(Editor’s Note: Chris Stanziale also contributed to this piece.)
Once again, Villanova leaves Brooklyn as champions. With wins over Stanford and Georgia Tech in the NIT Season Tipoff at the Barclays Center, Villanova has now won the last three November tournaments it has played in. New York City has been especially friendly to the Wildcats, as they have won their last nine games there. Their last loss came in the Big East tournament two years ago against Seton Hall.
In the semifinals, Villanova faced an equally intellectual opponent in Stanford. Not only is Stanford an impressive university, their basketball team also won the NIT last year. Even though both teams were plagued by bad shooting in the first half, Jay Wright managed to outsmart the Cardinal with an explosion of points in the second half that put the game away.
Georgia Tech proved to be a viable contender in the championship game, presenting to Villanova perhaps their toughest challenge yet. With the game tied at 30 after halftime, Jalen Brunson stepped up his game and took back the lead himself. The rest of the team joined him in engineering a comfortable lead until the final buzzer, when Villanova hoisted yet another piece of hardware destined for their overcrowded trophy case on campus.
While it is nice to add another trophy to an already impressive collection, the fact of the matter is Villanova was once again left out from a big time tournament. Adding on the thoughts expressed on next year’s Charleston Classic, Villanova continues to lack in quality of competition, starting with this preseason tournament. Stanford and Georgia Tech are at least schools we have all hear of, but they are nowhere near as good as the teams this team should be playing right now. As a perennial top ten team coming off one of the program’s best seasons, Villanova should not be middling with the Stanfords and Georgia Techs of college basketball. A team of this caliber ought to mingle instead with the Dukes and Kentuckys of the sport.
To illustrate what Villanova is missing out on, let’s look at our Big East counterparts Providence and Georgetown. Both teams may be currently unranked, but have a lot of potential. Both will compete with Villanova for the Big East title, and if one gets hot, could easily win in New York come March. Providence and Georgetown also have something that Villanova does not this early in the season – a win over a ranked team. Providence was able to knockoff highly ranked Arizona in a gutsy battle, only to fall to #3 Michigan State in the final after a late Spartans run. Georgetown probably has the hardest out of conference schedule of all Big East teams. The Hoyas were able to schedule Maryland, Duke, and Wisconsin, only going 1-2, but in losing to Maryland and Duke by a combined six points, even they were able to establish themselves as a contender. These two teams, by virtue of their tournament scheduling, will be battle tested come Big East play. Meanwhile, Villanova is playing snoozer games that they did not even look impressive in. What irks me the most is that we all know how this team performs in March. Chalk it up to whatever you feel, but one of the main reasons this team is susceptible to early tournament flameouts is its lack of quality competition during the season. The Big East is a rigorous schedule, and the two games against Oklahoma and Virginia will be tough, but it is simply not enough. Playing top end competition in November is beneficial to the team, win or lose. Lose, and you adjust accordingly. Win, and it’s a giant bonus to the March cause and a sign that you can hang with best.
We find ourselves now in the heart of Villanova’s out of conference schedule. The next two weeks will be the first true challenges, and thus sufficient measuring sticks of how good this team will be. On Tuesday, Villanova will make the short trip down Lancaster Avenue to face St. Joseph’s. A game against the little brother of Philadelphia Catholic schools should not be a challenge to a solid top ten team like Villanova, but this is the Holy War. Anything can happen in a rivalry game, even a one-sided one as this, especially on the road in an arena full of jealous fanatics.
After St. Joes, Villanova has six days to prepare for its biggest game of the season against #6 Oklahoma. The Sooners are undefeated, but have yet to be challenged by a serious team. Villanova will travel all the way to Hawaii for the game, but the trip will be worth the honor of playing in Pearl Harbor on December 7th.
La Salle at home provides a much-needed intermission before Villanova again hits the road down to Charlottesville for a matchup against the University of Virginia, still one of the best teams in the country despite its early loss.
These next two weeks is the most important stretch of the season for Villanova basketball. The Wildcats should be proud to call themselves champions of yet another November tournament, but now is the time to make a statement with those impressive out of conference games pollsters and the Selection Committee love so much.