Sixteen weeks into the season, even with Villanova holding steady atop the Top 25 basketball poll with a 24-3 record, the cynics were lying in wait and ready to pounce. People had a hard time believing there wasn’t a better program in the country, as if the Wildcats’ success was some mirage.
Jay Wright had built strong programs over the years. It was never really a question. He guided his team to 30 wins and the Final Four in 2008-09 before losing to the North Carolina in the national semifinals. But it had been six years since “Nova survived the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament.
Two years ago, if you remember, the Wildcats showed up in Buffalo with a 29-4 record and were sent home after losing to eventual champion Connecticut in their second tournament game. Last year, they were 33-2 before getting dumped by North Carolina State in their second game.
It was no wonder people had a hard time taking them seriously, even though their only losses were to ranked teams, after they ascended to No. 1. And when they suffered their fourth loss on the road to Xavier, you would have thought they had been walloped by Central Connecticut State.
Xavier was the fifth at the time and was playing at home. It was hardly an upset and certainly not a monumental loss. Critics suggested ‘Nova had been exposed. After losing to Seton Hall in the championship of the Big East Tournament, Villanova slipped to sixth in the national polls with a 29-5 record.
Evidently, ‘Nova had something to prove in the Big Dance.
It wasn’t just the dismantling of Oklahoma in the Final Four on Saturday night, although that was convincing enough. Villanova played a nearly flawless on a night in which the Sooners couldn’t do anything right. ‘Nova shot 71 percent from the field, shut down Oklahoma star Buddy Hield and delivered a 44-point pounding.
Villanova won its first four tournament games by an average of 19 points. Top-ranked Kansas was the only team to stay with the Wildcats, who effectively withstood a charge in the second half and won by five. Otherwise, it has been one lopsided victory after another before reaching the championship against third-ranked North Carolina.
The oddmakers in Las Vegas didn’t get carried away with Villanova’s blowout over Oklahoma. UNC was a 1½-point favorite in the championship game tonight in Houston.
What you’re seeing in Villanova is a cohesive and unselfish team that is working on both ends of the floor. Hield had two players draped over him whenever he touched the ball Saturday, but it wasn’t always the same two players. The Wildcats made very few mistakes offensively and shot the lights out.
Villanova looks like a team that’s still stinging from recent disappointments in the tournament. Four starters are upperclassmen. Senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono has shown the value in players who stick around for four seasons. He’s an experienced leader and calming influence and has played in pressure situations.
Wright has had the Final Four loss seven years ago hanging over his head, in part because he didn’t have his team ready for that game. Wright was making his first trip to the Final Four at the time. He said all the right things in 2009, but there was a sense his team was happy to be there. And it showed in a convincing loss.
When teams get on a roll, as Villanova did this year from the tipoff against UNC-Asheville, coaches aren’t inclined to make changes. They attempt to keep the bus on the road before invariably steering into a ditch. Or they go the other way and over-coach their own teams into submission.
Wright has struck the right balance with this team. Last week, he adjusted his practice schedule last week to suit their needs going into the Final Four. He made sure his players had enough time shooting in the dome. He had a clear and simple game plan to stop Hield. They were extremely focused but also loose.
Mostly, he had players buying into a philosophy that made them successful all year. You’re not going to find NBA lottery picks on their roster. Wright recruited talented, team-oriented players who were willing to share the ball and play defense. He knew they had great potential if they stayed with the program.
The win Saturday guarantees nothing, of course. Villanova knows how quickly the ride can end. Villanova didn’t get carried away with their win over Oklahoma any more than they did after beating Asheville by 30. The Wildcats enjoyed the victory and turned their attention to the next game.
North Carolina has been terrific all season. They’re also talented and deep and experienced. Their coach, Roy Williams, was accused for years at Kansas for not being able to win the big one. The Tar Heels also are coming off a convincing win. They, too, have a senior guard in Marcus Paige who knows how to lead a team.
Tonight, we’ll find out which school has the best team in the country. At least we know what Wright suspected all along, that his team was for real.