A contingent of Philadelphia sports fans have always had a complicated relationship with Villanova athletics and in particular the Villanova men’s basketball program. Whether it be the university’s suburban location, the fact that some Philadelphia area residents view the school as somewhat of an elitist institution, or simply the rivalry that has developed over decades of battling both on the court and on the recruiting trail, some Philadelphia fans are slow to embrace the Wildcats. If there ever was a time for the city to put allegiances and perceptions aside, it is now, as Villanova looks ahead to its Final Four clash with Oklahoma on Saturday.
The Philadelphia sports landscape has been a barren wasteland for the better part of two years, if not longer. The glory of the Phillies' 2008 World Series title has faded as the team toils through a rebuild. The Chip Kelly experiment was an epic failure and has left the Eagles shrouded in uncertainty as they look to chart a new course. The Sixers have taken tanking to unprecedented levels and are arguably no closer to relevancy than they were when the process started three years ago. And the Flyers are clinging to the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as they look to end Philadelphia’s two-year postseason drought.
Now, Villanova has offered the Philadelphia fan a beacon of hope, a respite from the mediocrity and irrelevancy that has enveloped everything sports-related in this sports-crazy town. The Wildcats have reached college basketball’s grandest stage, and they have done it playing beautiful basketball.
Villanova is the kind of team that Philadelphia is supposed to love. The players are talented, but they aren’t the most talented. They play defense. They are unselfish, scrappy and tough. They work together and get contributions from virtually the entire roster.
The Wildcats cruised to victories in their first three tournament games by playing incredibly efficient offensive basketball, running their offense to perfection as they knocked down open shot after open shot, leaving opposing defenses shaking their heads. It was a striking display of execution.
Those three wins earned them a date with mighty Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, a team that was on a 17-game winning streak. Kansas was supposed to have an answer for the Wildcats, matching their guard play and their experience while having a bit more in individual talent.
Villanova’s hot shooting came back down to earth a bit, so instead the Cats ratcheted up the defensive pressure. They stifled Perry Ellis, holding him to just four points after he averaged 23 per game in Kansas’ first three tournament games. Nova forced 16 turnovers and made every offensive possession a struggle for the Jayhawks. The Wildcats put relentless pressure on the ball, dove on the floor for loose balls and gutted out a thrilling 64-59 victory.
In addition to possessing all the attributes that Philadelphia fans claim to love, Villanova’s success raises the profile of the Big 5 and Philadelphia basketball. The team is adding another chapter to the long tradition of basketball in this city. While the success will certainly aid Jay Wright in his recruiting, the other city schools can use it as well. Nova is a guaranteed high-profile game on the schedule each year, an opportunity for recruits to compete with and showcase their skills against a top program. It is proof that a program from the area, even at a relatively small school, can compete at the highest level. And it gets Philadelphia basketball talked about on the national level, which is never a bad thing.
So to the hesitant Philadelphia sports fans, no one is asking you to forsake your alma mater or the team you’ve rooted for since childhood. No one is asking you to switch allegiances. But this Villanova team is doing good things for basketball in our city, bringing attention and adding to our basketball lore. These players are playing the kind of basketball that any Philadelphian would be proud of, and they are doing it at a time when we desperately need something positive and exciting in our sports world. Villanova has been an absolute joy to watch in this tournament. It’s time to embrace this team. They deserve it, and so do you.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.