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'Nova's run is vindication for new Big East

Entering this NCAA tournament, the overriding question was not only whether Villa could still succeed at the time of year when the games are the toughest, but whether the Big East Conference itself was constructed of more than just history and pom-poms.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright hugs Jalen Brunson.
Villanova head coach Jay Wright hugs Jalen Brunson.Read more(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

Entering this NCAA tournament, the overriding question was not only whether Villanova could still succeed at the time of year when the games are the toughest, but whether the Big East Conference itself was constructed of more than just history and pom-poms.

In the first two seasons after losing some of its mainstay schools and reforming as a basketball-first conference, the Big East was able to place several teams in the tournament but was unable to do well once it got there. What the league didn't need was for the tournament selection committee to get the notion that the only thing major about the conference was its level of disappointment in March.

Well, turn that page. Villanova certainly answered its own questions Saturday night with a grinding 64-59 win over top-ranked Kansas to reach the Final Four in Houston. The Wildcats became the first Big East team (that is still in the Big East) to advance to the last weekend since . . . Villanova in 2009.

The Wildcats emerged from a different league then, however, and no one questioned whether the rankings and seedings were deserved after a regular season matching up against the likes of Syracuse, Connecticut, Pitt, Notre Dame and Louisville.

This time around, though, after Villanova flamed out early as a high seed in the previous two tournaments, the pressure to come through was palpable.

"We're really proud we did this for our league," coach Jay Wright said. "We have to prove ourselves, but we only have to because we're new, not because we're not good. We're just new and we've only had a few years to do this. We screwed up the first two years when we were a top team and didn't do it. You hope people are patient and say, 'OK. Let's give them a few years and see what they do.' Us getting here was good. We're happy for our league, because we're basketball guys and we take pride in it."

Big East commissioner Val Ackerman was sitting courtside in Louisville for the game that would put the league back in the Final Four. Beforehand, she was wished good luck by Dan Gavitt, the son of Big East founder Dave Gavitt, who is now the vice president of men's basketball for the NCAA and runs the Final Four. The echoes of the old league were everywhere, particularly on the court.

"We're proving the naysayers wrong that a basketball league couldn't succeed in a football world," Ackerman said. "We're thrilled for Jay and his program and this is a great day for the league. We've worked very hard to prove that the Big East never went away. The vision that the presidents had was to be a basketball power and that only comes from winning. The guys showed tonight that the Big East is here and here to stay."

New or not, it was time for someone in the league to do that, and it isn't surprising that Villanova got it done. In the 2014 and 2015 NCAA tournaments, the Big East compiled a pretty lackluster 7-11 record, only advanced one of 10 representatives to the Sweet 16 round (Xavier, 2015) and didn't beat an opponent with higher than an 11th seed.

"At some point, it's the way the basketball cookie crumbles. That's what you get with one-and-done," Ackerman said. "It's an amazing format, but it does help favor some of the smaller conferences because anything can happen in one game. But this is now the furthest we've gone in three years, and I think our time will come. Over the long haul, I like our chances. And if it doesn't happen overnight, so be it. But I think we're poised to keep up the Big East tradition."

Eight of the 10 member schools - excluding Marquette and DePaul - have made it to the NCAA tournament in the three years of the new conference alignment. The other four teams that were selected this season failed to advance past the first weekend, and both Xavier and Seton Hall, the two Big East teams ranked among the top 25 along with Villanova, were dismissed by lower seeds. Without the Wildcats, it would have been another year of wondering which direction the league was really headed.

"I think Xavier could have been here. I really do. They lost a game [against Wisconsin] that they could have won," Wright said. "It's all about where you run into people. Like Kansas, they run into a hot team like us. Two years ago, we run into [eventual national champion] Connecticut in the second round. You have to prepare for that. We could have run into Oklahoma in the second round."

Instead, the Wildcats run into the Oklahoma in the national semifinal game in Houston, and if there is an irony that the best basketball-league team in the country will put its reputation on the line in a football stadium, Villanova is ready to embrace that, too.

The question is no longer whether a team from the new Big East can go far. The only question now is: How far?