TODAY'S PAPER
Good Morning
Good Morning
SportsColumnistsGreg Logan

Villanova’s return to Final 4 proves Big East is back

Jalen Brunson of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in

Jalen Brunson of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the first half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Ky. Credit: Getty Images / Kevin C. Cox

PHILADELPHIA

Long before the ball went up for tipoff between ACC rivals North Carolina and Notre Dame in the East Regional final Sunday night at Wells Fargo Center, this town was celebrating the return of Villanova and Big East basketball to this year’s Final Four in Houston.

The Wildcats’ upset of No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the South Regional final Saturday night in Louisville could not have come at a better time for Villanova coach Jay Wright and the Big East. There was a sense of redemption for Wright and a program whose highly ranked teams had failed to advance beyond the second round six times since the Wildcats last reached the Final Four in 2009. Villanova (33-5) will face West Regional champ Oklahoma (29-7) in a rematch of a game the Sooners won, 78-55, on Dec. 7 in Hawaii.

It was even more rewarding for the new Big East to regain credibility with its first Final Four berth since the conference reorganized three years ago and got back to its basketball-only roots. The timing was impeccable because the Atlantic Coast Conference, which poached four schools when the old Big East broke up, was assured of the other two Final Four spots thanks to all-ACC matchups in the Midwest and East Regional finals Sunday night.

Coach Jim Boeheim’s 10th- seeded Syracuse (23-13), a Big East wolf in ACC clothing, completed its improbable run to the Final Four with a stunning comeback from a 16-point deficit to beat Virginia, 68-62, in the Midwest final in Chicago. The Tar Heels (32-6) are the last No. 1 seed left after their powerful 88-74 win over Notre Dame, another former Big East school.

Wright was elated after the upset of Kansas because senior leaders Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu finally were rewarded for their consistent excellence, and the Wildcats have the offensive weapons in juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins to give them a serious title shot.

“Coaching is a lot like parenting,” Wright said. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world to see these guys get to the point where everyone else sees that they’re as good as we think they can be. It was a sense of real accomplishment, and I think they really feel good about themselves individually.”

The Wildcats have the fewest losses of any team in the Final Four, so Villanova clearly belongs on the top tier. Reversing that 23-point loss to Oklahoma might seem a tall order, but the Sooners shot 14-for-26 from three-point range in that game to Villanova’s 4-for-32.

Ochefu assured that Villanova has discovered its defensive identity and knows what it must do to slow down Sooners star Buddy Hield, who scored 37 points in OU’s 80-68 West Regional win over Oregon.

“The first time we played them, we had a lot of young guys that didn’t know what we were completely about yet,” Ochefu said. “The game was not ugly at all. Throughout the course of the year, we’ve grown a lot. Buddy Hield is an amazing player. It’s going to be a battle. We take it upon ourselves to make the game extremely ugly.”

Spoken like a true veteran of the Big East, in which toughness often trumps pure talent.

As for the all-ACC semifinal, Syracuse lost twice to North Carolina this season. But the Orange has proved that past results are no prediction of future performance. If we all get lucky, maybe the championship game will turn into a wild family feud between the old and new Big East.

But it’s far more likely that North Carolina will cut down the nets. As Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said: “They have a great vibe about them right now.”

New York Sports