Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Villanova Wildcats: 2016 National Champions

Every year, I think Villanova will win the national championship, yet I still can’t believe this time they actually did it.

It was an amazing game, capped by an incredible buzzer-beating shot by Kris Jenkins, off the assist from Ryan Arch. I felt ecstatic when it went in. The win felt great, but it wasn’t quite how I imagined it would feel in years past.

I no longer obsessively blog about every game like I used to. But it’s more than that.

It’s been eight years since I graduated from Villanova University, meaning I’ve never actually shared a campus with any of the kids on this year’s team. I can only imagine how the current students feel right now, and the parties that must be happening in the Pavilion and all around campus. The closest personal connection for me to this team, other than the ever constant Jay Wright, is former player Mike Nardi, now an assistant coach. Seeing him on the sidelines with suit sleeves covering his tattoos really makes me feel old.

Your college team is unlike any other kind of fandom in sports. To cheer for the players who you go to class with, eat the same food with in the dining halls, and see out of uniform as they walk past you through the quad. The players are more than just images on a TV screen or names in a box score. They are students, just like you.

Freshman year, I shared a history class with Kyle Lowry, now a two-time NBA all-star. Like him, I’m still haunted by that questionable traveling call against Allan Ray in the 2005 Sweet Sixteen loss to eventual champions North Carolina.

Sophomore year, I took marine biology with Randy Foye, now a ten-year NBA veteran. I thought his #1-seeded 2006 team would go all the way, and I was crushed when they fell to the Joakim Noah and Al Horford led Florida Gators.

The year after I graduated, 2009, Scottie Reynolds led Nova to the Final Four. I still felt like a part of the team then, since I’d shared a campus with most of the players. And I felt as bad as them when they once again lost to the eventual champion Tar Heels, led by Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Danny Green.

That’s why it felt so sweet to beat UNC to win this title. But still, it didn’t feel as sweet as it would have felt back in 2006 when I was a sophomore living in Sheehan Hall, walking to every home game in the Pavilion, learning about mollusks and sea turtles in Mendel with a future NBA player.

This year’s team was the most fun to watch of any group of Wildcats so far. They were so good together that it was almost boring, with the way they destroyed teams like Buddy Hield’s Oklahoma squad by a record 44 points.

Ryan Arcidiacono had one of the best four-year careers of any Wildcat. A natural leader, selfless enough to pass up the game-winning shot. I loved watching him dive into the stands for every loose ball.

Daniel Ochefu was the best true center Nova had since its last National Champion, Ed Pinckney. He did the dirty work like setting screens and anchoring the defense in the post, and... mopping the floor?

Kris Jenkins has Steph Curry-like 3-point shooting skills. His postgame quote said it all: “I think every shot is going in, so that one was no different.”

Josh Hart is the type of long athletic wing previous Nova teams have lacked, and like his name suggests, he plays full of heart.

Phil Booth has been a solid sixth man who came out and played the game of his career in the f*ing national title game to score 20 points.

Darryl Reynolds and Mikal Bridges provided much-needed size from the bench all season long.

Freshman starter Jalen Brunson played with poise, wise beyond his years.

And then there’s the Bench Mob, who got to do more than just cheer in several games this year.

This team is so much more than its individual talent, though. They play so selflessly together, none of them caring about individual stats. In years past, I'd get frustrated watching certain Wildcat teams, knowing they could play better, but this 2016 team reached its full potential.

In the end, however, I only know these players as…well…basketball players. I never got to sit in a classroom with Arch, or eat in the Pit with Jenkins, or slap Ochefu’s hand as he ran down the stairs of the student section in the Pavilion. Then again, as a Villanovan, we’ve all shared those experiences at one time or another. So in a way, I do know these kids even though I've never met them.

The 2016 Wildcats are National Champions, and so am I.

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