Villanova trying to win for those who don’t play FBS Power 5 football
by John Furgele
Not since 1990 when UNLV cut down the nets has a school from a non Power 5 conference won the NCAA basketball title. Technically, you can count Connecticut’s 2014 triumph out of the American Conference as another, but I won’t do that. Those Huskies were in their first year in the new conference and were really carrying on with old Big East talent; the old Big East that had football schools in it.
Many schools have reached the precipice such as Butler (twice), Utah when they were a Mountain West school and Memphis as a member of Conference USA, but none have been able to breakthrough. And, truth be told, that UNLV squad was more of a glorified conference affiliate under coach Jerry Tarkanian. Those Rebel teams played solid nonconference opponents and then beat up on Big West opponents en route to their 103-73 dismantling of Duke in the title game.
The schools that win are the schools that play Power 5 football. UNLV never did and still doesn’t play Power 5 football. If you really want to get technical the last school that didn’t play Division I-A/FBS football and won the NCAA hoops title was Villanova in 1985—31 years ago.
People like to bring up parity, they like to trumpet the non-football conferences, and many of them have done well. They will tout Wichita State’s Final Four appearance out of the Missouri Valley; Butler’s from the Horizon; Virginia Commonwealth from the CAA and Memphis from Conference USA, but those schools never won the BIG game. The Atlantic 10 is a highly regarded conference, but other than Massachusetts’ 1996 Final Four run, the league hasn’t had a Final Four team since.
Most people say that in basketball all you need are five players and those five players can put a six game run together and cut down the nets, but unless you’re from the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC or Pac 12, it hasn’t happened. There are many that call the SEC a football conference, but since 1990, three of their members—Florida (2), Kentucky (3) and Arkansas—have won basketball titles. That’s the same as the more highly regarded ACC, which has seen Duke, Maryland and North Carolina win titles.
When Villanova won it all in 1985, the landscape of college sports was different. Much different. The Big East was the hottest basketball league, a league that featured small Catholic and private universities with two public universities (Pittsburgh and Connecticut) in its nine team configuration. And, of the nine, only three played major college football and those three—Pitt, Boston College and Syracuse were proud football independents. Villanova and Connecticut were members of the then 1-AA Yankee Conference and Georgetown was gearing up to join the non-scholarship Patriot League for just football.
Once Penn State gave up football independence for the Big Ten, the landscape changed quickly. Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College became uneasy and soon that tension led to infighting in the Big East between those who played 1-A football and those who didn’t. Little did we know that eventually, this skirmish would lead to 14, 15 and 16 team conferences, good for football perhaps, but women’s soccer? Cross country? Tennis? Golf?
This is a statement game of epic proportions. A Villanova win is a win for the Group of 27 conferences that don’t play major FBS football. The MAAC, NEC, Atlantic 10, Atlantic Sun and Summit will all be pulling—hard—for a Villanova win. A Villanova win will change the mind of some recruits, convincing them that you can attend a Viilanova, Providence, Gonzaga or Marquette and capture the ultimate prize that the sport offers.
For coach Jay Wright and his Wildcat team, they’re only thinking about how to defend the Tar Heels, the pick and roll and all the other essentials of playing a winning basketball game. But, at the same time, the Villanova Wildcats are carrying the mantle for the colleges and universities who think basketball can be the number one sport and that you don’t have to have a 90,000 seat stadium on campus to succeed in the other revenue generating sport in college athletics.
The non Power 5 schools have gotten very close to the top of the mountain. Now, it is time for them to reach the peak.