In fall 2005, Gerald Henderson Jr., now a Charlotte Bobcat, then a star guard at Episcopal Academy, was deciding which college he should attend. A two-time Gatorade Pennsylvania player of the year who was named a second-team All-American by Parade magazine, played in the McDonald's All-American Game and was listed as the ninth-most sought-after recruit in the nation by the PrepStars recruiting handbook, Henderson had options. One of those options, Villanova University, was just six miles down the road from his high school. Henderson knew the school well. His sister had graduated from 'Nova. Jay Wright, the team's head coach, had three children who attended Episcopal with Henderson. And Dan Dougherty, his coach at EA, was a former 'Nova assistant. Henderson's father, also named Gerald, was friendly with Wright, and the 'Nova head coach had been recruiting the son of the former 76er since the time he first met Henderson at age 9.
Henderson choose Duke.
"We're a national school, our school plucks good people in different parts of the country," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski explained afterward, "I guess that's how the pluck occurred."
Coach K's statement rang a little too true. In Philly, the national title is almost assuredly coming from 'Nova or not coming at all. If the team couldn't keep the city's best players, like Coach K said, it really didn't seem like that chip was coming at all. And they couldn't. If that were to keep up, Villanova would remain a second-tier program, albeit one on a nice run. Historically, second-tier programs don't win championships — the last half-dozen title winners all have multiple championships, and the top four winningest programs have 40 percent of all NCAA championships. National championships go to national schools, and Villanova, which when Henderson committed had no players in its regular rotation from farther away than Maryland, seemed pretty local.
Fast-forward five years, and Villanova is the No. 2 team in the nation. It isn't a fluke, either; the Wildcats haven't fallen out of the top 10 all year, and are one of a small handful of teams that have a reasonable chance at winning it all this April in Indianapolis. They're better than Duke, the team they handily dispatched from the Big Dance last year. Jay Wright has assembled a team that can reasonably claim the best one through 11 in the history of the Big 5. If they don't make it back to the Final Four, it will be an upset.
Part of that success has been Wright's particularly strong pipelines in and around Washington, D.C., where Dante Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson have turned into Scottie Reynolds and Isaiah Armwood; and the New York/New Jersey area, where Allen Ray, Mike Nardi and Randy Foye have become Corey Fisher, Dom Cheek and Antonio Pena.
But 'Nova has been firmly entrenched in those areas for years, and they haven't ever been 19-1. So what changed?
For one thing, when Roman Catholic grad Maalik Wayns signed on to run the show for 'Nova, the 'Cats did bring in the area's best high school senior. For another, 'Nova has expanded its base. The team boasts players not only repping Northeast corridor railway stops, but also contributors from Virginia to West Africa, and next year their influence will expand again: James Bell, their top signed recruit, hails from Florida; Jayvaughn Pinkston is headed to 'Nova after de-committing from Tennessee; and they remain in the mix for Cory Joseph, a Canadian playing in Nevada. Suddenly those "Nova Nation" T-shirts that fill Radnor aren't so ironic.
Still, the player who might have been the sweetest get for Philadelphians may not be Wayns or Mouph Yarou, the African big man who shows the program's reach, or even Reynolds, who might end up the national player of the year. It may well be Taylor King, a 6-foot-6-inch transfer forward, originally from California.
King, like Henderson, was also named his state's player of the year, tabbed a second team All-American by Parade magazine and played in the McDonald's game. Like Henderson, King also opted for Duke. Unlike Henderson, King decided that national program just couldn't highlight his talents as well as another national program 400 miles north. I guess that's how the pluck occurred.
E. James Beale was tabbed a second-team All-American by this newspaper. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.