Villanova is a better basketball program than Michigan State. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. The Wildcats have more program wins and national titles than the Spartans.
College basketball is officially back tonight, as its early-season crown jewel returns to Madison Square Garden, and four of the sport’s biggest brands will take the court — Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and Michigan State. However, a quick look at the numbers will leave you wondering why three of the four winningest programs in the history of the sport play in an event where the fourth team can’t even crack the Top 25 when it comes to all-time program wins.
When Tom Izzo’s team takes the court tonight they will be an underdog in their matchup against Kansas, which isn’t surprising given their history in this event. Since the Champions Classic started in 2011, MSU has been the only program that’s been unranked for the event, and it’s happened twice — 2011 and this season. The annual four-team event travels the country as each program plays one of the other three opponents every three years.
Duke leads the way with a 6-4 record in the Champions Classic, while Kentucky and Kansas are both split at 5-5. The Spartans are the only program with a losing record at 4-6.
Since 1939, the four teams in this event have tallied 57 Final Four appearances — Michigan State has the lowest with 10. During the same time frame, the four teams have combined to win 18 national championships. Guess who’s last in that category, too? Michigan State. They only have two — with their most recent win coming 21 long years — and counting — ago.
If you’re playing in an event that’s reserved for “champions” and you’re at the bottom of the list when it comes to all the tangible things that make someone a “champion,” then is this really the place for you?
Exhibit A: Their three NCAA Tournament championships are one more than Michigan State’s and it ties them with Kansas.
Exhibit B: They’ve been really good lately, winning two titles since 2016.
Exhibit C: Their coach is in the Hall of Fame, too.
The tricky thing about the Champions Classic is that every team represents a different conference. Duke holds down the ACC, which has won 15 titles, and Kentucky represents the SEC, which boasts 11. Things get weird for Kansas, given that their conference is always changing. But, even still, they’re “Kansas.” The man that invented basketball used to be their coach. The Big Ten has 10 titles, but has only won four since 1980. The Pac 12 holds 15, but the numbers are skewed given that UCLA has 11 of them and the conference hasn’t won one since Arizona in 1997. And then there’s the Big East. A conference that was a goliath in the ’80s and ’90s and has won six titles since 2000 and three since 2013.
The Big East deserves a seat at the table, and Villanova has proved to be a worthy representative, especially since the Wildcats have won as many national titles in the last six years as Michigan State has in the last 42.
Gonzaga: An outstanding program that has turned itself from a mid-major in the Pacific Northwest to a powerhouse that’s the preseason No. 1 team for the second year in a row. But, you can’t put a team in the Champions Classic that’s never won it all.
North Carolina: Since this is a one-conference bid event, organizers tipped their caps when they chose Duke over UNC. Between their two annual matchups and sometimes running into each other in the ACC Tournament, having Duke and UNC potentially play four times in one season is just too much. And as deserving as the Tar Heels are of being in this event, they also play in the CBS Sports Classic which features Kentucky and UCLA, so it’s not like they don’t ever get to face the other bluebloods.
Michigan: Juwan Howard has the Wolverines rolling, but they haven’t been able to do enough to reach that next level — yet. The Fab Five era was still the best run in Michigan’s history. And even though Michigan has played in two national title games since 2013, they haven’t cut down the nets since 1989.
Indiana: The Bobby Knight era has been over for a long time. And while the Hoosiers are ingrained in the DNA of college basketball, it’s been a long time since they last won a title, all the way back in 1987. They also haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2016.
UCLA: The Bruins were a missed shot away from potentially playing for, and winning, a national title last year after Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs’ buzzer-beater sent them packing in the Final Four after an overtime thriller. But the program hasn’t won a title since 1995 – meaning that nobody on their roster was even born yet.
Florida: If this were 10 years ago, then the Gators would have a great resume to submit for this event as they were coming off winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 and made a Final Four in 2014. Unfortunately, the second round has been where Florida has exited the tournament most often lately outside of an Elite Eight appearance in 2017. They also play in the SEC and Kentucky has that conference bid on lock for the Champions Classic.
UConn: One could make the argument that UConn is getting totally ignored in this conversation as they have four national championships — which trumps Villanova and Kansas. However, things haven’t gone well for the Huskies since their last title in 2014. There was that ugly fallout from the firing of Kevin Ollie, their seven-year run in the American Athletic Conference, and a second-round exit in the 2016 tournament is their best postseason mark since then.
The Champions Classic could use some new blood and added intrigue. Between John Calipari and Kentucky’s massive fanbase, they’ll never be boring. Kansas has always, and will always, stand the test of time. And with Jon Scheyer taking over for Coach K after this season, Duke will be even more intriguing, as people will tune in to see if Scheyer fails or succeeds. Michigan State’s claim to fame during Izzo’s tenure has always been that they turn it on in March. But what value does that bring to an event in November when a program is notorious for getting off to slow starts?
It’s time ESPN called the Villanova Wildcats.