SAN ANTONIO — When Villanova won its first national title in 1985, the Wildcats had to play the perfect game to beat Georgetown—the sport’s resident Goliath. When Villanova won its second national title just two years ago, the Wildcats needed Kris Jenkins to beat the buzzer to overcome North Carolina’s near buzzer beater. When Villanova won its third national title, the Wildcats needed only to play like what they were—the best team (and probably the best program) in college basketball.
With Monday’s 79–62 win against Michigan, Villanova completed its generational transformation from ultimate underdog to old-money blueblood. The Wildcats cut down the nets for the second time in three seasons and became the fourth team in NCAA tournament history to win every tournament game by at least 10 points, and they’ll probably enter next season as a favorite to reach the Final Four in Minneapolis. Jay Wright, the dapper 56-year-old who has coached the Wildcats since 2001, has built a sustainable machine that mixes NBA-ready talent with developmental projects who may themselves grow into NBA-ready talent. Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges played smaller roles on the title team two years ago. This season, they were the stars in a small-ball system Wright adopted out of desperation following a knee injury to Curtis Sumpter just before the start of the 2005–06 season. That system has become the envy of college hoops because it has proven capable of winning big even without one-and-done talent. It’s also a thing of beauty to watch when it’s humming. With redshirt freshman post Omari Spellman also capable of shooting from deep, the Wildcats can run out lineups in which all five players can score from almost anywhere. “This is the Golden State Warriors here,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Sunday. He referred to the capability of the Wildcats’ lineup, but after Monday night, the results looked similar as well. Each team has won a title in two of the three most recently completed seasons.
“It’s great how things come full circle,” said Brunson, who scored nine points in 28 minutes Monday. The Wildcats won those two titles with a selfless style that elevated various players depending on the circumstances. “When you buy into team things, a lot can come your way that’s unexpected,” Brunson said. “And you’re just going to keep getting better and have the right mindset to make sure everyone is on the same page and things will come out pretty special.”
Like the Warriors, the Wildcats can have a different star every night. It’s often Brunson, the point guard who has collected almost every national player of the year honor this season. Saturday against Kansas it was Eric Paschall, who started his career at Fordham but became a key cog at Villanova as a redshirt sophomore last season. In a 95–79 win against Kansas, Paschall scored 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting. Monday, Villanova’s star came off the bench.
Against a defense determined to flash every time a Villanova shooter even considered taking a three-pointer, the Wildcats leaned on the player with the most compact shooting motion and the quickest release. Donte DiVincenzo, the 6’5″ redhead whose nicknames toggle between “The Big Ragu” and “The Michael Jordan of Delaware” doesn’t have a wind-up that requires yards of open floor. If he can get far enough away to keep from smelling a defender’s gum, he can squeeze off a shot. That’s why DiVincenzo had little trouble launching from behind the briefest of screens.
The Wildcats, who made 13 of 26 three-point attempts in Saturday’s first half against Kansas, missed eight of their first 11 three-point attempts Monday. DiVincenzo had all three makes during that stretch, on four attempts. The first came with 12:44 remaining in the first half, and it cut Michigan’s lead to 14–11. The second came with 6:08 remaining in the first half and gave Villanova its first lead since the game’s first minute. Villanova wouldn’t trail again. But those threes don’t tell the entire story of what the Wildcats’ sixth man did to help them go from floundering to firmly in control.
After his initial threes inspired the Wolverines to guard him 25 feet from the basket, DiVincenzo blew past Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman for a layup that he released as Abdur-Rahkman fouled him.
“Anytime you get into a rhythm like that, where you can pull up from anywhere and just knock them down, it’s tough to stop,” said Abdur-Rahkman, who led Michigan with 23 points. “You’re always on your heels defensively because you never know what he’s going to do.”
A few minutes later, DiVincenzo took a backdoor pass from Jalen Brunson and thundered down the lane for a two-handed dunk.
A little more than a minute after that, he threw a dime from the top of the key to Spellman, who threw in a tomahawk dunk to give Villanova a 34–28 lead.
In the first half’s final minute, DiVincenzo rose up for a chasedown block and pinned a Zavier Simpson layup attempt in the crevice between the rim and the backboard.
DiVincenzo finished the half with 18, and Villanova led 37–28. The Wildcats stretched the lead to 18, but Michigan fought back to cut it to 12 on a Charles Simpson layup with 9:08 remaining. But The Big Ragu wouldn’t allow the Wolverines to get any closer. Eighteen seconds later, he hit a three-pointer that crushed Michigan’s hopes. He finished with 31 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Afterward, DiVincenzo—who redshirted his freshman season after injuring his foot in December 2016—had tears in his eyes as he collected the Most Outstanding Player Award. “I blame Jalen,” DiVincenzo said. “I was fine at the end of the game. But he came up to me and he was crying. He was bawling his eyes out. Me and him are brothers. We roomed together our freshman year. We said to each other after that ‘We need to get back. We need to share this together.’ We’re here. We took advantage of it.”
The Wildcats didn’t merely take advantage. They crushed everyone in their path in the NCAA tournament. Still, Wright didn’t feel comfortable until a few minutes before the blue and white confetti sprayed. “I knew we were good, but you don’t think we can win this. After the West Virginia game [in the Sweet 16], I knew we had a shot,” Wright said. “You get into the mindset, don’t screw this up. You’ve got a really good team here, really good kids. You’ve got a shot. And on the other side, it’s a constant struggle. Don’t screw this up and then don’t be afraid to fail. It’s a struggle in your mind up until three minutes to go in the game tonight.”
It was DiVincenzo’s turn Monday, but the beauty of this Villanova team is that the player perfectly suited to the occasion always found a way to rise to said occasion. The program that needed the perfect game to win a national title 33 years ago has grown into the program best constructed to win one this year and next year and the year after that. “That team right there could win a lot of Final Fours—not just the 2018 one,” Beilein said Monday.
Why? Jenkins, who hit the buzzer beater to claim the national title two years ago, explains by listing the names of players who span a generation. Brooks Sales. Randy Foye. Kyle Lowry. Scottie Reynolds. Ryan Arcidiacono. And now Brunson, Bridges, Booth, Spellman, DiVincenzo and the rest of this group will join that list.
“In this program, it’s passed down,” Jenkins said. “You add a little bit to it, but the foundation, and the rock and the base stays the same. And it’s been that way since coach Wright got there.”