Big East, ’Nova know, savor their place

HOUSTON

It is a private university located in Radnor Township and named for Saint Thomas of Villanova. The oldest Catholic school in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, just under 6,400 undergraduate students exist among 250 or so acres.

But as much as Villanova is the small institution northwest of Philadelphia with a basketball program known for one magical evening in 1985, for a team that history insists is one of the most unlikely of champions, what will occur tonight at NRG Stadium has nothing to do with fairy tales.

Cinderella isn’t invited to this particular ball.

Instead, tonight’s matchup is proof that while football remains the great and powerful Oz ruling college athletics, king of an arms race that has created what is a grotesque level of financial disparity between the haves and have-nots, it’s still possible for a nonfootball conference to compete on a national level in the second most popular sport.

Especially when we are talking about the Big East.

Villanova meets mighty North Carolina in a national championship game of the NCAA Tournament, where millions will watch on television and more than 75,000 will be in attendance and the idea that a once-proud and tradition-rich league can reinvent itself in this time of realignment chaos to stand 40 minutes from such a coveted title should be celebrated.

“I’m a huge college football fan,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “I love it. I met the athletic director from LSU and said, ‘I can’t wait to come down for a game.’ I love it.

“But there’s a lot of great basketball schools. That’s just what we are in the (Big East). We’re basketball schools. We make all our decisions athletically about basketball. We got together and saw where we fit in this world of football. We don’t have a goal to be the greatest league in the world. We’re authentic. We’re basketball schools. It’s the biggest sport.”

You can sometimes survive on tradition.

Some can even prosper.

The Big East was formed in 1979 and six years later, it already had national basketball champions in Georgetown and that improbable Villanova squad coached by Rollie Massimino. Three of the teams in the 1985 Final Four were from the league. Over the years, save perhaps a few in the early 1990s, basketball excellence remained part of the conference’s annual brand.

They wanted it that way, so it was.

But when realignment hit hard a few years ago and schools bolted the league for what they viewed as better opportunities at football riches, when the likes of Louisville and Syracuse and Pittsburgh and Miami and West Virginia and Cincinnati and Rutgers and others had all ultimately taken their helmets and shoulder pads and hit the road, seven others decided to pursue a league with a new framework, one defined at the top by basketball.

Now, the Big East has 10 teams and this year advanced half to the NCAA Tournament, including No. 2 seeds in Villanova and Xavier.

The Wildcats are major in every way that North Carolina and Duke and Kansas and Kentucky are, from their practice facility to their training table to their chartered plane trips to Wright’s $2.7 million salary. Villanova is a big-time college program from a big-time basketball conference, the small, private, Catholic school that long ago made the decision no matter what cost to its bottom line, it would do anything necessary to compete at the sport’s highest level.

“Back when I was coaching there under (Massimino), if you saw our offices and our home court at that time, you’d be like, ‘Come on, you can’t win,” said Steve Lappas, who returned to Villanova as its head coach from 1992-2001. “But now, Villanova and Jay and his assistants are in the same categories as everyone else. In terms of wherewithal, they have everything they need to do what they need to do.”

Here’s the most important part: Kids still want to play in the Big East, and if it’s because of television or history or great coaching or a desire to shoot jumpers in Madison Square Garden or whatever, the fact great players continue to sign with the conference is enough for a nonfootball league to remain relevant at the most important time of a college basketball season.

Villanova plays mighty North Carolina tonight and should the Wildcats win, it would be their second national title. The other one is the famous one, when Cinderella felled Big East giant Georgetown and history had itself an unlikely champion.

But this isn’t a fairy tale any more.

“I feel a lot of pride, I really do,” Wright said. “We reinvented ourselves in a time when college athletics is being run by football. The (Final Four) is bigger than the four-team college football playoff to our schools. It’s just what we are. We’re just trying to be the best we can be.

“I’m really happy for our league, happy that our league is in the final, as happy as I am for Villanova.”

Survive and advance?

Try survive and prosper.

Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Twitter: @edgraney

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