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Villanova wins without star power

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- If successful college basketball teams were built like rivets or tinker toys, pieced together in a factory or constructed with the aid of detailed instructions, the pieces needed for assembly would include at least one of the following:

• One-and-done player
• Future NBA draft pick

• All-American or player of the year candidate

In other words, Villanova would be a reject.

Because the Wildcats are everything that college basketball teams are not supposed to be. They are old. They have two seniors who actually play, and not just as convenient replacement players for an otherwise void senior day.

They do not have a one-and-done candidate on their roster.

Or a two-and-done.

Or a three-and-done.

There's not one player through which the team runs. Their top six scorers average within five points of one another.

Nobody's name appears on a single player of the year list, All-American first team or NBA draft board.

Villanova is Virginia without the suffocating defense, Wisconsin without Frank Kaminsky, Wichita State in a more established power conference.

"We're not sexy,'' coach Jay Wright said.

No, not unless you think Edith Bunker was a looker, and let's just say there aren't a lot of people who do in college basketball circles.

As the Wildcats, the Big East's regular-season champs, open the conference tournament on Thursday afternoon, there will be more people looking for reasons to knock them than praise them.

Their record (29-2) and RPI (5) put them in line for a No. 1 seed but their sheer Edith-ness could make them a top seed almost as underwhelming and unpopular as Gonzaga was in 2013.

"We're not good, that's what people think. Overrated,'' senior JayVaughn Pinkston said. "I'm not sure why it is. Maybe it's because we're not like anybody else.''

Well, maybe that's not the only reason. The Wildcats have helped create some of their own doubters. A year ago, they also won the Big East regular season title ... and then lost to Seton Hall in their first Big East Tournament game. They also rolled up a rather impressive 28-4 record, good enough to merit a 2-seed from the Selection Committee. They never made it out of the first weekend, losing to Connecticut in the second round.

The roster isn't all that different.

Fool me once ...

"We've won, I don't even know how many games this year, so people should respect us, but I'm not going to worry if they do or not,'' Ryan Arcidiacono said. "We have to gain their trust and respect through the Big East and the NCAA tournament.''

That's really the big question: Can they? Can this nonconformist team compete in a world in which they don't have any of the traditional ingredients for success?

Wright believes they can. Actually it goes deeper than belief. This is almost a principle with him, because here's the real shocker: This is exactly the kind of a team Wright intended to build.

Yes, given the chance to create Heidi Klum, Wright crafted himself Edith Bunker.

And if the coach has his druthers, there will be a lot more years of Edith to come.

"I understand the term throwback, but I look at it as we have, as opposed to throwbacks, we have enlightened players,'' Wright says. "They really love the process of working hard to become a pro, of being part of a winner, of being in college, getting their degree as opposed to just coming to college and getting to the NBA as fast as they can.''

Six years ago, Wright was singing a different tune. Hot off Villanova's Final Four run, he found himself walking in that rarefied air of recruits, the ones that get classes ranked and teams noticed.

He didn't even have to call them. They were calling him. So he took a few.

Over the next three years, Villanova proceeded to get bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a 2-seed, lose its final six games (including an opening game as a 9-seed) and finish 13-19.

It would be unfair to single out individual players as the problem. This was a collective implosion, one spearheaded by the head coach's recruiting decisions.

Besides it wasn't so much the players. They were who they were. Wright was the one who had changed.

He built Villanova on the backbone of an incredibly gifted first class of Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser. All four graduated from Villanova, including Foye, who could have left after his junior season.

Two years later he added Kyle Lowry, a rough-around-the-edges Philly kid whom everyone swore would make Wright miserable.

Instead Lowry now ranks as probably the most critical recruit in Wright's career, a player with enough edge to give Villanova an attitude, but a fiercely loyal and unexpectedly agreeable kid who fit right in.

Lowry left after his sophomore season with Wright's blessing and gratitude because -- while he no longer needed college -- Lowry never checked out until it was officially time to go.

That's where Wright messed up, post-2009.

"We wanted to make sure if we had guys that were first-round picks and were going to leave early and it was a good choice, that was fine,'' he said. "But we wanted guys who felt bad about leaving college so early because they were happy there.''

Enter Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard II and Dylan Ennis (a transfer from Rice), followed by Daniel Ochefu and Arcidiacono, followed by Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart, followed by Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth.

All very good players, all with professional basketball aspirations, some even thinking maybe they were destined for short college tenures.

Yet all perfectly content.

There are no egos, and if there are, walk-on Patrick Farrell helps to check them. Earlier this week, for example, when the Big East awards came out, littered with Villanova players, each winner got a text from Farrell.

"He was like, 'That's great, but you still let guys blow by you on defense,'' said Arcidiacono, named to the first team.

That's how they play, too -- egoless. No one cares who scores. So far this season, Pinkston (in Brooklyn against Michigan), Hilliard (against Butler) and Arcidiacono (against Creighton) have all played buzzer-beating hero.

In a recent game against Providence, Hilliard had five points through the first 23 minutes and then 14 in the next four.

That's part of Villanova's problem, in terms of perception. Ask 20 people outside of Philly, and they probably wouldn't know Hilliard from Hart.

The Wildcats are as close to anonymous as players on a top-five team can be, sort of faceless, interchangeable cogs.

"We got a lot of dogs,'' Pinkston said, meaning the junkyard kind.

Except that's also why it works.

No clutter.

"We've seen guys that worried about things other than winning,'' Hilliard said. "We've been through that. We know it can hurt you. We know we've got to win to get what we want, as a team and individually. One takes care of the other.''

Consequently, you have one senior, Hilliard, a good player but not eye-popping in high school who instead has blossomed into the Wildcats' leading scorer in four seasons.

And another, Pinkston, whose scoring and shooting have dropped from last season to this ... and he couldn't care less. Instead, he has found joy in being able to guard opposing point guards on the pick-and-roll.

That's a kid who was once a McDonald's All-American.

"It's maturity,'' Pinkston said. "Just maturity.''

The big test is twofold. Can Wright perpetuate this offbeat system? Finding players who aren't in a hurry to leave college might be more difficult than landing the prized recruit who can change a program. Getting to the NBA has become more than just a goal; it's a mantra preached from the time a boy is handed his first Fisher-Price hoop.

And if Villanova has another magical run, the one-and-done type of players will be interested again.

Can Wright stick to his guns, err on the side of development, as he says?

The more pertinent question: Can Villanova win? Not just regular-season games and first-weekend NCAA games? Can the Wildcats make a deep run that a 29-2 record would portend?

Can Edith Bunker shine in a world filled with Heidi Klum?