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Villanova Is Basically Starting From Scratch

The Villanova Wildcats produced one of the most dominant seasons in NCAA history last year, going 36-4, including a complete dissection of a strong Michigan team to win the championship game. The Wildcats scorched teams on offense, ranking No. 1 in the country in offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage, according to college basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy. This helped them beat the Wolverines by 17 points.

But the team that is defending that title — currently ranked eighth heading into Wednesday’s rematch with Michigan — is hardly recognizable eight months later, as four of coach Jay Wright’s stalwarts from a season ago are now in the NBA.

The departure of Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges — a pair of juniors left over from the 2015-16 national title-winning team — has left a crater in Wright’s lineup. Along with the exits of Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, the outgoing quartet combined for a whopping 26.1 win shares last season1.

It’s typical for reigning national champions to lose a large chunk of their talent the following season, especially in the one-and-done era. And while the Wildcats may not have lost the most win shares of past champions, the immediate exodus of talent will have huge consequences for their prospects to repeat as champions this season. This is perhaps a long way of saying winning back-to-back titles, or even coming close, has become very difficult in college basketball — and for good reason.

Villanova’s departures have left a sizable hole

Total win share of players who left NCAA championship teams the season after their championship, since the beginning of college basketball’s one-and-done era

Departing players
Season Champion Number Win Share
2017-18 Villanova 7 26.1
2016-17 North Carolina 7 21.8
2015-16 Villanova 5 11.4
2014-15 Duke 4 25.5
2013-14 Connecticut 7 19.8
2012-13 Louisville 4 12.3
2011-12 Kentucky 7 36.3
2010-11 Connecticut 5 13.4
2009-10 Duke 6 20.7
2008-09 North Carolina 9 26.6
2007-08 Kansas 9 35.3
2006-07 Florida 10 33.7
2005-06 Florida 2 1.5

Source: Sports-reference.com

The Florida Gators, in 2006 and 2007, and the Duke Blue Devils, in 1991 and 1992, are the only programs in the past 45 years to repeat as NCAA men’s basketball champions, after John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins capped off seven consecutive titles. Back then, Wooden had the luxury of coaching future NBA Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar2 and Bill Walton for three seasons, something that is largely unheard of in today’s game.3 Likewise, Mike Krzyzewski was able to develop chemistry with college stars like Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, and Bobby Hurley — all of whom stayed a full four years.

And when it comes to the one-and-done era, the Gators are an anomaly themselves, as Donovan managed to persuade the likes of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer to remain in Gainesville for their junior years before winning another title and then moving to lengthy careers in the NBA.

For most champions, winning a national title usually means saying goodbye to their best talent — the nation’s top freshman are forced to use college as a stopgap for a year before jumping to the NBA, and upperclassmen often ride their team’s success to test the NBA’s waters. For his part, Wright did well to keep Brunson and Bridges in Philadelphia for another two years after winning their first title, which built a bridge to that second championship.

But the team that cut down the nets last year has been gutted, particularly on the offensive side. Among the top four players of each champion since 2006, when the one-and-done began, Villanova’s departed quartet leave the greatest offensive hole for a reigning champion, a hole that might be too great to overcome.

Villanova fans might choose to view things in a more optimistic way, instead thinking themselves as fortunate that they only lost four players, especially seeing the Wildcats of Kentucky lose an unimaginable six players after their championship in 2012 and then stumbling into the NIT a year later. Nova’s relatively tiny rotation last year — Villanova ranked 302nd in total bench usage, according to KenPom — could be a blessing in disguise as the likes of Eric Paschall and Phil Booth are still available to make the leap to the top of the college ranks and potentially beyond.

Still, Villanova fans thinking of a repeat might want to curb the enthusiasm.

Any team not named Duke, Kentucky or Kansas — whose recruiting prowess means a revolving door of NBA-bound super freshmen — has struggled to be relevant again immediately. If you look past these three blue bloods, Louisville is the only reigning champion to reach the Sweet 16 the year following championship in the last dozen years. It’s why the 2010 North Carolina Tar Heels couldn’t even make the NCAA Tournament after winning the whole thing a year earlier. It’s why last year’s Tar Heels were swept aside in the second round of the tournament by Texas A&M.

Back-to-back has become a pipe dream

How men’s NCAA champions have fared the following season in college basketball’s one-and-done era

Season after championship …
Season Champion Wins Losses Postseason
2017-18 Villanova 2
0 ?
2016-17 North Carolina 26
11
2nd Round
2015-16 Villanova 32
4
2nd Round
2014-15 Duke 25
11
Sweet 16
2013-14 Connecticut 20
15
NIT
2012-13 Louisville 31
6
Sweet 16
2011-12 Kentucky 21
12
NIT
2010-11 Connecticut 20
14
2nd Round
2009-10 Duke 32
5
Sweet 16
2008-09 North Carolina 20
17
NIT
2007-08 Kansas 27
8
Sweet 16
2006-07 Florida 24
12
NIT
2005-06 Florida 35
5
Champion

The NCAA Tournament’s First Four was known as the First Round until the 2015 tournament.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

Joining senior Paschall, who’s being touted as a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and redshirt senior Booth, who netted 23 in his season debut last week, is the 12th best recruiting class, according to ESPN. Five-star recruit Jahvon Quinerly is considered one of the best freshman point guards in the nation, and four-star forwards Cole Swider and Brendan Slater both also have a place on the ESPN 100. Whenever this is enough for Wright’s team to make waves again in March is a question for the season ahead. However, with currently the fifth-best ranked recruiting class for next year, Wildcats fans may have another title-winning team in the not-too-distant future, maybe just not in the immediate one.

CORRECTION (Nov. 14, 2018, 3:30 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the Florida Gators were the only team in 45 years to repeat as national champions in men’s college basketball. Duke also did, winning back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992.

Footnotes

  1. Win shares represent the number of estimated wins that a player produces for their team

  2. Then Lew Alcindor

  3. Ironically, those two weren’t allowed to play their freshmen years because of a bygone rule, skipping what likely would be the only year they would play at UCLA today.

Daniel is a former sports intern with FiveThirtyEight and is now a data journalist at the Guardian in the UK. He’s an alumnus of the University of Missouri.

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