April 04, 2016

Are the 2016 Villanova Wildcats the best Philly-produced team ever?

As a longtime critic of college basketball – and all college sports, for that matter – I am astonished by what Villanova is doing right now. During this magical run, they are illustrating for all of our pro teams what true greatness really is. Hallelujah.

Over the past seven years since the Phillies parade, is any Philadelphia sports fan not haunted by the memory of how 2011 ended, with Ryan Howard howling in pain after the final out? Or that phantom goal that aborted the Flyers’ 2010 playoff miracle? Or the nauseating way the Andy Reid and Chip Kelly eras ended for the Eagles? Or anything involving the Sixers?

The only point of comparison to Villanova’s obliteration of Oklahoma on Saturday night is the first half of Kelly’s debut game as Eagles coach when his team punched Washington in the face with the whole football world watching. Of course, we all know now that the Birds would never function that effectively again, nor would Kelly.

These Wildcats are better than any team we have encountered since the 2008 champion Phillies, and maybe the best team Philadelphia has produced since … forever?

They have a coach who throttles opponents and then apologizes for the insult. They have a senior point guard (Ryan Arcidiacono) who looks like he just escaped from the movie Hoosiers. They’ve got a junior swingman (Josh Hart) who seems to never miss a shot. Their defense smothers the best offenses in the nation. Their offense rolls past the best defenses.

It is my misfortune to be writing this before Villanova completes the journey tonight against North Carolina, but even if something goes horribly wrong – like the 2011 Phils or the 2010 Flyers – the historic 95-51 humiliation of Oklahoma will represent what we all seek as sports fans – perfection.

Anyone watching that game knows that Oklahoma had very little to do with the outcome. After stalking their prey for the first few minutes, the Wildcats did to them what they had done to Iowa one week earlier. They overwhelmed the Sooners with a focus and energy that is rare to find even among elite teams.

The only disparaging words aimed at Villanova since this amazing run began three weeks ago have come from fans who discount the Wildcats’ status as a true Philadelphia team. They argue that the campus is 11.7 miles outside the city, that the school is too uppity for the blue-collar core of our city, blah, blah, blah.

These dolts obviously are not watching the games, not observing the work ethic of the players nor the unfailing integrity of coach Jay Wright. This is a team that no one with a functioning mind or a beating heart can disrespect. These Wildcats are not just located near Philadelphia; they are Philadelphia.

That’s why, after they complete the mission with another spectacular victory tonight, they will receive the parade they so richly deserve, and the admiration of fans like me who usually have no interest in college sports.

These 2016 Wildcats transcend college biases or city limits. They are special, unique, extraordinary. Embrace this team, Philadelphia. If history is our guide, it will be a long time before we experience anything like this again.

***

As amazing as Villanova’s charge to the NCAA final has been, even more shocking is the rebirth of the Flyers – both in the standings and in the hearts of their fans. This playoff run is at least a year ahead of schedule, isn’t it?

Flyers fans have been in hibernation for at least six years, since the improbable end of the 2010 season – when they eliminated the Rangers in a final-game shootout and then kept defying logic with amazing comebacks in the playoffs. The Ilya Bryzgalov debacle, and others like it, turned that zeal into apathy.

But not anymore. The arrival of Shayne Gostisbehere, the revival of captain Claude Giroux and the emergence of Steve Mason have brought back all of that interest and more. The fact that just about every game in the past few weeks has been decided in the final minutes, amid much angst, has only enhanced the passion.

And now it is public that chairman Ed Snider has grown too ill to occupy his familiar box above the ice, adding another element to the drama. Snider, 83, has not won a Stanley Cup in 41 years, but he has won the admiration of his players like few owners before him. His competitive spirit has become a rallying point for the team.

Can the Flyers do it? Well, that depends on what “it” is. Yes, they can make the playoffs. Despite Sunday night’s loss in Pittsburgh, they are talented enough to squeeze into the postseason. However, they are definitely no match for Washington or the upper tier of the far superior Western Conference.

As a bottom-line fan, it is rare for me to look beyond the current season, but I have no problem doing it with these Flyers. This year they have found a good coach (Dave Hakstol), a young superstar (the Ghost), a clutch goalie (Mason) and the core of a winning team.

Even more important is that they have claimed a relevancy that they haven’t had, with any consistency, for decades. Fans are smart enough to know the difference between a one-year wonder like 2010 and a genuine Cup contender. Their interest right now will not wane the way it has in the recent past.

When this season ends, Flyers fans already realize it will not really be an ending at all – just the beginning of a great new era for their hockey team.

***

The Phillies have an entirely new brain trust, but the same old conservative style. When will the worst team in baseball acknowledge the past four years of failure and truly change its ways?

All you really need to know about the decision-making process of new president Andy MacPhail and GM Matt Klentak is that they still have Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz on their roster. There is no good reason for the presence of these two relics of a long-gone era other than the absurd contracts they signed with ex-GM Ruben Amaro Jr.

It is ironic that Dallas Green, an 81-year-old advisor, has publicly and privately called for the end of the Howard era, but the far-younger people he’s advising have ignored him. Even if Howard, 36, were to hit 30 home runs this season, he will not be a Phillie next season. So what’s the point of keeping him now?

Ruiz is one-and-done, too. He batted .211 last season and was hurt for half the year. He’s 37, slow, brittle and overpaid at $8.5 million. Between him and Howard, the Phillies – thanks to Amaro – will be paying $33.5 million for two dusty souvenirs of the 2008 championship.

Equally worrisome is the team’s odd decision to keep its best player in the minor leagues, J.P. Crawford, at Double-A Reading. Crawford spent most of last season there and was expected to start the new year at Triple-A Lehigh. Joe Jordan, the head of player development, said he was just “following the plan.”

Whose plan? Jordan is a rare carryover from the Amaro era, and it appears he is still following his boss’s failed philosophies. Remember, Amaro and Jordan waited half a season too long to promote Ken Giles, cost Cesar Hernandez at least a year of his big-league career, and have whiffed consistently on developing the kids.

When Andy MacPhail took over control of the Phillies at the end of last season, he promised a new perspective for an archaic franchise.

So far, unfortunately, there is very little evidence of actual change.

And finally …

• Less than a week after Chip Kelly said he needed to make no changes to the roster of his new 49ers offense, GM Trent Baalke is on the verge of trading the coach’s starting quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Uh oh. How long now before Kelly demands control of personnel in San Francisco?

• As analysts ramp up their defense of the putrid tenure of Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., reminders of his stunning ineptitude continue to foil the effort. Last weekend, pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez was released. Amaro originally offered $48 million to this Cuban bust. Amaro was an awful GM. Case closed.

• The Taney Dragons are all but forgotten two years after their run in the Little League World Series, but they have left a dubious legacy. When this fourth-place team received a parade in Center City, it lowered the bar for the most precious of civic gifts. Yes, Villanova deserves a parade. So does every champion. Those kids did NOT deserve a parade.

• Here’s a sad prediction on the end of the Sixers season: The Knicks will lie down and give the Sixers their 10th win of the season Friday at the Wells Fargo Center. These pitiful Sixers, a team filled with overrated, injury-prone young players, will not tie the worst record in NBA history. They will even fail at that.

With all due respect to Al Morganti, with whom I have worked for over three decades, Brett Brown should NOT be dismissed at the end of this miserable Sixers season. I’ll repeat what callers have advised Al to do for many, many years on our WIP radio show: Stick to hockey.