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Bob Ford: Villanova fighting to remain successful in the Big East it created

The Philadelphia Inquirer — By Bob Ford The Philadelphia Inquirer

Feb. 13-- The highlight reel, which ended as only the most fortunate of highlight reels end-in a shower of confetti falling on a championship trophy-came to its wild, familiar conclusion, and Ryan Arcidiacono walked onto the basketball court at Finneran Pavilion at halftime Wednesday night.

Former teammate Kris Jenkins, the recipient of the most famous pass ever thrown in Villanova basketball history, applauded from the sideline, and the crowd stayed in its seats to watch as Arcidiacono's jersey was retired.

"You were always with us," Arcidiacono told the fans. "From losing to Columbia to winning a national championship."

The seasons hold hands at Villanova and form a chain, one linking to the next. Arcidiacono wore No. 15 because he grew up a fan of the school, and Reggie Redding, a player on Jay Wright's first Final Four team in 2009, was his favorite player.

Arcidiacono and his teammates took the Wildcats all the way back there, and then some. They did it, as Arcidiacono said, from the depths of an 18-point home loss to Columbia at the start of the 2012-13 season to the 2016 national championship, which paved the way for a repeat in 2018.

The timing of the jersey retirement coincided with the NBA's All-Star break, but it was also fitting that it happened this season, as the Wildcats are once again building toward something, and this time in a league prepared to make that very difficult.

Villanova was the tent pole for Big East basketball when it was reformed for the 2013-14 season. It wasn't that the rest of the conference was bad, but it wasn't at the same level, and the television contract that led to the exposure that led to the rankings that led to better players might not have been as easy to obtain without the success of the Wildcats.

This season, the Big East has five teams in the Top 25, and Villanova is somewhere in the middle of that top pack, trying to hold its own with a young team. This is the league Wright hoped would flourish, a league capable of lifting all the schools, and now the Wildcats have to deal with it.

"I don't know if I said I was looking forward to it. I said it was going to happen," Wright said after escaping with a 72-71 win Wednesday over Marquette. "I liked it better the other way, but you knew it was coming, and this league's incredible."

In the first six seasons of the Big East, Villanova was 90-18 in the conference's regular season, was the top seed in the conference tournament five times, and won it four times. Maybe another run of domination like that is possible, but it doesn't look likely.

"Villanova has been the standard-bearer of the new Big East," Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said, "and what Jay and his players have done has allowed all of us to be in a position where we're able to say we're the best basketball conference in the country, or one of the best, year in and year out. (They) allowed us to stay above water when most people were saying that the league was never going to be the same."

The price of playing in a tough league is that you can't always win, even with a decent team. DePaul, the last-place team in the conference, has beaten Texas Tech, Boston College, and Iowa this season (the Hawkeyes' only home loss), but is 1-10 in conference play. The flip side, however, is that when you do win, the national respect, particularly from the NCAA Tournament committee, follows as a reward.

"We beat DePaul in overtime here," Wright said. "One to, anybody in this conference can beat the No. 1 team in the country. That's what's unique this year. I've never trusted talking to the tournament committee, so I do talk to you guys, and I hope they read you guys like I do."

I wouldn't count on that, but the committee can read the standings. Villanova, with five freshmen and sophomores in what is a seven-man rotation, is scurrying to mature with tournament season just a month away. Seton Hall has opened a small gap at the top of the race, but Villanova, Creighton, Marquette, and Butler are all fighting for the wins that will decide seeding at the Big East Tournament and could lift them a line or two in the eventual NCAA field.

"We've got to find a way to gut it out and improve as quickly as we can," Wright said. "And we have a lot of room for improvement. We just have to do it quickly."

There was a guy watching Wednesday's game who knows all about that.

"Relying on freshmen is really going to benefit them," Arcidiacono said, "and I know they don't want to hear that, or Coach Wright, but in the next couple of years. They have their solid guys (this season), and I know they're going to continue to work to be the best Villanova team they can be."

In the past, that's been pretty good, and this season might hold surprises, too. If a team can go from losing at home to Columbia to finishing off the most incredible of highlight reels in the space of one player's career, anything is possible.


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