‘Nova’s Big East run reminiscent of conference tradition



Frank Scicchitano

Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright sat between a dejected Kris Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono in the postgame press conference at Madison Square Garden last Saturday night. The Wildcats had just come up one shot short of their second straight Big East Tournament title. Meanwhile, Seton Hall was still on the floor celebrating its third tournament championship in program history after taking down Villanova at The Garden for the second time in three seasons.

The trio was fielding questions about Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead, game plan adjustments and NCAA Tournament seeding. As always, Wright handled the press conference with class and gave thoughtful and honest responses despite dealing with the disappointment of a heartbreaking loss.

There were few things that could have put a genuine smile on Wright’s face that night, but a quick question about Big East tradition and Madison Square Garden brought a refreshing tone of enthusiasm to the coach’s voice.

“If you’re a basketball person, there’s no conference that matches it anywhere,” Wright said as his entire body seemed to perk up and leaned forward to continue his thought. “Everything we do is basketball.”

Villanova’s 2016 run in the Big East Tournament featured three consecutive games against traditional Big East opponents. 

It began by revisiting the conference’s premiere post-realignment rivalry in a quarterfinal matchup with Georgetown. These two teams have a tremendous history in the regular season and NCAA Tournament, but it was just the fifth time they have matched up in the Big East Tournament.

After pulling away from the Hoyas in the second half, the Wildcats played a pair of tight games against two other original members of the Big East: Providence and Seton Hall.

Villanova has now faced Providence in the Big East Tournament nine times, more than they have faced any other current team in the league. This was the second consecutive season that the two teams battled in the semifinals, with the ’Cats fighting to a close victory in both cases. 

Villanova’s quarter and semifinal games highlighted the competitive history of some of the Big East most traditional programs. But neither of those games showcased the glory of playing in the World’s Most Famous Arena as much as the ’Cats thrilling contest against Seton Hall in the final.

When Villanova and six other Catholic universities were given the task of using basketball to maintain the survival of the Big East in 2013, they made it a priority to keep their postseason tournament at Madison Square Garden. The atmosphere at Saturday night’s championship game reminded everyone why it was absolutely necessary to keep the tournament in that building.

“There’s nowhere you would rather coach or play…your conference tournament than in Madison Square Garden,” Wright said.

It seems like The Garden brings out the best in players and coaches, especially during the Big East Tournament. And when you are representing a traditional Big East school, the lights seem to shine just a little bit brighter. 

Whitehead, Seton Hall’s sophomore guard and Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, is the perfect example. His 26 points on 11-21 shooting fueled the Pirates, and as the crowd got louder, he got better. 

Whitehead was the best player in the tournament last weekend, but he was not the only player to benefit from the classic Big East environment at the Garden. Villanova junior forward Kris Jenkins, an All-Tournament performer in his own right, matched Whitehead’s fire and keyed his team’s second half comeback.

Jenkins, who finished with 23 points, made five of 11 3-pointers in the game, with four of them coming in the second half. Late in the game, he used a screen to dribble left and nail one of his long-range shots in front of two defenders, one of which draped all over him. Then, with 52 seconds left, Jenkins used his body to create space and connect on a go-ahead 3-point bomb that caused an eruption from the Garden crowd.

It may be tempting to criticize Jenkins’ miss with 11 seconds left that would have put Villanova back in front, but ’Nova would not have even been in that position if it weren’t for the play of Big Smooth down the stretch.

The Villanova-Seton Hall final was the best championship game of the “new” Big East era. It had everything that the conference was built on for three and a half decades – physicality, passion and triumph. 

And those characteristics were not just confined to the players on the court. They poured over the edges of the floor and made their way into the crowd, creating an unforgettable night at Madison Square Garden.