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Villanova seeks to capitalize — again — on a basketball crown

Villanova Wildcats forward Kris Jenkins exults after the 77-74 win on April 4 over North Carolina in the championship game of the 2016 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  (Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)

The Rev. Peter M. Donohue wants to make one thing clear: He is not much of a basketball fan. Sure, he might go to a Los Angeles Lakers game when he’s on the West Coast. But only if his staff tells him it’s necessary for building alumni or donor relationships.

Donohue is, however, a Villanova basketball fan.

It’s hard not to be one when you are the president of the university, and you go to every home game, and you have a very visible seat near half court, and the students have a set cheer when they spot Father Peter. And it’s impossible not to be one when your Wildcats have just won a national championship and given the Catholic university in the suburbs of Philadelphia priceless publicity.

“People watched this basketball game around the world,” Donohue told The Washington Post this week during a swing through the nation’s capital. “It was incredible.”

Donohue said an alumnus in Micronesia had kept him apprised of fans in the western Pacific islands who watched Villanova beat North Carolina, 77-74, with a buzzer-beater in the thrilling finale of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on April 4.

Now three Micronesians are applying to Villanova, Donohue said.

“This event, we couldn’t have paid for,” he said. “This was the icing on the cake with the cherry right smack in the middle.”

A deep run in the NCAA tournament can provide a big boost to the national profile of some universities. Think Georgetown in the 1980s, George Mason in 2006, Virginia Commonwealth in 2011, Butler in 2010 and 2011.

Tiny Butler’s NCAA tournament success provided a bounce beyond basketball

Now it’s Villanova’s turn to capitalize — again. Donohue said the university’s NCAA tournament victory in 1985 (beating the Georgetown Hoyas in a shocker) gave the school national prominence. “People didn’t know who we were,” Donohue said. “We were a very regional school.” This one could lift the school further.

Founded in 1842, Villanova is affiliated with the Order of St. Augustine. It has 10,700 students, including 7,100 undergraduates. U.S. News and World Report ranks it the top regional university for the northern region of the country, above Providence College and Bentley University. It has long been classified as a master’s university, indicating a level of research activity that is a notch below doctoral universities.

But this year, Villanova was reclassified as a doctoral institution, which will move it to the U.S. News list of “national universities.” That will enable the school to be compared to other high-profile Catholic universities on the same list, such as Fordham, Boston College, Notre Dame and, yes, Georgetown.

In new sorting of colleges, Villanova gains PhD strength

Donohue, 64, president of Villanova for nearly 10 years, is a scholar of musical theater and an alumnus of the school (Class of 1975). He earned a doctorate in 1992 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a dissertation on the influence of Japanese kabuki on western directors.

He seems well aware that there is plenty of theater in basketball, marketing and rankings. But he said Villanova takes academics very seriously. Its varsity sports teams, including basketball, have a 100 percent graduation rate, he said. “For us, they are students first and athletes second,” Donohue said.

“The bedrock at Villanova, from its very foundation, has been to give students a liberal arts education,” he said. The school aims to develop critical thinking and writing skills and balance faith and reason “in the Catholic intellectual tradition,” he said. Freshmen read St. Augustine’s “Confessions” and take a required seminar called “Augustine and Culture.” Courses in theology, philosophy and ethics are also part of the school’s required core curriculum.

The student-faculty ratio at Villanova is 12 to 1. Tuition and fees, plus room and board, total about $60,000. But about half of Villanova’s students pay less than that because they receive grants or scholarships. Eleven percent of undergraduates qualify for need-based federal Pell grants.

Villanova has, in years past, drawn the large majority of its students from the Northeast corridor. Now it recruits nationally, Donohue said. He doesn’t expect the school will be using its wait list this year because admitted students are putting down enrollment deposits at a rapid clip.

Top colleges put thousands of applicants in wait-list limbo, and some won’t admit any

Donohue and the basketball team participated in a parade in Philadelphia this month. He’s looking forward to joining them in a White House visit at some point soon.