December 2, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

Virginia And Villanova: A Clash of Modern Bluebloods

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When the Wahoos and Wildcats face off on the big stage at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19, you can argue we will witness the best two current college basketball programs battling for early-season supremacy.

UCLA. Kentucky. Kansas. Duke. North Carolina. Indiana.

These programs are often referred to as college basketball’s “bluebloods.” But over the past half decade, it’s tough for any of them to compare to the performance of Villanova and Virginia.

Comparing Résumés For ‘Nova, UVa, Other Big Programs

Over the past five seasons, Villanova, ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25, has gone 153-30 (.836) with two NCAA championships, four Big East regular-season titles (three outright), and three Big East tournament crowns.

Virginia, tabbed No. 4 in the preseason, has posted a 141-32 mark (.815) with one NCAA championship, two ACC regular-season titles (one outright), and one ACC tournament crown.

Looking at the traditional bluebloods for comparison, you can throw out UCLA and Indiana right away, as both have fallen on hard times and can’t hold a candle to the modern-day programs in Philadelphia and Charlottesville.

Kentucky’s record is 140-39 (.782) with zero NCAA championships, three SEC regular-season titles (two outright), and three SEC tournament crowns. You could say the Wildcats have dominated the SEC more than UVa has dominated the ACC, but UK lacks that NCAA title and hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2015.

Kansas has gone 149-31 (.828) with zero NCAA championships, four Big 12 regular-season titles (all outright), and two Big 12 tournament crowns. The Jayhawks went to one Final Four in 2018. Their Big 12 domination is on par with or better than Villanova and Virginia in their conferences, but they do not have that Big Dance crown jewel. It’s worth noting Kansas was the No. 1 team in the country last season when the postseason tournaments were canceled. Out of every team in this article, the Jayhawks were having the best season.

Duke’s mark is 139-40 (.777) with zero NCAA championships, zero ACC regular-seasons titles, and two ACC tournament crowns. The Blue Devils have performed better in the conference tournament than UVa has, but they have not dominated as much as the Cavaliers in the regular season. They also have not been to the Final Four since getting there in 2015, the last time they won the title.

North Carolina’s record is 135-51 (.726) with one NCAA championship, three ACC regular-season titles (two outright), and one ACC tournament crown. The Tar Heels have been to the national final twice in the past five years, the only team other than Villanova on this list that can say that. And they of course lost to those same Wildcats in that runner-up visit. I have to say, I was a little bit surprised at how well UNC’s résumé matched up with Virginia’s the past five seasons. Two NCAA title game appearances is obviously better than UVa’s one, and North Carolina has dominated other ACC squads almost as much as the ‘Hoos have — except last season. Last year cannot be ignored, when the Tar Heels went 14-19 and 6-14 in the conference.

Since they share a league, we also can look at how Duke and UNC have fared against Virginia.

In addition to UNC’s dismal record in 2019-20, this is the other reason I feel like giving the edge to Virginia over North Carolina when assessing the past half decade: the head-to-head matchup. UNC falls short here, with the ‘Hoos having taken seven of the past nine meetings and six straight. Duke still has UVa’s number a bit, having won four of the past six, though the Cavaliers have captured two of four now.

All of this research is just to prove the point that while some in the college basketball world may overlook a Virginia-Villanova game, it should be considered on par with the usual amalgamation of Duke-Kentucky-Kansas-Michigan State we seem to see every year. Seriously, aren’t those four teams playing some combo of each other on the opening weekend basically every season? That would probably be the case again this year were it not for the pandemic.

And if you want to throw MSU into the blueblood mix, the Spartans’ line over the past five seasons looks like this: 133-42 (.760) with zero NCAA championships, three Big Ten regular-season titles (one outright), and two Big Ten tournament crowns. They went to the Final Four in 2019.

A Budding Rivalry?

Not only can Virginia and Villanova lay claim to being modern bluebloods, but if the Cavaliers and ‘Cats play another tight game, you also can say it may be one of the better rivalries the sport has to offer in 2020-21. It would still fly under the radar when compared to classic series such as Duke-UNC, Louisville-Kentucky, Xavier-Cincinnati, Michigan-Michigan State, etc., and for good reason, but it is up there with the best of them if you look at just the quality of the matchup.

The pair of games the schools played in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 campaigns were two of the more exciting UVa contests of those seasons and still hold up pretty well a few years later.

Coincidentally, the first meeting was on Dec. 19, too, in 2015. The No. 8 Wahoos hosted the No. 12 Wildcats in a game that sits No. 8 on my list of the top 10 Virginia basketball games I have attended. One of the things that made this game exciting was the realization that it actually was a pretty significant matchup on the national landscape. It felt like Virginia had made it to the big stage. It wasn’t just a one-off event or trying to pull the upset, the ‘Hoos were here to stay.

Another interesting aspect of this game for the Cavaliers was its high-scoring nature, which of course made it an oddity in the Tony Bennett era. Virginia led 33-29 at the break and by as many as 13 points in the second half before Villanova cut the margin to 3 on multiple occasions late. But the ‘Hoos held on for an 86-75 victory.

The Wildcats were led by Kris Jenkins’ 23 points, and Daniel Ochefu and Josh Hart finished with 13 and 12 apiece, respectively. Ryan Arcidiacono, who hit almost 40% of his 3-pointers that year, was held to 8 points and didn’t make any long-distance shots. Villanova did make 10 of 26, though.

The Cavaliers were paced by 22 points from Anthony Gill, 20 from Malcolm Brogdon, 19 from London Perrantes, and 11 from Darius Thompson. Brogdon, Perrantes, and Thompson all made multiple 3s, and Devon Hall hit one as the Cavaliers went 8 for 12 from beyond the arc.

Both teams shot free throws well, but the ‘Hoos made 26 of 30, while the Wildcats made 13 of 17. Another disparity came on the glass, where Virginia outrebounded Villanova 31-19.

Though they lost this game, the Wildcats went on to win the NCAA championship that year, defeating UNC in a classic, with Arcidiacono passing to Jenkins for the game-winning 3 at the buzzer.

Virginia and Villanova last met Jan. 29, 2017, at Wells Fargo Center in Philly with the No. 1 ‘Cats as the defending national champions and the ‘Hoos ranked No. 12. Though it was not as high-scoring an affair as the year before and the Cavaliers lost, it may have been the more exciting game. This time, Villanova completed the comeback in a 61-59 victory. UVa led by 13 with 13:48 left and by 10 with about nine minutes left. It was part of a rash of giving up leads and losing that season.

Villanova got 15 points each from Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson, while Hart put up 12. Jenkins only scored 8 points, but that included two 3s, and Bridges and Hart made multiple treys as well as the Wildcats went 7 of 16.

For Virginia, this was the coming out party for Ty Jerome, who was a true freshman. He came off the bench to notch 15 points, including three treys, and he will always be remembered for his shake and bake move to get to the rim and tie the contest with 17 seconds left. Marial Shayok put up 14 points, and Isaiah Wilkins had 12. Virginia went 6 for 18 from deep, with Shayok, Hall, and Thompson each netting one.

Donte DiVincenzo only scored 3 points, but he had the biggest shot of the day when he tipped in Hart’s miss with 0.1 seconds left for the victory.

This season’s game promises to be another good one, with both teams in the top five and returning plenty of talent and experience. Chances are the Wahoos and Wildcats will put on a show in the Big Apple.

Respect For Success And Doing Things The Right Way

Since that pair of nail-biting matchups, Virginia fans have been clamoring for another. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wildcats fans have been doing the same. Real recognizes real, and the fans know these are two of the premiere teams in the sport. This season, UVa and ‘Nova faithful are getting their wish (fingers crossed), and the game is taking place in New York under the bright lights and on the big stage of MSG.

Virginia and Villanova are not only awesome on the court, they are achieving success doing things the right way. You don’t hear a peep of negativity coming out of or about Jay Wright’s or Bennett’s programs, which I think elevates the rivalry. It also helps that pure basketball people respect the heck out of Bennett and Wright, and the ladies love their looks.

Along those lines, I guess you could say the series lacks a villain. For college basketball fans outside of these fan bases, I’m not sure if they are automatically drawn to this matchup loving or hating one of the teams. Though that may not be good for attracting a national audience, it lends credence to the theory that Virginia and Villanova are vying to be the best of the “good and great” programs.

It’s tough to despise either one, although admittedly of course, UVa does have some detractors because of its style of play. But if the Cavaliers and ‘Cats continue to play in high-profile games that come down to the wire, future contests will receive plenty of attention. Like I said, Virginia and Villanova should receive points based solely on the quality of their matchups.

The Ultimate Setting

From games on their home floors to a hyped matchup at MSG, there’s only one other place for these teams to play each other: the Big Dance.

Could you imagine if these two teams met each other in a later-round NCAA tournament contest, even the title game? If Wright and Bennett stay in Philly and Charlottesville for a while and continue winning at a high level, it may be inevitable. It almost already happened in 2016 when ‘Nova won the title. Virginia got to the Elite Eight that year, and we all remember what happened. So it probably should’ve happened.

If it does eventually play out that way, the schools’ faithful can rest assured knowing that two of modern college basketball’s best programs — in every way — would be battling not for early-season bragging rights, but for the sport’s ultimate crown.

Fans of other programs would have to bow down and admit the same.