By Zach Schonbrun
SAN ANTONIO – Juggernauts are not supposed to look like this, without a superstar, a catchy nickname, a lineup of future NBA All-Stars or the air of intimidation that is palpable even in layup lines. Villanova has none of these things.
History, though, will look back at these Wildcats and their tactical, almost apologetic dominance throughout their six games in this NCAA men’s basketball tournament as a team that was, perhaps, just one or two steps ahead of the rest of the 350 laggards in Division I, a field that was forced to watch – mouths agape – revolutionary basketball unfold before them.
Villanova did not need to hit 18 3-pointers against Michigan in the national title game on Monday, as it did in dismantling Kansas in its semifinal. But the Wildcats found a multitude of other ways to outflank and out-finesse another opponent, this time on college basketball’s biggest stage, in a 79-62 win over the Wolverines before a crowd of 67,831 at the Alamodome.
It was the Wildcats’ second national championship in three years, and while it is a younger team than the one that beat North Carolina with a buzzer-beater in 2016, it is unquestionably better. Only three other teams since 1985 have won each of their games in the NCAA Tournament by double-digits, as Villanova did.
“This,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said of winning a second title, “is out of my comprehension.”
Michigan had answers for five of Villanova’s top players, but not its sixth: Donte DiVincenzo, who came off the bench to score 31 points. He fueled a comeback in the first half and put on a show in the second, scoring 11 straight points midway through the half to build Villanova’s lead to 16.
Michigan coach John Beilein sat on his stool with a puzzled look. If it was not DiVincenzo, it seemed, it would have been someone else. With Villanova, there was always somebody.
“Honestly, we never know,” Villanova forward Eric Paschall said. “We have so many talented dudes that can just get going. We don’t know who’s going to have a good night. Tonight, it was Donte.”
The blowout capped a season that began, unofficially, in the early morning of Sept. 26, the day federal officials publicly disclosed a covert investigation into widespread corruption in the shadowy swale of college basketball recruiting, further puncturing the sport’s claim to sanctity. Ten men had been arrested, including four Division I assistants, and within days, Rick Pitino, the Hall of Fame coach at Louisville, was out of a job. The news lingered over the rest of the season.
There will be more on that. But the NCAA got something of a pass at the Final Four this time, when the tournament’s most prominent figure became Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, and the games more subtly revealed a different tectonic shift in the sport.
Beilein and his Villanova counterpart, Wright, might not have imagined the way that offense would evolve when they first crossed paths, in tiny high school gyms in upstate New York in 1984 – Wright as a first-time assistant at the University of Rochester, Beilein a 41-year-old journeyman coach at Division II LeMoyne College.
But they reached this pinnacle by largely ignoring the blue-chip prospects eager to rush through to the NBA. Instead, they brought the NBA style to college.
Wright, in particular, loaded his lineup with talented shooters of all sizes, reminding scouts of a successful franchise at the next level: the Golden State Warriors. His team set an NCAA record for 3-pointers this season, and the Wildcats’ 18 baskets from beyond the arc in their win Saturday over Kansas were by far the most in a Final Four game.
“They present problems that most college teams can never present,” the ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “The go-to guy on this team is the open man.”
Beilein’s system was always inventive during his previous coaching job at West Virginia – remember Kevin Pittsnogle? – but he acknowledged that he had evolved, too. He built his Michigan offense around an even more versatile big man: Moritz Wagner, who, at 6 feet 11 inches, was reminiscent of the Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki.
Wagner scored 9 of Michigan’s first 11 points on Monday, as the Wolverines found easy buckets in the early minutes. On the other end, Michigan’s length and defensive pressure clogged the passing lanes that Villanova thrives on to generate open shots. Everything was contested. The Wildcats missed eight of their first nine 3-pointers.
In the Villanova huddle, the players calmly said the word, “Attitude,” a catchphrase of this program, meant to maintain composure. And then a surprising spark caught fire off the bench.
It fit the pregame prayer, delivered by the team chaplain, Father Rob Hagan, and the message from Saint Paul about sharing strength. It hardly surprised any of DiVincenzo’s teammates when he, of all players, provided the offensive jolt.
“If you keep finding him, he’s going to keep knocking down shots,” freshman guard Collin Gillespie said. “Early on, I kind of knew.”
DiVincenzo scored 18 of Villanova’s first 32 points. While his teammates hit just five of their first 17 shots, DiVincenzo rallied the Wildcats to a halftime lead, 37-28.
“Honestly, when I got into the game, all I was trying to do was play hard,” DiVincenzo said. “I just wanted to help my team offensively.”
Michigan was said to be the team of destiny a year ago, after its plane slid off a runway before the Big Ten tournament, igniting a furious winning streak that ended in the NCAA’s Sweet 16.
But a team-bonding trip to a paintball facility in Pinckney, Michigan, on a stormy afternoon this summer revealed to the coaching staff a cohesive, fun-loving group, sprinkled with freshmen and seniors, each with a surprisingly killer instinct.
Michigan was 9-5 this season when trailing at halftime, including Saturday’s comeback victory against Loyola-Chicago, which propelled the Wolverines to the national championship game for the first time since 2013, when they lost to Louisville.
But even after their record-setting offensive show on Saturday, Villanova’s players insisted their performance was only possible because of their defense. A team meeting in February refocused the Wildcats on the defensive end; their offense was reliable enough.
On nights when shots were not falling, though, Villanova needed to make sure it could find other ways to win. Like Monday. Jalen Brunson showed flashes of frustration, Omari Spellman was neutralized and Eric Paschall was conspicuously quiet.
Yet Villanova outrebounded Michigan, 38-27, and held the Wolverines to only three 3-pointers.
“I don’t care if you go back 20 years,” Beilein said, “they would win a lot of Final Fours.”
An unlikely hero emerged. The juggernaut rolled on.