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There’s no debate: Villanova is college basketball’s ultimate powerhouse

Five years after facing an uncertain future, Jay Wright’s program could be on the brink of a dynasty.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Michigan vs Villanova Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Publicly, they said all the right things.

This will be fine. The Big East will be fine. Villanova will be fine.

Behind closed doors, the brass at Villanova privately expressed many of the same concerns the objective public had.

How can this conference possibly keep pace with the Power 5 given the current state of things? Did we screw up by not joining the Big East in football when we had the chance? Is Villanova *really* going to be fine?

It was 2013, and Villanova athletics was headed to a place many feared might wind up being purgatory. After news had broken the September before that Pittsburgh and Syracuse would be making a surprise move to the ACC, it was immediately clear that the Big East would no longer be recognizable whenever the realignment smoke cleared. It was also possible that the league would no longer exist at all.

For schools like Villanova, smack in the middle of a period of sustained men’s basketball success under the direction of Jay Wright, the next move was of paramount importance for both the long and short term. Reports quickly emerged the school had applied, and been denied, admission to the ACC. With others being more successful in finding their port, the only move left for Villanova to make before they no longer had any say in the matter was a brazen one.

There were no guarantees when the so-called “Catholic 7” elected to branch out on their own in March 2013. There were also no guarantees when Xavier, Butler, and Creighton left quality conferences to join them. Even though it had long been known primarily as a basketball conference, the Big East had always fielded football schools, and a few powerful ones at that. With no football, a non-ESPN television contract, and a handful of programs still attached with an unwanted “mid-major” stigma, it was a very realistic possibility that this sink or swim condition would end with Villanova and company discovering what the bottom of the college athletics pool feels like.

For two years, the word “new” grated the ears of Big East basketball supporters in a way they could have never imagined before the conference had been halfway blown up. The league had retained its name, it was still playing its tournament inside Madison Square Garden, and it was having more regular-season success than naysayers had predicted. Still, each and every time someone referred to the league as the “new Big East,” those three extra letters implied three extra words: not as good.

For Villanova specifically, there was also lingering doubt, both internally and externally. The program had put up gaudy regular-season win totals in each of its first two seasons as a member of the reformed Big East, but was stunned in the second round by seventh-seeded Connecticut in 2014 and by eighth-seeded NC State a year later.

Maybe the outside world was right. Maybe the competition in the “new” Big East wasn’t deep enough to adequately prepare any team with legitimate national title hopes for the rigors of March.

Or maybe college basketball’s postseason is a thrilling event but a less than stellar jumping off point for broad categorizations of teams, programs and conferences.

Any doubt that the latter stance was the right one was washed away forever in 2016. Villanova ripped off one of the most impressive NCAA tournament runs in recent history, capped by arguably the greatest moment March Madness has ever seen.

The moment Kris Jenkins’ shot ripped through the net inside NRG Stadium, it brought about a crescendo of crushed narratives.

The shot ushered in a new era for the Big East, one where “new” could no longer exist as an insult. Villanova was no longer a perennial pretender with a coach who could wear the hell out of a suit but never win the big one. It was one of those momentous championship Monday moments that flipped a light switch, allowing an audience to see things that were there all along. Before April 4, 2016, all those things were clouded by what the Big East and Villanova had lost from its past era, and what the duo couldn’t seem to accomplish in its new one

And yet, even since that moment, it’s still felt like Villanova has had another step to take. The Wildcats followed up their national title by earning the No. 1 overall seed in the 2017 Big Dance, one which saw them revert to a past form of themselves and lose to Wisconsin in round two. Despite losing Jenkins and first-team All-American Josh Hart from the squad, Wright once again reloaded.

Jalen Brunson became the new Player of the Year candidate, Mikal Bridges morphed into the potential lottery pick many had projected him to be, and Omari Spellman provided the inside/outside presence the 2016-17 team had so desperately lacked. The team spent more weeks than any other ranked No. 1, and earned yet another top seed on Selection Sunday.

Still, even during this stretch of success, it’s never felt like Villanova has been treated the same way as Duke or North Carolina or Kentucky or Kansas. Maybe it’s the handful of early exists from the NCAA tournament over the past decade. Maybe it’s the TV contract that makes the Wildcats appearing on ESPN as rare as a team from the Missouri Valley appearing on the worldwide leader. Maybe it’s the lack of McDonald’s All-Americans and one-and-done talent.

None of that should be an issue after Monday night.

Villanova hammered Michigan, 79-62, in a game that appropriately represented how dominant the 2017-18 Wildcats were in the postseason. ‘Nova became the first team since the 2008-09 North Carolina Tar Heels to win all six of its games in the Big Dance by double-digits. It one-upped UNC by also winning all three of its conference tournament games by 10 points or more. The last time Villanova won a game by fewer than 10 points? A 69-68 overtime win at Seton Hall on Feb. 28.

The win over North Carolina two years ago hammered home the truth that the Big East and its flagship program were both legit. Monday night’s win, and the run that preceded it, hammered home another reality that many on the outside have been hesitant to accept: Villanova is the power program in college basketball at the present moment.

After walking into a dark tunnel with no firm evidence that there would be anything resembling light on the other side, Villanova just wrapped up a five-year stretch where its total record was an astounding 165-21. Over those five years, the Wildcats did not once lose back-to-back games, and they were never seeded worse than second in the NCAA tournament. Wright, the guy who couldn’t win the big one 37 months ago, is now one of eight coaches in college basketball history to win multiple national titles in three years.

Any talk of a Villanova “dynasty” still feels premature, but the Wildcats have at least laid the foundation for that debate to be a thing of the future. Brunson and Bridges are likely gone, but several key pieces, including national championship game hero Donte Divincenzo, will be back. With Wright having already proven that he can build national champions without the benefit of returning All-Americans or surefire NBA superstars, it seems foolish to believe anything other than that the Wildcats will be right back in the thick of the national title hunt in March 2019.

That’s the type of respect Villanova commands now. A far cry from five years ago.