Wednesday, March 11, 2009


If the Nova Nation seemed to collectively exhale when the Wildcats beat the Providence Friars last Thursday, that was not the product of an overactive imagination. I was certainly relieved that the 'Cats posted a second consecutive strong outing on the heels of the Irish road trip. Muted, almost overlooked in the celebration of securing the #4 seed in the Big East Tournament and speculation over how well the team would be seeded in the NCAAs and where they might play their first round game was the hat trick turned that night. The team won 25 regular season games for the first time in 57 years, even as the Class of 2009 notched their 97th win, the highest total for a 4 year class and the team logged the program's 1,500th win since the program first kept records in 1921.

Not Since the Days of Arizin
While the men's team has won 25 or more games 7 times since 1938, 2009 was the first time since the 1951 season (and only the fourth time in the program's history) that the team won 25 games during the regular season. Those first three 25 win regular seasons occurred when legendary Alexander Severance (1936-61) was at the helm. The 1937-38 team, Severance's second team at Villanova, went 25-5 with wins over some familiar opponents (Rutgers, Providence, Temple...) and losses to a few unexpected ones (St. Francis of NY, Fordham, St. John's...). Severance would post two more 25 win regular seasons during his tenure, the second coming in Paul Arizin's last season on the Mainline (1949-50) and the last came a year later, with the 1950-51 team that saw another legendary forward, Larry Hennessy, log his first season with the Wildcat varsity. Arizin's 1949-50 team went 25-4 but, oddly, did not compete in a post season tournament. Arizin was, however honored as an All-American and Player of the Year, as he scored 735 points, the most scored by a Wildcat in a single season (that single season record would stand for only 3 campaigns -- Bob Schafer would smash it by scoring 836 points in the 1953-54 season, a mark that stands to this day). That 1950-51 team by the way was invited to two post season tournaments (the NCAAs, and a short-lived affair named the National Campus Tournament), and participated in both -- but failed (in 2 tries) to win another game. That team, having gone 25-5 in the regular season, finished with a 25-7 record.

In the 57 years since that 1951 team, four more Wildcat teams, those from 1984-85 (the National Championship team), 1994-95, 1995-96 and 2005-06, won 25 or more games. Each of those squads logged win number 25 during the post season. The record for most wins (28) is held by the 2005-06 team that featured seniors Jason Fraser, Randy Foye and Allan Ray, along with juniors Mike Nardi and Bump Sheridan and sophomore Kyle Lowry. And a trio freshmen named Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham.

97 and Counting
The Class of 2009 broke their tie with the Class of 2008 with that last win. With up to three games in the Big East Tournament and another six in the NCAAs, this class could be the first in the program's history to win 100 games during their four years. The caveat however, is that the tournaments are one-and-done affairs. Winning therefore, especially in the BET, increases the probabilities the team can do it without a run to the Final Four (...of course a run to the Final Four would be nice, wouldn't it?). Gross wins are certainly one way to measure what each class has contributed. Since 1983 (I believe the 1st class allowed to play freshmen on the varsity squad) 7 classes have graduated with 90 or more wins (1983, 1985, 1986, 1997, 2007, 2008 and 2009). Note three of those 7 occurred over the last 3 seasons, another hint at how well the staff has recruited and developed talent on the Mainline. Classes earlier than 1983 however did not have the benefit of an additional season of play. How to compare teams and classes from different decades (and rules books...)? Winning percentages might provide another, effective way to evaluate classes.

I looked at classes going back to Al Severance's first years as coach (1935-36), and considered classes from 1938 and later. The first thing that jumped out was the winning percentages for a number of those pre World War II teams. From the 1937-38 season through the 1941-42 season, every team won at least 80% of their games. 55-10 may not seem terribly impressive, but consider that the Class of 1941 (their record) won 84.6% of their games. Their predecessors, the Class of 1940 won 84.8% of their games. That record has not been bested, though there are several single seasons where the team has won better than 80% of their games (the squad from 1942-43 won 90.5% of their games, compiling a 19-2 record) under Coaches Severance, Kraft and Wright. The last class to have a career mark of 80% or better was the Class of 1951; which benefited from 2 years of Pitchin' Paul and one of Larry Hennessy. Coach Kraft's teams from the 1963-64, 1964-65 and 1968-69 all won more than 80% of their games (the George Leftwich, Jim Washington, Johnny Jones, Wali Jones, Bill & Bob Melchionni Eras which spanned the 1960s...), but the Class of 1971 (Howard Porter, Clarence Smith, John Fox) compiled the best winning percentage over the course of their careers, 78.6% with a record of 66-18. In the era of four year players, the best class for nearly all of the period was, ironically, the first -- the Class of 1983 which compiled a 72.2 winning percentage on a 91-35 record. The Class of 2008 eclipsed that mark with a 72.4 winning percentage on a 96-36 record. The Class of 2009 incidentally, has won 74.0% of their games so far.

The First One Thousand Five Hundred
The Wildcats began the season ranked #28 on the Top 50 Wins list. They are currently #27, having inched past Missouri State from the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bear's season, no doubt disappointing at 11-20, ended with a 1st round loss in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, at the hands of Wichita State. The key for gross number of wins (winning records, excellence aside...) is sheer longevity -- Villanova is only 1 of 3 among those 50 teams that has logged less than 90 seasons of D1 ball. And only 1 of 11 teams that has logged less than 100 seasons of D1 ball. 1500 wins over 88 seasons means Nova has averaged 16.8 wins per season, good for a tie at #7 with Sun Belt Conference member Western Kentucky (another team with less than 100 seasons of D1 ball). Three of Villanova's Big 5 mates, Temple (currently ranked #6 with 1708 wins), Penn (#9, 1657) and St. Joseph's (#34, 1476) share Top 50 ranking with Villanova. Big East teams dominate this list -- the conference has 10 members (Syracuse, St. John's, Notre Dame, Louisville, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Villanova, Connecticut, Georgetown and Marquette) listed among the Top 50. At 20% of the list they outweigh the next nearest conference (the PAC 10 with 7 members or 14% of the list). With 62.5% of the conference represented, they nearly match the PAC 10's 70% representation.

If number of wins says something about longevity, winning percentage should say something about quality. In that list, Villanova with a winning percentage of 63.9%, currently ranks #20 (sandwiched between fellow Big 5 mates Temple and Penn -- the only other Big 5 teams ranked). Using this measure the Big East truly stands out among the conferences, as the conference places 12 schools among the Top 50 programs. To the previously listed 10, add DePaul and Providence. That means that the Big East 75% of the conference's members are ranked in the Top 50, and that 24% of the list is made up of Big East schools. The nearest conference, the SEC, places 4 teams (8% of the list, 33.3% of the conference) on the list.

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