Villanova dominates again, but only a Final Four will silence critics

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The most impressive, dominant, back-to-back performances in the NCAA Tournament so far?

Villanova.

All Villanova. Nobody to choose but Villanova. Now-onto-the-Sweet-16 Villanova. How-ya-like-us-now Villanova. Not-your-big-brother’s-Villanova.

The South’s No. 2 seeded Wildcats blew No. 7 seed Iowa to pieces on Sunday afternoon at the Barclays Center, winning 87-68.

Villanova had a double-digit lead with eight minutes to go in the first half and it was basically over from there. VU was so awesome in the first half (it had led 52-29) that Jay Wright apologized to Fran McCaffery for how well his team played. Iowa, which was 19-4 on Feb. 10, ends its season with a 3-7 record over the final third of its fizzled campaign. McCaffery’s group made the Wildcats look like the best team in the country.

No. Let’s amend that. The Wildcats showed themselves to look like one of the nation’s best.

Maybe, ultimately, Villanova will prove to be just that.

“If I’m really honest with you, the biggest stress on me was I wanted it for them, and we all did,” Wright said.

“It” being an appearance in the second weekend of the tournament, something that has happened for the Big East’s flagship program since 2009.

As good as this first weekend was for VU, the reality is it’s only halfway to fully restoring its credibility. Let me be clear. I think this squad, this program, has been one of the three or four best in college basketball across the past three seasons. It’s at 93 wins and counting in that time. Only Kentucky (94) has more wins in that span, and only Gonzaga — which also sits at 92 — matches Villanova’s in victories. But the perception of Villanova has been appropriately earned.

The players in the locker room afterward were liberated. Finally: a Sweet 16. It’s a nice accomplishment, but it’s rare to see this sense of achievement from a No. 2 seed. That will happen when you’ve failed to break through to the second weekend in seven years.

“It was definitely a big time sigh of relief,” senior Ryan Arcidiacono said. “I was ecstatic that we won our game against Iowa because we know how good of a team they are. But I’m just happy for our senior class to be able to get to experience it, and I know I was ecstatic.”

That 2009 regional showing also happens to be the last time it reached a Final Four. That’s why I think, in part, a Sweet 16 won’t do this team justice. This group is too good, too well-coached, to rock-steady to leave college basketball with a 4-3 NCAA Tournament record. If the Wildcats get taken out by dangerous, third-seeded Miami in Louisville on Thursday, that’s what the March mark will be for Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds.

Wright understands this. He’s embraced the truth that’s enveloped this program for years now. Villanova has been the poster team for college basketball’s most overrated, a symbol of how the top of the sport isn’t as good now as it was five, 10, 15 years ago.

The Wildcats haven’t been accountable in the most important part of the season. But here we ahve them, for the first time in a long time, proving that’s no longer the case. They have a defensive hoss in Ochefu, who’s come so far from the player he was four years ago. Arcidiacono is the quintessential college senior — and one of the best players in Nova history. There are two tremendous freshmen in Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson. Kris Jenkins might now be the most important player among them.

The weaknesses are hard to find because they don’t really exist. This is a top-10 team in offense and defensive efficiency. It’s the third-best foul-shooting team in the field, and is top-five nationally in 2-point percentage.

Look at the losses:

In December, against Buddy Hield and Oklahoma.

Then 12 days later at Virginia, which is, of course, a No. 1 seed this season.

Then in, January, an overtime loss to Providence, which has two first-round picks on its roster.

In February, at Xavier, a No. 2 seed.

And finally, in the Big East title game by two points to Seton Hall.

No bad losses. That’s been the consistent thing about Villanova. This senior class is the winningest one in program history. It restored a culture of reliability in the regular season.

The fans on hand at Barclays held applause of relief on Sunday. Wright and Arch embraced for a very long hug. It’s been too long for this program not to reach the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. Now it needs two more wins to erase all the dismissive judgments it’s earned in the past two tournaments.

“No more second round questions,” Hart said. “Getting questions now about the [Sweet 16], it’s amazing.”

Now the challenge becomes not accepting the Sweet 16 as conclusion. Resisting against any settling.

“I think the personal drive of an athlete is far greater than any pressure media can put on them,” Wright told CBS Sports on the walk back to Villanova’s locker room. “I think that’s what you saw with this group. They didn’t care if the final, the Sweet 16, ended it. There’s a different mindset in an athlete if he’s driven. When it’s there, and it’s special, they can overcome it. If it’s not, then all of this? It can crush you. It comes from Arch and Daniel.”

“We knew this was something a lot of people were going to judge us on,” Ochefu said. “The Sweet 16 wasn’t our goal.”

Villanova has eliminated the stigma by moving on. But it can do even more by going even further. A Final Four would retroactively eliminate the fetor of failure that took over this team in recent years.

The Wildcats looked like arguably the best team college hoops this weekend. (USATSI)

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