcats’ culture.
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“If you’re arrogant and you feel like you’ve got to show what you can do, then maybe you don’t make good decisions,” Wright said. “Then some intelligence. We try to teach them how to be intelligent players and make the right decisions at the end of games, but I think humility has to come first.”
Villanova’s evolution from a humble Big East program to a national powerhouse has come with Wright. The Wildcats are making their fourth Final Four appearance since 2009 and have a chance to win a third national championship since 2016 under Jay Wright. Yet, in this Final Four the blueblood credentials are being questioned alongside Duke, North Carolina and Kansas.
Villanova isn’t a true blue blood program by the traditional standard. It’s the best new blood program.
Who are we talking about? Five programs have 16 Final Four appearances or more. North Carolina (21), UCLA (18), Duke (17), Kentucky (17) and Kansas (16) are the five true bluebloods, old money that keeps winning in March. It’s easier to lose membership in that club than gain access to it.
Ask Indiana, the school that would be the next submission. The Hoosiers have five national titles and eight Final Four appearances, but they haven’t won a championship since 1987. They have one national championship appearance in the 21st century and have not made it past the Sweet 16 since.
UConn could stake a claim with four national championships during the Jim Calhoun era, but they faded from the national consciousness since the 2014 national title run with Kevin Ollie before coming back to the Big East in 2020.
Anybody else? Louisville and Syracuse have combined for 14 Final Fours and three national titles. Michigan State and Ohio State have 10 Final Four appearances each, but they have combined for three national titles. Gonzaga and Arizona have combined for six Final Fours and zero national titles.
Are they blueblooded? If you have to ask, then the answer is “No.”
That leaves Villanova; the bridge of sorts between those seeking membership and those that will never leave the club. And the Wildcats are in their prime with Wright, who despite that success has maintained the happy-to-be-there vibe.
“It feels great to be going back to the Final Four,” Wright said. “It never gets old. It is a dream of every player and coach in college basketball. It’s the ultimate. We’re going to enjoy this.”
It hasn’t always been like this for the program. The 1971 Final Four appearance was vacated. The 1985 national championship run was a Cinderella story with coach Rollie Massimino as the No. 8 seed against No. 1 Georgetown. Villanova has seven Final Fours all-time if 1971 is included, which isn’t in the same neighborhood of college basketball’s royals.
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The Hoyas and Syracuse were the Big East bluebloods in the 1980s. UConn took over in the 1990s, and the 2000s were wide open in the expanded conference. Wright has changed all that, especially in the last 10 years. Since 2012-13:
– Villanova has won seven Big East regular-season championships and five Big East tournaments.
– The Wildcats are 22-5 with a .815 winning percentage in the NCAA tournament. That’s more wins than North Carolina (21-6), Duke (19-5) and Kansas (18-7) in the same stretch.
– The Wildcats are 36-3 in Big 5 play, Philadelphia’s informal neighborhood battle of Villanova, Temple, La Salle, Penn and St. Joseph’s. They have lost one Big 5 game in nine years.
Now, the opportunity is there. Wright could win a third national championship as a coach, which would break a tie with Rick Pitino as the active leader when Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who has five, retires in a few days.
Villanova could also join the four-or-more national championship club.
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It could be more than that. The North Carolina-Duke rivalry enters a new chapter with Hubert Davis and Jon Scheyer. UCLA has not won a national championship in a quarter-century. Kentucky hasn’t won it all since 2012. Kansas hasn’t won it since 2008.
Villanova could win three titles in seven years. UCLA and Kentucky are the only other programs to do that. Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels are the seniors with that chance, and it is something they are not taking for granted.
“I had front row tickets to some of the greatest Villanova basketball players to ever put on the jersey,” Samuels said. “You take all those experiences with you, and you try to emulate them and be them and do the things they do and put the work in like they put in, and just pray that it works out for you.”
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Samuels continues to use the phrase “full circle” to describe the experience, one that comes with a point of view that touches on those principles Wright builds on. Humility and intelligence will always be part of that process a Catholic university, and that starts with Wright.
Check the bloodwork if you must.
By any standard, it’s blue enough.