noun: a person or thing competing with another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field of activity.
verb: be or seem to be equal or comparable to.
Everyone loves a great rival in sports, especially college basketball. That team you love to hate. That fan base that is just so much fun to go back and forth with over which team is better. The fact that it stings so much worse when they get the upper hand. The victory being that much sweeter. A rivalry truly brings that extra something to a college basketball game.
There are plenty examples of the “traditional” rivalries throughout the sport. Duke vs. UNC. Ohio State vs. Michigan. Louisville vs. any type of rules committee. And of course, Villanova has some long standing rivalries of its own.
When I first came to campus, it was during a truly competitive time in the “Holy War” between Nova and St. Joe’s. And everyone already knew the instant rivalry that existed with Georgetown after the 1985 Championship. But flash forward to today and those traditional rivalries have lost a bit of steam. St. Joe’s isn’t the program it used to be, and Georgetown will always see Syracuse as their true rival, not Villanova.
So I decided to take a look at the last ten years and figure out who does Villanova truly still have the best rivalries with. The cut-off was that the teams faced each other at least three times in the past 10 years. They’d then be scored on a scale of 1 to 5 in the following categories:
- History: How many times have these team faced off and under what circumstances?
- Frequency: How many times have they played in the past 10 years?
- Competitiveness: What’s the record for the overall series and last 10 games?
- Fan Base: Level of interaction, intensity, how die-hard are they?
- Coach: How much does their coach move the needle, both for the good and the bad.
- Players: How memorable or impactful have individual players been on the rivalry.
- Other: Stadium, Mascot, Specific Games, Trivia, and anything else that factors in.
When the evaluations were all complete, I came up with twelve teams that were worth mentioning on this list as we re-evaluate who Villanova’s true rivals are in 2022.
These two teams didn’t make the cut for the Top 10, but Villanova has enough history here that they’re worth mentioning.
Temple makes the honorable mentions list for two main reasons. First, it’s hard to throw a rock in the Philadelphia area without hitting a Temple grad. It’s by far the largest student body and alumni base in the area, so you usually have someone from the opposing side to talk about the game with.
And of course, there’s the Big 5. Villanova is certainly on a stretch of owning the Philly based round robin, but it wasn’t all that long ago when the same could be said of Temple. In fact, in what may be a bit controversial if the teams don’t reschedule their canceled game, 2022 marks the year that Villanova officially passed Temple for sole ownership of most Big 5 Championships.
Is UNC really a rival? No... not unless we’re only counting NCAA Tournament games. These two schools have only ever faced off 16 times total, and only two of those have come in the past ten years. But if you look at what these games actually were, it starts to make sense why UNC is on this list:
- The 2005 Phantom Travel Game
- The 2009 Final Four
- The 2013 First Round Game (ok, this one didn’t matter as much)
- The 2016 National Championship
This will never get old...
The History, the Frequency, and the Coach (sorry Hubert) kept this one from making the Top 10 list, but it still felt like this team deserved to be acknowledged as one Nova fans love to see on the schedule/bracket.
Not Quite A Rivalry... But Not NOT A Rivalry
This next trio of teams falls in the bottom of our Top 10 for a variety of reasons. Whether it’s an older rivalry that’s lost its shine in recent years, or a non-traditional rival that just doesn’t get played enough, these teams are missing something for these to be true rivals.
Coming in at #10...
How the mighty have fallen. Deemed the “Holy War” as the battle between these two Catholic schools literally down the street from one another, St. Joe’s used to be #1 on this list. And for the “traditionalists” of you out there, the Hawks might still hold that spot.
The History and the Frequency are certainly still there. Even through COVID, St. Joe’s is the only non-Big East school that Villanova has played every season since 1996. The problem is that this series has become anything but competitive. Villanova is currently on a 10 game winning streak against St. Joe’s, and have won 16 of the past 18 matchups. You have to go all the way back to 2004 and the days of Jameer Nelson and Delonte West for the last time St. Joe’s won back-to-back games in this series. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been some close calls (2009 comes to mind), but it was still the Wildcats coming out on top.
And then there’s that mascot, the hawk. So much to hate about the hawk that it could have driven the 5 score in the Other category all by itself. “The Hawk Never Dies”... come on, we kill that thing every year. The constant flapping of the wings. Or should I say wing. Or should I say arm because this is one of the oldest and most needing of an update mascot uniforms out there right now. Man I hate that Hawk!
Of all the rivalries on this list, St. Joe’s is the one I’d most want to see return to form. The geography of a true cross-town rival is awesome for both fanbases, especially the student bodies that run into each other at the bars. The history is there to call on, as is the established structure the Big 5 brings. Of course now you get the added element of having their coach, Billy Lange, coming from the Jay Wright coaching tree. But this team needs to worry about finishing a season above .500, something they haven’t done in five seasons and aren’t on pace to do this year, before they can worry about playing at Villanova’s level again.
Next on the list at #9...
Kansas and Villanova have really only become a thing since Jay Wright came to the Main Line. The programs have only faced off nine times, and eight of those have come since 2004. But surprisingly, outside of the Big 5, Kansas has been Villanova’s most frequent non-conference opponent in the last ten years. In fact, they’ve played each other in five of the last eight seasons. The more interesting thing is that only two of those five came in the NCAA Tournament. Five of the eight meetings between Jay Wright and Bill Self have come in the regular season, so these coaches clearly like scheduling each other.
And for Villanova, why wouldn’t you want to face Kansas? A storied blue-blood program, a hall of fame coach, arguably the best arena in all of college basketball, a pipeline of 5-star players and NBA talent, and a die hard fan base. What more could you ask for? Oh, that’s right... beating them in the NCAA Tournament.
While the series is pretty close at 5-4 Villanova all-time, the Wildcats have been on an impressive streak against Kansas in recent years. They’ve won four of their last five games against Kansas, and that includes the Elite 8 win in 2016 and the Final Four victory in 2018. Both wins were in route to a Championship. Of course Kansas also beat Villanova as a part of their 2008 Championship run, so it’s been a bit of a good luck charm for the team that comes out on top.
While this still isn’t really a rivalry, having a perennial elite program to schedule frequently is a great thing for the Wildcats. I would love to see another home and home on the books with Kansas, especially since getting out to Fog Allen Field House is a must for any college basketball fan’s bucket list.
Finishing out this tier at #8...
St. John’s is the first team we’ve hit on this list that truly has a long history with the Wildcats. They’re one of just three teams that have played Villanova over 100 times, and the series is surprisingly close. Nova is 55-48 all-time against the Red Storm, and actually just 7-3 in their last 10 games.
If you’re wondering why I sound so surprised by those records, it’s because I feel like St. John’s always surprises you with how good they can be. Back in the early days of the Big East, a strong (even dominant) St. John’s team was no surprise. But today they seem to epitomize that scrappy team that has enough talent to beat anyone, but also lacks the consistency to be a major threat. They’re exactly the kind of team you don’t want to see in the Big East Tournament... on their home court. Well, maybe not ALWAYS...
The biggest drawback for this team seems to be that they haven’t yet found someone who can pull it all together as the head coach. St. John’s has always been able to recruit a star player or two, and you can’t ask for a better location than to play at MSG in the heart of New York City. But for some reason, St. John’s just can’t find the coach that makes it all click into an NCAA Tournament caliber team. Mike Anderson has finished just above .500 in each of his first two seasons, and looks to be headed for a similar result this year. If he can finally get this team over the hump and start winning games consistently, then you’ll see this rivalry start climbing the rankings as well.
On The Bubble
These next two teams have all the right pieces for a rivalry, but are just on the outside looking in. Both of these teams tied for #6 on the list.
Up First at #6...
You know that you have the right building blocks for a rivalry when an entire fanbase still refers to a blow-out three point performance as “Getting Creighton-ed”. The Bluejays are still a comparably new foe, joining the Big East in 2013 and having just over 20 games with the Wildcats. But boy have they made that short period of time memorable. Let’s just get this out of the way early, here’s Ethan Wragge and Dougie McBuckets...
So clearly these are some players that still haunt my nightmares, but this wasn’t just Creighton getting the best of Villanova one time. The Bluejays have split with the Wildcats in four of the past five seasons, and Villanova is just 6-4 against Creighton in their last 10 games.
Coach Greg McDermott has also proven that he’s good at more than just being the dad of the program’s best player. He’s consistently produced competitive, NCAA level teams that have also pushed Villanova. Two years ago Creighton was part of a three team tie with Villanova for the regular season title. Last year, Creighton matched Villanova as a Sweet 16 team in the NCAA tournament.
So why isn’t this team ranked higher as a rival? Part of it is that as great of a coach as McDermott is, he doesn’t show a ton of personality the way some other coaches on this list do. You know, the kind of personality the old Big East was built on. Speaking of Old Big East, Creighton is also relatively new as an opponent. Villanova has more games against teams like Niagra and Miami than they do against Creighton, but that will come with time. What won’t ever change is the geographical gap between these schools. Outside of the Big East Tournament, you’re going to be hard pressed to consistently be running into Creighton fans, and that’s an element that you really need to help drive a rivalry. Twitter helps, but it can’t all be about what happens online.
Also coming in at #6...
The Marquette vs. Villanova rivalry is probably the closest to getting the seal of approval of any we’ve covered so far. In fact, the sweep of Villanova in the regular season this year may have been just enough to get the job done. Not a lot of teams have been able to pull off big wins against the Wildcats over the past decade, but Marquette is one of them. In fact, in their last 10 meetings, Villanova is just 6-4.
The Shaka Smart hire has paid off instantly this season, and unlike what was mentioned about Coach McDermott at Creighton, Smart is equal parts personality and good coach. In fact, the only reason I don’t already have him ranked as a 5 in the coaching column is he hasn’t even finished his first season yet. But you sweep Villanova and you run out onto the court every time out like you’re a walk on trying to psych up your players, yeah, that’s going to get the attention of the opposing fan base.
So what’s holding this back from being in the top two tiers of Villanova rivalries? As we mentioned before, the geography doesn’t help. While Creighton is physically the furthest school from Villanova in the Big East, Marquette is the second furthest. You certainly have a greater draw of fan crossover with the Chicago market in play, but it’s not quite the same.
I think the bigger issue has been that while these teams have had big games against each other and big name players on the benches, their games haven’t really had big steaks. There are a few games that stand out like the Samuels breakout game or Marquette beating Nova when they were #1 in the country, but this isn’t a rivalry when these teams are playing for something. In the last decade, these teams have met in the Big East Tournament just twice. Villanova won those two games by a combined 56 points. Now that doesn’t mean that Marquette couldn’t turn around and pull off the three game sweep by beating the Wildcats in the Big East Tournament, a feat not achieved since UConn did it in 2002, Jay Wright’s first season on the Main Line. But this series needs that big game or event to put it over the edge.
Standing The Test Of Time
The next trio of teams tied for third place in our rankings. They all played Villanova this season, and they all have storied rivalry history with the Wildcats. While these are all established rivalries, I’d say they’re also the ones most vulnerable to falling down the list as their trajectory is either even or declining. But make no mistake about it, these are rivals.
Up first and tied for #3...
On a personal note, Syracuse will always be the team I love to hate most. While this rivalry has a storied past, some of the high points came in the ten or so years between when Jay Wright took over at Villanova until the book was closed on the “Old Big East”. More on that in a minute. But it just always seemed like these two schools were setting attendance records against each other and the fan bases LOVED every second of it. And again, on a personal note, all of that came to a boil on my birthday in 2013.
The fact that this isn’t even the only mid-2010’s OT thriller I can point to between these two teams just goes to show how great a rivalry it is. Or should I say... was. While this is without question a historic rivalry that meets all of our criteria for this exercise, these teams have only faced each other once in the past seven seasons. We all know the story, Syracuse was part of the exodus that brought around the end of the “Old Big East”. While the teams still played the next two seasons after their departure, the only recent game was the double digit drubbing Villanova gave Syracuse in the Garden this season.
This was, without question, one of Villanova’s best rivalries. But now we’re seeing it on the decline for a number of reasons beyond how frequently they play. First off, Villanova was never Syracuse’s biggest rival. That distinction belongs to another member of this list that we’ll get to shortly. Second, one of the driving figures for not only this rivalry, but the Syracuse program as a whole, is Jim Boeheim. Boeheim, the OG of whiney coaches, is coming to the end of his coaching career soon, and with him will go a lot of the ties to the epic games these teams shared. And lastly... they chose to leave for the ACC. If you’re wondering why the “Other” category didn’t get the full score of 5, that’s why.
A game with Syracuse will always conjure up fond memories of the past, and You Tube will forever let us revisit some of those great moments between these teams. But the next time I put one of these rivalry updates together, I just can’t imagine Syracuse will ever land as high as they land today. And frankly, that’s disappointing.
Next up at #3...
Before anyone accuses me of recency bias given the year that Providence is having, let’s just remember that this is the team Villanova has played the 2nd most in program history. The return game at the Pavilion will be the 106th meeting between these two programs.
And while Villanova has had the upper hand as of late, posting a 7-3 record in the last ten games, these teams always seem to play each other close. Six of those last ten games were decided by two possessions or less. In fact, 16 of their last 24 matchups have been decided by single digits or overtime. And that last overtime game was a CLASSIC!
Providence has had some great players too. They’re very much groomed in the same style as Nova guys, in that they’re good interviews, they’re focused, and they can be killers on the court. The fan base gets a little bit quiet in the down years, but they clearly have a passion for this team and when they’re on, they’re on.
And how can you not love Ed Cooley!? I actually got to meet Ed two weeks after that 2018 BET game at the Sweet 16 in Boston. Could not have been a nicer guy. Always a great ambassador of the Big East, a great and energetic personality that harkens back to the “Old Big East”, and has no problem making light of himself when he splits his pants on the sideline.
But all the things there are to like about this Providence team is probably what holds them back as a rival. There is a ton of mutual respect. They have a likeable coach. You have a good time visiting their arena. Sure the fan bases want the win, but there’s so much respect for the programs that these coaches have built that some of the tenacity and edge of the rivalry gets dulled down. At the end of the day what you really want is a team you can hate on no matter what the circumstances.
Speaking of which, also at #3...
Ah Georgetown, your suffering feeds my soul. Sure, I actually would love to see Georgetown become a better and more competitive team. But that’s only because it would make it so much more fun to beat them when they’re up. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m still on board with pointing and laughing while they’re down. I would expect them to do the same, mostly because we’ve seen it first hand.
While these teams have been playing each other since the 1950’s, everyone knows the game that solidified this rivalry. One of the greatest upsets in college basketball history, it’s the 1985 National Championship game.
In a way, these two programs have been like passing ships in the night over the past 20 years. In the 2000’s and early 2010’s, Georgetown was the perennial national power and consistently ranked in the Top 10. But right around the time of conference realignment, that flag bearer role for the Big East passed over to Villanova. As the Wildcats entered their greatest decade in program history, everything starting going south for Georgetown. And they’re still looking to recover.
But that’s the great thing about rivalries. It doesn’t matter how good one team is or how bad the other team is, you can throw the record books out the window. Don’t believe me? How about this weekend when Villanova was favored by the odds makers to win by 20, and yet with just over 8 minutes left in the 2nd half the Hoyas had cut it to a one possession game. How about earlier this year when a Georgetown team that hasn’t won a game since Mid-December was leading Villanova at the half. Or how about just last year when Villanova as the #1 overall seed went down in their first game of the Big East Tournament to eventual Champions and the #8 seed... Georgetown.
Now all of that said, Georgetown still isn’t in a good place. Patrick Ewing is not the answer the program was hoping he’d be, and the writing is on the wall for a coaching change. Who that will be and what they can bring to this rivalry has yet to be seen. But if Georgetown is going to get back up to #1 on this list, they simply must become relevant again in the Big East and nationally.
The Teams You Love To Hate
And so we come to our Top 2, and truly they were neck and neck. These rivalries are back and forth, never knowing who’s going to come out on top. The fan bases are equal parts passionate and obnoxious. The coaches are both exceptional on the court and yet oh so easy to despise off of it. These are without question the two best rivalries Villanova has going today.
Coming in at #2...
It’s hard to believe that a team that got all 4’s and 5’s in the rankings has room to grow, but UConn does. While they rank #2 by my points scale, I really view them as 1B... and they’re rising. The big knock here for a while was the gap when the program decided to go with what became the American Athletic Conference and follow football instead of stick with the Big East and basketball. But that ship has been righted now, and there’s so much that the Huskies bring to this rivalry.
First off, outside of Georgetown, Nova, and St. John’s this is the only other current Big East program that can claim they had a dominant run over the conference. UConn’s last big run as the top team in the conference ended somewhere in the mid-2000’s, but I can’t quite put a finger on when that might have been...
The competitiveness of this series looks great on paper, but is a little deceiving. The Wildcats hold the edge in overall record (37-31) and in the last ten games (6-4). But that’s still taking into account the former iteration of the Huskies. After a three year break in playing each other, Villanova is a perfect 5-0 since the rivalry resumed in 2018.
A year after the rivalry resumed is when a new staple of the rivalry entered, Dan Hurley. Hurley is exactly the kind of coach you want coaching your rival school. He’s loud, he isn’t afraid to stir things up in the media, in the stadium, or on a street corner. But he can also recruit, and he can coach. He’s a perfect fit for UConn, and once he can start to figure out how to take a game or two from Jay Wright it’ll bring the rivalry to an even higher level.
And of course, the UConn fans. It doesn’t matter what kind of year their team is having, this group will be out in force and talkin’ smack to anyone who will listen. They always bring it on game day, yet another reason why Tuesday’s matchup at the XL Center should be so exciting. It’s rare to find a rivalry so good that also has so much room to grow, but that’s exactly what Villanova and UConn have.
And finally, Villanova’s #1 Rival...
Villanova’s rivalry with Seton Hall has been nothing short of tremendous. There’s no other program that Villanova has played more, with 110 games against. They’ve faced off in 40 of the last 41 seasons, so the consistency is there. The campuses are less than a two hour drive from one another, and the fan bases are intermingled throughout New York, New Jersey, and Eastern Pennsylvania. When a Villanova-Seton Hall game is coming up, you know about it.
If there’s one knock on this rivalry, you could point to the record. Villanova has both traditionally and recently had the upper hand in these contests. The Wildcats are 73-37 all time against the Pirates, and in their last ten games the ‘Cats are 8-2, including five straight. But that can be a bit deceiving as to how close these games are. Nine of the last ten games have been decided by single digits. Eight of those were by six points or less, and four were by two or less. And it’s not just that these teams play each other close, they consistently have it all come down to the wire in HUGE games:
2016 Big East Championship
2017 Big East Tournament Semi-Final
2019 Big East Tournament Final
All epic finishes. All by one possession. All in the biggest arena in basketball. But you don’t get these great finishes without great players on both sides, and Seton Hall had the full spectrum of elite talents. You had the guys you loved to hate like Isaiah Whitehead and Sterling Gibbs (here’s a reminder of why you hate him). But you also had guys that you hated how much you loved like Angel Delgado and Myles Powell. Seeing Josh Hart and Delgado absolutely go at each other, only to follow that by a comforting embrace just speaks volumes to the players involved on both sides of this rivalry.
And of course, you can’t talk about this rivalry without talking about Kevin Willard. Willard has more than proven his chops on the court. He can recruit, he can game plan, and he’s gotten the better of Jay Wright on multiple occasions. But remember earlier when we said Jim Boeheim was the OG of being a whiney coach, Willard is Version 2.0. He never misses an opportunity for a passive aggressive statement about how much his team is put upon by the refs or by the league. How something is unfair for him or his players. On one hand, I respect trying to do everything you can to get an edge or improve your circumstances. But as a rival, it just plays so well into the hate-ability of the opposing leader that it simply can’t be overstated.
And there you have it, the Re-ranking of Villanova’s Top 10 rival schools in the year 2022. Did I leave anyone out? Would you change up the rankings? Be sure to share your favorite Villanova Rivalry moments in the comments below, and thanks for reading!