When Villanova’s current crop of around 6,500 underclassmen decided to go to the school, they knew the basketball program was good. Up until three years ago, the team had churned out a few big NBA stars (like Kyle Lowry and Dante Cunningham), had become a perennial NCAA Tournament team in the Big East and, of course, had won the historic 1985 title. But most students chose the school for its picturesque campus and stellar academic offerings.
The next wave of Villanova students may be drawn to the school for a different reason.
“Before, I went to a school that had no school spirit before this so this is the most incredible thing ever to come to a school like this with so much pride.” Hayes Marcus, a junior from Fairfield, Conn said minutes after Nova’s 79-62 win over Michigan Monday. “I was a freshman when we won. This is just the second best night of my life. I had never expected anything freshman year, this is so incredible I cant explain it.”
“We thought we were going to win this one but what are you going to say,” Danny Jenkins, a Villanova student from New Jersey also said in mid celebration. “It’s unbelievable. We thought it was possible, who knew you’d get two out of four years?”
Kathy Byrnes works for the Student Life Department at the school and is a member of the Class of ’82. Having watched the university transform over recent years has been special and unexpected for her — a proud Radnor resident. It’s been a very exciting change.
“When we won in 2016, I thought we’d never win again in my lifetime because it had been 31 years” she said, standing just outside an impromptu celebration flooding Lancaster Avenue after the title game, “and here we are two years later. It’s a different feel from 2016 because so many students thought we were going to win this time, they don’t appreciate how special this really is.”
Every single member of the roster that cut down the nets in San Antonio has remaining eligibility and could return next year. And even though Naismith Player of the Year Jalen Brunson and star wingman Mikal Bridges — both juniors — are expected to declare for the draft, the Wildcats will return a potential juggernaut again next year, led by Omari Spellman and title game hero Donte DiVincenzo. They have a five-star recruit point guard heading to town for 2018-19, and also have Jay Wright. The championships could continue piling up.
Which makes Villanova a special place. Unlike its competitors in Kentucky or North Carolina, nearly all of Nova’s players regularly return for at least two or three seasons and stick around to graduate. Wright does not recruit “one-and-done” players. And he doesn’t need to. His Wildcats play with a sense of community and respect and are coachable. And they have the power to transform the college basketball landscape. At least that’s what Wildcat diehard Byrnes says.
“It makes me proud that Jalen Brunson is graduating, Mikal Bridges is graduating,” Byrnes said. “These kids not only are amazing athletes but they also are getting a college education. As a grown up and adult, that warms my heart and makes me feel good. It’s good for college basketball and it’s a message that you can do both, you can be a great athlete and a great student and I think that’s what college ball is supposed to be all about.”
And Jay Wright, to see him grow over the 17 years he’s been at Villanova, he really mentors these young men into being terrific performers on and off the court.”
The future is bright and so is the past — making Villanova arguable a full-fledged member of the “Blue Blood” basketball club. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be resembling a gigantic program like Michigan or Kansas anytime soon.
“On Saturday night I was watching the Loyola-Michigan game, and they showed the game watch at Michigan’s football stadium and their screen was bigger than most of our buildings are,” Byrnes said with a smile. “When I saw our [much smaller] screens out on the elipse tonight I thought: ‘that’s Villanova.'”