PROVIDENCE, R.I. — There comes a time of clarity during a college basketball season, a moment when the doubts and uncertainties of the past drift away and things become obviously, unmistakably transparent.
I had one of those moments on Saturday afternoon at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Going into the Villanova-Providence game, the biggest game at The Dunk in who knows how long, I had considered the Big East to still be a conference with several teams that, on any given night, you could call the league’s best team.
I had thought Xavier, tall and athletic and deep, was the one team in the Big East that had the most serious Final Four dreams. I had thought Providence, with the top 1-2 punch in college hoops, was a dark-horse Final Four threat as well. I thought Georgetown was an extraordinarily talented team that, despite looking likely to miss the NCAA tournament, had it in them to pull off some sort of late-season miracle and become dangerous in March.
It wasn’t that I was overlooking Jay Wright and his Villanova Wildcats. It certainly wasn’t that I thought they weren’t a great basketball team; when they flew into a Providence snowstorm Friday afternoon on a bumpy charter flight, the Wildcats were 19-3 and, with only one Big East loss, firmly in control of the league.
But that lone Big East loss was at home to Providence, and the Dunkin’ Donuts Center was rocking on Saturday afternoon, and Villanova’s starting big man, senior Daniel Ochefu, was wearing a suit and tie, still sidelined with a concussion.
I fully expected a hungry Providence team to upend the third-ranked team in the country.
It wasn’t that I was overlooking the Big East powerhouse that Wright has created. Really, I wasn’t.
It was more that I had just taken the Wildcats for granted.
Then I watched Villanova jet out to a 10-0 lead. I watched that lead balloon to 29-10. I watched an electric home crowd go silent, and stay silent, and then even start to boo the inconsistent home team during a 72-60 Wildcats win. I watched Villanova display the best ball movement this side of Norman, Oklahoma. I watched Villanova junior Josh Hart prove why he’s the toughest player in the Big East and perhaps the most underrated player in the country as he got 14 points and 13 rebounds — all while forcing future top-five pick Kris Dunn to commit more turnovers (six) than he made shots (four). I watched a reserve big man from Kobe Bryant’s Lower Merion High School, junior Darryl Reynolds, flash a little bit of his inner Kobe as he went off for a career-high 19 points and 10 rebounds (after scoring fewer than 100 points the past three seasons combined).
Simply put, I watched a Jay Wright team do what Jay Wright teams do: play more consistent basketball, night in and night out, than any other program in the country.
And I was reminded of two things about Villanova that may be obvious — but also are so, so easy to take for granted:
This program is in its own tier in the Big East.
And in a college basketball season that’s as unpredictable as this one, this team should be considered as solid of a Final Four favorite as there is.
I know, I know. You’re going to talk about last season, when an experienced Villanova squad nabbed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and then proceeded to bow out before the second weekend. You’re going to talk about how Wright hasn’t made a Sweet 16 since 2009, his only Final Four team. You going to talk about how Villanova is always pretty good but never great.
That’s fair. But it’s also judging a program’s success based solely on a few games in March instead of the entire season. The Wildcats lost to a super-talented but underachieving N.C. State team a year ago, they lost to eventual national champion UConn the year before that, and we’re going to say those two March losses determine this season’s destiny?
Over the past three seasons, Villanova is a stunning 82-11. That’s tied with Wichita State for the fewest losses in college hoops during that span. After Villanova’s throttling of a dangerous Providence team in a lit road environment on Saturday, the Wildcats ascended to No. 1 in the KenPom.com rankings, the bible of college hoops statistics. Even though Providence coach Ed Cooley lauded Villanova for its offensive performance, the truth is this team is doing it on the back of its defense, the fourth-most efficient defense in the country.
It can be easy to take for granted how self-sustaining Wright’s program has become, because greatness is monotonous and because Wright values hard workers over five-star talents and tough-as-nails teammates over individual stars. But the truth is you’re taking these guys for granted at your own peril.
That’s the lesson I learned on Saturday: This Villanova team is so different from the team that was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament a year ago.
And this Villanova team might be even better come March.
"It is a really different team," Wright said afterward. "We had proven men on last year’s team. JayVaughn Pinkston was a five-year guy. Dylan Ennis was a five-year guy, basically. Darrun Hilliard was a four-year starter. And the two other starters, [Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono] had been starting since their freshman year."
"Now our juniors are starting for the first time," Wright said. "Jalen Brunson is a freshman."
Villanova had 16 turnovers on Saturday. Often, against a team as talented as Providence and in an environment as raucous as Saturday’s, that’s a recipe for a loss. Especially when you add in the fact that Ochefu, the team’s top interior presence, was injured.
Yet after the first few minutes, the outcome never felt in doubt.
Villanova is the best team in the Big East. Of this I feel certain. Jay Wright teams may have the most consistent identities of any teams in college hoops.
I don’t know if this year will bring another March disappointment. My gut tells me the way this season is playing out, with zero dominant teams, plays right into the hands of a team like Villanova: calm and well-coached, unselfish and with unceasing motors, star-less and ego-less, and deep — so deep.
So circle a date on your calendar: Feb. 24. That’s when Villanova heads to Xavier to play the team that’s nipping at their heels in the Big East. Xavier has a healthy Edmond Sumner now, different from when Villanova throttled Xavier more than a month ago. That game will put this theory on Villanova to the test.
And listen to what Wright said just before his team hopped back on a charter flight to Philly: "These guys can get better, and they know it."
For the rest of the Big East and for future NCAA tournament opponents, that might be the scariest thought of them all.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.