Two weeks ago, Villanova took home their third national championship and their second in three years. The Wildcats ended the year with a program-record 36 wins and just four losses, had the National Player of the Year in Jalen Brunson, and obliterated the pack in the NCAA Tournament, winning each game by an average deficit of 17.67 PPG. They started and finished the year as the best team in college basketball.
And it surprised no one.
Over the last five years, Jay Wright has led Villanova to three No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds. Their two leading scorers this past year were juniors, and their third was a sophomore. Four of their top six leading scorers were upperclassmen.
What Jay Wright and the entire Villanova program has going for them is the hotbed of local talent in the area. Over the last four seasons, the Wildcats have signed 11 total players from the northeast, with five being from Pennsylvania. And they haven’t all been sure-fire five-star talents.
Last year, the Wildcats signed just three players, two four-star talents and one three star. In 2016, they signed just two prospects, one five-star (late-teens, nonetheless) and one three-star. Brunson was a five-star signee in 2015, but he was ranked just No. 22 in the 247Sports system, with Villanova’s two other signatures coming from a four-star and a three-star.
Go down the list, the Wildcats have nabbed a few elite recruits, but the majority of their system has revolved around development of younger players and veteran leadership from the upperclassmen. And they have two national titles over the last three years to show for it.
Immediately after their victory, and in the week or so following, Kentucky fans began comparing John Calipari’s run at Kentucky with Wright’s at Villanova. When two of Kentucky’s freshmen declared for the draft, and reports came out that Hamidou Diallo would do the same, we heard more from UK fans being exhausted with the one-and-done system and lack of veteran leadership year in and year out. If any one of Quade Green, Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt, and PJ Washington make the jump for the NBA or other professional options, you can expect even more voiced displeasure from the fanbase. And it’s understandable, especially seeing Villanova lift the championship trophy in a year the Cats had the perfect opportunity for a Final Four run.
But would you genuinely take Villanova’s success over Kentucky’s at this point?
Kentucky has won one championship, four Final Fours in six seasons, two Elite Eights, one Sweet 16, and one Round of 32 loss. In his time at Kentucky, John Calipari has never been upset in the first round of the tournament, and he has failed to get out of the opening weekend just once.
Jay Wright went to the Final Four in 2009, but lost in the opening weekend five straight times. Two of them were as underachieving nine-seeds in the First Round. In 2016, a Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater against North Carolina gave the school their second title and ultimately broke the streak, but they followed it up in 2017 with yet another loss in the opening weekend as a 32-4 one-seed. Oops.
When it comes to Kentucky’s run, we’re not just talking about lifting the trophy in 2012, we’re talking about the epic runs in the tournament that hold special places in the hearts of Kentucky fans across the state and beyond.
Aaron Harrison’s streak of game-winners in 2014 was one of the most incredible NCAA Tournament runs we’ve seen in decades. For an eight-seed to come out and convert in crunch time over and over and over again was unfathomable, and it created a lifelong memory for Kentucky fans of all ages. And then the Harrison Twins decided to return, giving the Cats arguably the most dominant college basketball team in history. Neither year ended with a trophy presentation, but both years were remarkable in their own right.
Brandon Knight’s dagger and Josh Harrellson’s dodgeball hurl against Ohio State. DeAndre Liggins’ corner three against UNC. De’Aaron Fox putting on a show against Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16. The moments were legendary.
And that’s not even mentioning John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins shifting the landscape of college basketball. What they did in one year, the energy brought back to the fanbase following the Billy Gillespie era, making “one-and-done” a household phrase. We had Boogie’s buzzer-beater in the SEC Tournament against Mississippi State, the John Wall Dance, nightly beatdowns, an SEC Championship, and two top-five draft selections, five in the first round.
You opt for Jay Wright’s run at Villanova, you get the two rings, but give up the epic roads to the Final Four we’ve seen under Calipari.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It’s the not the destination, it’s the journey.”
Veteran leadership each season, seeing the players develop into superstars, regular season dominance in the Big East, and two rings.
One title, four Final Fours in six years, two Elite Eights, only one opening weekend exit, elite five-star prospects every season, NBA Draft selections, etc.
Give me Coach Cal’s track record all day, every day.