Villanova's championship win over Michigan affirms Wildcats' culture, status as modern day blueblood
SAN ANTONIO – This was the snapshot of Villanova family, one national champion to another.
As Donte DiVincenzo put the stake deeper into Michigan’s heart with each 3-pointer during his historic night, he turned and winked to someone in the stands. Josh Hart, was sitting there, one of the heroes of 2016.
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This was the snapshot of Villanova fire.
It was still early Monday night, eight minutes left in the first half, but things were not going well for the Wildcats. Missed shots, a five-point Michigan lead. And there at the foul line during a halt in play, a man angrily slapped the basketball with his hands. Again. Again. Again.
“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” Jalen Brunson shouted with each pound, to no one in particular, but to everyone in a white uniform. It was not all that surprising what happened next.
This was the snapshot of Villanova might.
The final scoreboard said 79-62. Six NCAA tournament games, six victories by double figures, an average winning margin of 16 points, cutting a swath through the field. A Tour de March that ended on the second day of April.
“That team right there could win a lot of Final Fours,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after it was over. “Not just the 2018 one.”
The college basketball season started with unpleasant headlines, uncertainty and woe. It ended Monday night with Villanova the national champion, and absolutely nothing left to question about that.
Villanova, with Jay Wright, the coach nearly everybody admires and no one accuses. A man born on Christmas Eve, who found a passion in teaching basketball, nearly washed out at Hofstra, and now owns as many national championships as Dean Smith.
Villanova, with Brunson, the star who stayed in school for a chance to get a degree and have One More Shining Moment, and accomplished both. “This is what I wanted,” he said, holding the championship trophy. “And this is what I got.”
Villanova, with every answer this month, and Monday night he was named Donte DiVincenzo. He came off the bench to hit five of seven 3-pointers and score 31 points — the most in a championship game in 29 years, and the most ever by a non-starter. “He’s a killer,” teammate Mikal Bridges said.
Villanova, the determined juggernaut that led the nation in scoring and shattered the Final Four record for 3-pointers, even as all the voices in the locker room talked about nothing but defense.
Villanova, a team renowned for its toughness, its teamwork, its work ethic, its attention to the gritty details of winning, rather than the fleeting joy of individual celebrity.
“When you come to Villanova,” Wright said, “you come because you want to be a part of something bigger than yourself.”
Or as Brunson said, “Not everyone is fit for it . . . We try to be the nastiest on the court, but off the court, we try to be genuine people as much as we can.”
The issues of college basketball have not gone away. But a sport must be doing something right to produce such a champion. A team that was once ranked No. 1 and conquered as a No. 1 seed could still stand on the championship podium as a feel-good story.
Except to Michigan, of course. The thing is, John Beilein’s program has qualities very similar. What it does not have is the trophy.
Turns out, nobody was going to pry that away from the Villanova Wildcats. They were too good, too balanced, too resolute. What was it freshman Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree said about Villanova? “Even our managers are really focused.”
And so the Wildcats completed their tournament rampage, a powerful endorsement of a team with unyielding purpose. “Nothing changes,” Brunson said of the Villanova way of playing. “No matter what game we’re in.”
This is now a golden Villanova era under Wright, with two national championships in three years.
"I really cannot put this into words. I just love my brothers. I love my team. I love Nova nation." - Jalen Brunson after becoming the fifth National Player of the Year in the last 30 years to win the honor and the title#LetsMarchNova #NationalChampionship pic.twitter.com/4yxZAJZOwp— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 3, 2018
The same Jay Wright who started his head coaching career with three losing seasons at Hofstra and feared for his job. “I would be lying to you if I didn’t say I wasn’t talking to my wife about plans about what else we could do,” he said the other day. “It wasn’t pretty at that point.”
The same Jay Wright who faced the press with unblinking candor on March 21, 2015. The 33-2, No. 1 seed Wildcats had just crashed in the second round against North Carolina State — continuing a conspicuous habit for Villanova; rolling through the regular season and then vanishing too early.
“I know we have to answer to the fact that we did not get to the second weekend again,” he said that day. “We’ve got to own that and live with it. But it won’t define us.”
Three years later, Villanova is a two-time champion under Wright, and he is the toast of the profession. Hofstra, North Carolina State, the Division III start as an assistant — all light years ago.
“When we got to the 2009 Final Four and we lost the first game, I thought that was my shot,” he said. “I was happy, I was fine. Then when we won the title and I thought, all right, I’m happy now and now I just want to make sure the guys graduate and the team stays competitive. This is out of my comprehension.”
He did not see this coming at midseason. These Wildcats were magical on offense from the start, but the defense was wobbly enough to make Wright nervous about the future.
“No matter how many years you’re in coaching, you continue to learn from your players,” he said. “This group taught me to never give in on the ability to improve defensively.”
Oh, they could still dazzle on offense. What they did against Kansas with their 3-point barrage had left the Final Four agog. But all that offense is dessert on the Villanova plate. The meat and potatoes are defense. “You can’t get out to a lead if they’re scoring, too,” Omari Spellman noted.
To think that way requires a certain approach. Persistence, and also patience. That patience word is very much at the core of Villanova basketball. It is not the place to come for instant gratification, be it playing time as freshmen, or a fast lane to the NBA. Wright wouldn’t mind one-and-done talent. He’s not much in the market for one-and-done mentality, though.
“So many young men are in a hurry to get out of the best years of their life. That doesn’t make sense sometimes,” Beilein said. “And Villanova has done a great job of getting the right kid who probably values that.”
That has created a culture of the torch being passed from one wave of veteran Wildcats to another, all of them understanding what Villanova is about. “We play for the ones that came before us,” Brunson said Monday night. “They set the tone. It’s on us to keep the tradition.”
That tradition was living and breathing and in the house Monday night.
There was Hart talking about the sheer force this team had shown: “It’s got to be one of the best teams that won a national championship, to win it the way they did it. They set history. They took this one, they weren’t given it."
And Kris Jenkins, whose 3-pointer beat North Carolina two years ago – nothing like that needed Monday night – on what impressed him most about DiVincenzo: “I think his toughness. That’s a gutty performance on a big stage, with the world watching. The world is watching him dominate like he did."
Or Ryan Arcidiacono, the leader of that '16 team, on the program's culture: “Coach Wright brings high-character guys who play well and buy into the system. Kids could go other places and score a lot of points, but they buy into championships and have moments like this.”
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DiVincenzo being the latest example — a sophomore who has grown into someone special enough to come off the bench and be named Most Outstanding Player in a Final Four. Two years ago, he remembers the frustration of being a redshirt and unable to play at the Final Four. “I was on the bench in a suit,” he said. But he had done his part. Remember how the Wildcats shut down Oklahoma All-American Buddy Hield in the semifnals? DiVincenzo played the role of Hield in practice.
Arcidiacono remembers him as “a freak athlete, raw talent, could light it up, streaky shooter. We saw him develop into what he is now.”
Indeed, DiVincenzo’s Monday performance was the latest testimonial to Wright. “I had to grow up a lot this year,” DiVincenzo said. “Earlier in the year was difficult not being a starter. Just knowing coach had a plan for me made it so much easier.
“He’s taught me a lot. He’s taught me how to grow up as a person, as a player. I came in an immature player, trying to get by on athleticism.”
When he caught fire Monday, the ball went to him. Villanova being Villanova, the team stars didn’t mind. “I just kept telling him to keep going, keep going, keep going,” Brunson said. “It just shows how we just don’t care who gets the credit. If someone is hot, feed him.”
Monday night was meaningful in so many ways.
It gave even more glitter to the new Big East, which now can claim the preeminent team of the moment, just as the old Big East did decades ago. Villanova went 36-4, and all four losses were in the league. The Wildcats were good enough to blow through the NCAA Tournament, but not good enough to beat Xavier out of the conference season title.
“You could never recreate what the Big East had or was,” commissioner Val Ackerman said, watching the Wildcats celebrate. “But I think we can still make it great in a different way.”
It gave a heartening ending to a most challenging season in the game. Ackerman again: “This is what college basketball is all about, great coaching, great players, doing things the right way. It’s the way Jay runs his program.”
And it pushes Villanova into rare air. In four years, the Wildcats have won 136 games and two national championships.
“We’re a blueblood,” Jenkins proclaimed. Any arguments?
“We don’t really judge ourselves on being called elite,” Wright said. “We judge ourselves on how the guys do in school, how they grow as men, how we play night in and night out. But when the media calls you a blueblood, we’re not turning it down. We’ll take it.”
He’s got it. The confetti fell on a genuine powerhouse Monday night.