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You’d have to go all the way back to 2013 to find a season when Villanova didn’t spend the majority of the year ranked in the AP Top 25. In fact, 2019 was the first time in the last five seasons that the Wildcats didn’t spend the entire year ranked.
But that wasn’t always the case, and there have certainly been stretches when Jay Wright’s crew haven’t been among the country’s ranked teams. Still, Villanova has proved time and time again that whether they’re ranked or not they’re a dangerous opponent for the nation’s elite.
Today, we’re ranking the Top 10 Unranked Upsets of the Jay Wright era. These are games from 2002 to 2019 in which the Wildcats defeated a rank team while being unranked themselves. All in all it’s happened 18 times: 11 in the Big East, 6 in the Non-Conference, and once in the NCAA Tournament. Before we get into the Top 10, here are the other eight that didn’t make the cut in chronological order:
Opponent: #23 UConn | Date: Feb. 15, 2003 | Final Score: 79-70
This was Jay Wright’s first win over a ranked Big East team, coming in just his second season as head coach.
Opponent: #20 Providence | Date: Mar. 11, 2004 | Final Score: 66-63
Villanova entered the 2004 Big East Tournament as the 11-Seed, but upset Seton Hall in the first round. Then they pulled out a huge upset over the Friars, which not only moved them into their first BET Semi-Final under Wright but also qualified them for the NIT Tournament.
Opponent: #21 West Virginia | Date: Jan. 5, 2005 | Final Score: 84-46
A nearly 40 point stomping of the Mountaineers was just a glimpse at what was to come later that month... and later in our Top 10.
Opponent: #20 Notre Dame | Date: Jan. 17, 2007 | Final Score: 102-87
Scottie Reynolds put up 27 in this contest, his new high water mark for his freshman season. He’d go on to break it later that year when he scored 40 at UConn.
Opponent: #21 Texas | Date: Jan. 20, 2007 | Final Score: 76-69
Just three days after beating ranked #20 Notre Dame, Villanova hosted the eventual National Player of the Year, Kevin Durant, and the #21 Texas Longhorns. Let’s just say they weren’t very gracious hosts
Opponent: #13 UConn | Date: Feb. 23, 2008 | Final Score: 67-65
Scottie Reynolds had a clutch 18 points, while Corey Stokes got hot from deep to add another 18. The Wildcats ended a 10 game winning streak by UConn, and the win helped Villanova sneak into the NCAA Tournament as a 12 Seed.
Opponent: #17 Marquette | Date: Feb. 23, 2013 | Final Score: 60-56
Lost amid the higher profile upsets of the 2013 season is Villanova’s home win over Marquette. They may not have been a Top 5 team, but the win kept Villanova in the NCAA Tournament conversation despite other uncharacteristic losses.
Opponent: #24 St. John’s | Date: Jan. 8, 2019 | Final Score: 76-71
Villanova was down by double digits in this one, but Phil Booth refused to let his team lose on its home floor again. He came up with clutch three after clutch three and helped the Wildcats claw all the way back to a victory over the newly ranked Johnnies.
10) “Big Game” Jermaine’s Breakout
Opponent: #10 Marquette | Date: Feb. 27, 2019 | Final Score: 67-61
Villanova came into this game battling with Marquette for the Big East Regular Season Championship. Unfortunately, Nova had just fallen out of the rankings following a three game skid. If they lost this game, Marquette would clinch at least a share of the Big East Title.
And so on Senior night, on a team that was led in scoring by two seniors and captained by two seniors, it was a sophomore that had the game of his life when the Wildcats needed it the most.
Jermaine Samuels put up a game high 29 points, even more than Markus Howard who would be named the Big East Player of the Year. Whether he was pounding the ball down Marquette’s throat in the paint or unleashing a “rain” of terror from behind the arc, the Golden Eagles simply had no answer for Samuels. He appropriately finished the game with the ball in his hands, pumping his fist to celebrate the victory.
Villanova would go on to win the Big East Regular Season Championship outright as the victory sent Marquette into a tailspin. Wojo’s crew lost six of their final seven games, including their final four regular season games and a first round upset in the NCAA Tournament.
9) The First Victim In The “Season Of Upsets”
Opponent: #5 Louisville | Date; Jan. 22, 2013 | Final Score: 73-64
The 2012-2013 season hadn’t exactly started all that great for the Villanova Wildcats. Coming off the first losing season under head coach Jay Wright, Nova was on a three game losing streak that had plummeted their record to an unimpressive 11-7. And to make matters worse, #5 Louisville was coming to town.
It wasn’t just that Louisville was good (they were) or that they were considered a contender for the National Championship that year (they won it). The Cardinals had just lost at home to Syracuse, and were looking to bounce back against the struggling Wildcats. Unfortunately for them, Villanova would come out hot and finish even hotter.
This was truly a team effort as five different Wildcats finished with double digit scoring. Freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono led the way with 15 points, and after the game the students stormed the court to celebrate the upset. It was something they’d get used to in 2013.
8) Champions Of Atlantis, Part Two
Opponent: #23 Iowa | Date: Nov. 30, 2013 | Final Score: 88-83 OT
Villanova already had one upset in their pocket heading into the Championship game against #23 Iowa. But the Hawkeyes weren’t going to take their opponent lightly, controlling the game for most of the first half and taking a 9 point lead into the break.
But senior leader James Bell was not going to be denied the championship he and his teammates had come to win. He led the Wildcat comeback, finishing the game with a team high 20 points. It was also the future leaders for Villanova that contributed to the overtime victory, as Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, and Kris Jenkins combined for 40 points in the Championship game.
This victory started a streak that’s still going to this day. Villanova has won six consecutive early season tournaments since 2013, including two Battle 4 Atlantis titles. In the 2019-2020 season, the Wildcats will travel to South Carolina and look to extend their streak to seven Championships at the Myrtle Beach Invitational.
7) Gary Buchanan and The Great Alaska Shootout
Opponent: #9 Michigan State | Date: Nov. 30, 2002 | Final Score: 81-73
Less than two weeks before the Wildcats faced Tom Izzo and the #9 Michigan State Spartans, Villanova’s leading scorer was having arthroscopic knee surgery. Gary Buchanan had been working hard to improve his body as well as his game all offseason, and the surgery to clean up his knee was the final piece of the puzzle.
But trusting the knee after surgery was a bit more difficult than anticipated. In the opening round of the 2002 Great Alaska Shootout against Loyola Marymount, Buchanan scored a below average 13 points and admitted that he was worried about the knee. But when facing off against a Top 10 team in Michigan State, the senior leader “just let all that go out the window.”
Buchanan put up a game high 29 points and kept finding ways to keep Villanova ahead every time the Spartans tried to climb back into the game. A big part of that was his three point shooting, as he hit 6 of 11 shots from behind the arc. Fellow senior Ricky Wright added 18 points, including crucial buckets down the stretch that clinched the victory for the Wildcats.
This was Jay Wright’s first victory over a Top 10 team, and it came over a Hall of Fame coach in Tom Izzo. Villanova would end up losing in the finals to Charleston, and would get knocked out in the first round of the NIT later that year. But it was the start of something building at Villanova with a talented freshman class that included Randy Foye, Allen Ray, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser.
6) Beating Georgetown To Reach The NCAA Tournament
Opponent: #5 Georgetown | Date: Mar. 6, 2013 | Final Score: 67-57
Despite never being ranked themselves, Villanova hadn’t lost to a ranked opponent at home all season. In fact, they had already taken down two Top 5 teams. But now it was March, and along with those big wins the Wildcats had also picked up some head scratching losses. While they were on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, they were on the bubble none the less.
And so on the last day of the regular season, Villanova had one more chance to sure up its NCAA Tournament chances. It was #5 Georgetown in the only game the two were going to play all season, and it was at the Wells Fargo Center. The Hoyas were on an 11-game win streak and could clinch a share of the Big East Title with a win over the Wildcats, who had just lost by one at Seton Hall and in overtime at Pitt. But as Jay Wright’s crew had proved time and time again, this team could beat anybody on any night.
Sophomores JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard were the driving forces in this game. They started by hitting shots early and attacking off the dribble, but the real key to the victory was their performance at the free throw line. The pair combined to shoot 18 of 23 from the penalty stripe, clinching the game down the stretch. In fact, Villanova made 30 free throws while Georgetown only attempted 8 (and missed four of them).
The Wildcats would end up making the tournament as a 9 Seed, but fell in a first round matchup with North Carolina. Despite the early exit, this season was a decided turning point in the trajectory of Villanova Basketball. It was the start of what’s become the greatest era in program history.
5) Villanova Headlines The Turmoil In Tampa
Opponent: #22 Clemson | Date: Mar. 21, 2008 | Final Score: 75-69
With just over five minutes remaining in the first half, 5 Seed Clemson hit their 6th three of the game. The rout was on as they had just doubled up 12 Seed Villanova to take an 18-36 lead in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Clemson was not just getting hot from beyond the arc, but they were coming at the Wildcats with a relentless pressure defense. Nova cut the lead down to twelve at the half, but Clemson just looked like the tougher team as the teams went to the locker rooms.
Luckily for the Wildcats though, there are two halves.
Villanova opened the second half with a 7-0 run in the first two minutes, and with just under twelve minutes to play Scottie Reynolds hit a three to give the Wildcats their first lead of the game at 50-49. Reynolds would lead the way with 21 points, and Corey Fisher would add 17 to help Villanova outscore Clemson by 18 in the second half and advance to the second round.
Tampa may have well as been named “Upset City” that weekend, as two 12 seeds and two 13 seeds all advanced out of the first round. By the end of the weekend, Villanova had defeated Sienna to advance to the Sweet 16. They would fall to eventual national champion Kansas, but the team had already accomplished more than any of the experts had given them a chance to achieve.
4) Champions of Atlantis, Part One
Opponent: #2 Kansas | Date: Nov. 29, 2013 | Final Score: 63-59
We already talked about how great Villanova’s Championship game upset of Iowa was in 2013’s Battle 4 Atlantis, but that wasn’t even the biggest upset of the tournament. Because just one day earlier, Villanova had taken down one of the best teams in the country.
Kansas took the lead early in this one, but Villanova controlled a small lead for much of the second half. Eventually, Kansas found a way back into the game and took a one point lead with just over 30 seconds remaining. To that point, Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono had yet to make a shot at 0-5 from the floor. But that wasn’t going to keep him from taking open looks, and with just 10 seconds remaining he nailed a three pointer that would go on to be the game winner.
Darrun Hilliard and Dylan Ennis led the Wildcats with 14 points each, with Ennis going a perfect 3 for 3 from deep. As we’ve already covered, Villanova went on to win the tournament. The dual upsets would vault Nova into the rankings, where they’d spend a school record 94 consecutive weeks ranked in the AP Poll Top 25.
3) Jay Wright’s First Unranked Upset
Before his first big recruiting class, before being a regular in the NCAA Tournament, and before cementing his path to the Hall of Fame, Jay Wright was just a first year college coach with a 12-8 team. That was before Steve Lavin and the Bruins came onto campus for the second half of a home and home with UCLA.
This one came down to the final seconds. The teams would trade one point leads until Brooks Sales hit two free throws to put Nova up for good. As the clock ticked down to zero and the fans at the Pavilion stormed the court, Jay Wright kept his cool, calm composure. It was his first win over a ranked team, but you would have thought it was old hat as he calmly walked across the court to shake Lavin’s hand.
It was the first big win at Villanova for Wright, and it was best encapsulated by the announcers on the broadcast. “Jay Wright is on the way to building a terrific program here at Villanova.”
2) The Beatdown in the Blizzard
The Blizzard of 2005 dropped nearly a foot and a half of snow on the city of Philadelphia. People were advised to stay indoors and certainly shouldn’t try to drive. But that wasn’t going to stop the droves of Villanova fans (mostly students) who showed up early before the snow hit to watch their Wildcats take on the #2 team in the country.
This team was different. They may have been unranked but they already had beaten a ranked West Virginia team by 38 points that season. Despite losing back-to-back games to Georgetown and #9 Boston College by a collective three points, Villanova fans still believed this team could take down anyone in the country. The rest of college basketball was about to see it first hand.
The Wildcats caught fire from deep, with Curtis Sumpter and Allan Ray combining to shoot 9 of 13 from behind the arc. Sumpter was a mismatch nightmare for Kansas, and put up 25 points. Allan Ray continued to be a walking bucket as he had a game high 27. The only low point for the Wildcats was when Kyle Lowry was caught giving a cheap shot gut punch to a Kansas player and was ejected. Still, this win vaulted Villanova into the rankings and eventually Jay Wright’s first NCAA Tournament with the Wildcats.
For those of us that were there though, just as memorable as the game might have been the drive back to Villanova’s campus. A TON of snow had already fallen during the game, and so it was a crawl all the way back up Route 76. But that essentially turned into a Villanova victory parade, and despite the freezing cold fans had windows open and some were even out on the highway walking next to the cars and sharing some refreshments. It was a party that went all the way from South Philly to the Main Line, and is still one of my favorite memories of Villanova Basketball.
1) The Golden Age Has Arrived
Just four days earlier, Villanova had taken down #5 Louisville. But now #3 Syracuse, a team that had already beaten both Villanova and Louisville, was coming to town. The Orange Men were the top team in the Big East, and they weren’t showing any signs of slowing down. But something special was happening in Philadelphia that season, and this game was about to be the spark to set off a new era in Villanova Basketball.
It was an incredible game, with an incredible crowd. Everyone was living and dying with every bucket, and the players seemed to be doing the same. While Villanova had led for most of the first half, Syracuse came out strong in the second half and turned the game into a back and forth battle. With just over a minute remaining, Syracuse led by three points.
With less than 30 seconds remaining, Ryan Arcidiacono raised up for a three from the corner... and missed. But luckily, Syracuse’s star guard Michael Carter-Williams missed a free throw on the other end, giving Villanova life. James Bell came down and missed a three that clanked off the rim, but right into the hands of Mouphtaou Yarou. He found Arcidiacono in the corner again and this time the young guard’s shot hit home, tying the score with under three seconds to play and sending the game to overtime. In OT, Villanova would eventually pull away to complete back-to-back Top 5 upsets in the same week.
For me, this game was the beginning of the golden era that Villanova Basketball is currently in. Yes they had upset Louisville one game earlier, but back-to-back wins like this was something that really made the country start to talk about Villanova in a different light. And for the fan base, this is when the potential they had seen in 2006 and 2009 was finally back on the Main Line. Even before the game was won, the Arcidiacono three to send the game to overtime became a defining moment for this team. It may not be the most memorable shot Arcidiacono was ever linked to, but it certainly is the one that set Villanova on the path to greatness.