The Villanova Wildcats could potentially win their second national title in three years on Monday night; all of this after taking home just one championship before that (a notably unexpected run in 1985).
Blueblood or not (I’d still contend no, but that’s no knock on the program), what Villanova has pulled off is incredibly impressive in the years since the Syracuse Orange left the Big East. The run of success may not have anything to do with the departure of schools like SU, UConn, Notre Dame, Louisville and Pitt — that’s a debate for another day. But in any case, a 164-21 record, three conference tournament titles, four regular season championships, and now two Final Fours certainly place them among the sport’s elite programs.
How did we get here?
For long-time Syracuse fans that remember the old Big East days, it can seem weird that ‘Nova has evolved into this. Aside from the middle of Rollie Massimino’s tenure, and a short stretch under Steve Lappas, the Wildcats were hardly heaver-hitters before Jay Wright. Even under Wright, the 2006 Elite Eight and 2009 Final Four were exceptions, not the rule. Something’s worked there, and it’s not just playing in the Big East.
It probably starts with offense.
Villanova’s offense has been top-five in terms of efficiency (according to KenPom) for the last four years, and were 21st in 2014. Offensive efficiency isn’t a foreign concept for the Orange at all, just one they’d abandoned this season. The Wildcats have also played at a variety of tempos these past few years. They’ve gone incredibly slow to much success, while also opting for quicker offenses (though I wouldn’t call any of them “fast”). As we know, slow only works when you’re efficient from the floor.
This isn’t to ignore Villanova’s defense, either. They’ve been top-15 in KenPom each of the last five seasons as well. So the combination of offensive and defensive prowess obviously plays a part here. But the team’s ability to score is what makes the defensive efficiency that much more important.
The other major factor has been continuity.
That doesn’t mean we have to gush about the “good ol’ days” of four-year players and teams full of seniors and the supposed loved of the game fueling a team. But it’s to view how minimizing year-to-year turnover within a system and a culture can pay major dividends for a coach that knows what he’s doing. Wright’s had a lot of four-year guys, and you see the gradual development and improvement over time. He stopped chasing as many surefire pros, and started pursuing guys that “fit” Villanova... whatever that meant.
Boeheim’s done similarly over the last decade or so. Post-2003, we saw a change in the way the Orange recruited initially, and that move away from zone fit toward potential one-and-dones hurt in the 2004-2008 time period (we still made the NCAAs plenty and took home a Big East Tournament title in 2006 just the same). From that point, Boeheim started honing in on the best blue-chippers to fit his system and the 2-3 zone. The defensive results got better, as did the teams’ fortunes. Those SU squads with some offensive firepower paired with defense were able to go far (see: 2013, 2016).
Syracuse’s recent success has also turned potential NBA prospects into first round selections. That’s going to continue, even if the Orange go all-in on recruiting “their” type of player. Focusing on system fit shouldn’t necessarily alter much about Jim Boeheim’s approach. Rather, it’s just a continuation of what he’s been doing. Only now, perhaps we’d look for continuity as the stabilizing force for the program — something that it’s been lacking of late, even in an era with plenty of postseason success.
The elephant in the room there are the NCAA sanctions, that have hampered the program more than most outside critics can willingly admit to since they see SU succeeding anyway. Jim has never been a coach to hit hard reset year after year, but that’s what recent times have forced him to do. He’s still succeeded there, but that’s also not how you build a championship roster at SU, where the zone takes patience, time and consistency to truly fire on all cylinders.
Roster upheaval has been a theme of late, but one that should (hopefully) slow down. That breeds consistency and experience in the zone. Especially at the guard positions -- a place where Villanova has thrived with veteran players over the years. Syracuse has too, mind you (see the 2016 team with Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney). But change has been the more common theme as unexpected departures have become the story of every offseason.
Villanova, meanwhile, has trotted out a slew of veteran guards in recent seasons. This year: Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth. Before them, players like Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono. Having that sort of multi-year buy-in does help matters, but also shouldn’t prevent you from bringing in the most talented players (that fit) that you can.
So what can Syracuse learn from Villanova? Honestly, not a ton. If Syracuse keeps recruiting players that fit, and can avoid the recent roster upheaval going forward, that’s the formula to get back to more consistent regular season success to pair with the postseason accolades. Maybe that also means avoiding one-and-dones, as Villanova largely does? But I don’t buy that as any sort of issue for the Orange.
Again, SU has lost plenty of players to the draft who were not one-and-dones until they started playing for Boeheim.
But where Syracuse can prepare more is with regard to back-filling with (experienced) depth when those players depart. We can do that again now, which helps. We just had our recruiting thrown for a loop this offseason, which doesn’t. I’m still pretty optimistic that Boeheim’s final act as Syracuse’s head coach can end up looking more similar to Wright’s recent resurgence at Villanova, however. And hopefully with a another championship to top it all off.