[caption id="attachment_13108" align="alignnone" width="838"] Villanova Athletics[/caption]
Villanova’s men’s basketball team is accustomed to boasting a No. 1 next to its name, just not when the letters “AP” are before that. For the first time in program history, the Wildcats have earned the right to say they are, nationally, the best team in the regular season. You don’t have too look far to see when they’ve been the top dog before, but that has been marred with shortcomings. Ever since the emergence of the new Big East, it has been Villanova’s conference to lose. But just last year, the team was No. 1 in the East Regional bracket before losing to NC State in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32. In 2014, Nova was the top-seed in the Big East Tournament, but got thumped by Seton Hall in the sec- ond round. So, what makes this top-ranked team any different than the ones that have struggled before it? The 2015 Wildcats carry all that baggage - scratch that - they carry all that experience.
They have the same studs as seasons past in Daniel Ochefu and Josh Hart, the same coach boasting his GQ-worthy wardrobe in Jay Wright and the same dominance in one of the nation’s top conferences, the Big East. Experience is where Villanova has the upper hand - 296 total starts between the core five for the Wildcats is the simplest way to illustrate that. Most of those have come from their best players - 126 from reigning Co-Big East Player of the Year Ryan Arcidiacono and 96 from Ochefu. All those have accumulated to an 83-11 record over the past three seasons, which is tied with Wichita State for the fewest losses among Division I programs during that span. Of course, the new Big East and the Missouri Valley Conference have been easy targets in the past, so they must be tested before conference play begins.
In 2014, Villanova opened with what appeared to be a challenging out-of-conference schedule with games against Michigan and Syracuse. Cursed with bad timing, the Wildcats faced both programs while experiencing their own off years, so they didn’t get a true test. Until March 21 against NC State, that is.
This season, Wright’s crew is different. They’ve been tested and beaten both in and out of conference play against some of the best individuals and teams the nation has to offer. The team has few blemishes on its 20-3 record. “Losses teach you more than wins do” is the old cliché used in sports. No matter how overused it is, the saying still holds true. A 78-55 bludgeoning at the hands of Buddy Hield and No. 7 Oklahoma followed by dropping an 86-75 contest to No. 8 Virginia within two weeks of one another gave this team the early season tests it needed.
Taking on arguably the best that both the ACC and Big 12 have to offer, Villanova saw firsthand the improvements it had to make to take that next step. The team now knows how to respond to the shock that could come along with another elite team instead of waiting until March to find that out.
The Wildcats went on a nine-game winning streak after the Virginia loss and flexed its Big East muscles by opening up conference play with a 31-point win over Xavier. The Musketeers have been tugging on Villanova’s cape all season long, trailing the Cats in second place in the conference and hovering around a top-five ranking on The Associated Press poll. Villanova has shown that this is its conference, though, and everyone else just plays in it. The difference with this team is leadership. On Jan. 24, that other Co-Big East Player of the Year, Kris Dunn, took on the Wildcats in one of the rare occasions where the Wells Fargo Center was home instead of The Pavilion, taking away the best home court in the Big East.
The Friars punched Nova in the mouth and won, 82-76, as Dunn poured in 13 points and 14 assists. When time for the rematch rolled around in Providence, Villanova left as the victor by a 12-point margin. This came in another hostile venue, the Dunkin Donuts Center, which consistently sells out, even when the New England
Patriots play home playoff games. And that revenge match? Well, that was played without Arcidi- acono’s main man in the paint, Ochefu, who missed the past three games with a concussion. That is what leadership entails - finding a way to lead your team to victory, even when key pieces are missing. Arcidiacono is knocked for garnering favoritism from college basketball experts across the country, but what he does better than any other player in the nation is just that: lead. But perhaps the least spoken-about player on this team who will benefit most from the top ranking is Hart. Hart competed in every game last season exclusively as the sixth-man. This year he has done more than just step into the starter role. He’s owned it. The leading scorer of the Wildcats has put up double-figures in every game this season and has continued to be the inside and outside scorer every offense needs. He’s another key piece that makes Nova so difficult to defeat. The Wildcats have one more test on their schedule, Feb. 24 at Xavier. If they prove they can walk away victorious from another hostile site, they have passed all the tests they need to hold the No. 1 ranking. Take on the best in the ACC? Check. Battle with the best player in the country? Check. Avenge a home loss on the road? Check. Get healthy at the right time? Check. On the day that Villanova was voted No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time, Ochefu gloated on his Snapchat with a shot of the 1985 National Championship banner hanging from the rafters in The Pavilion. For the second time in program history, Villanova was voted No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, too. The last time they held that title? When they won the national title, 1985. Villanova is accustomed to playing as Goliath in the Big East. Now, the target on its back is only bigger, and every opponent from here on out will look to play David. George Balekji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GeorgeBalekji.