Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Villanova: 2018 National Champions

The Villanova Wildcats are the 2018 NCAA National Champions, their second title in three years. It’s incredible what Jay Wright has done with the program. I wrote about the keys to his success here. And as far as the championship, I feel much the same way as I did after the 2016 title.

This championship was different in that it didn’t take a last-second buzzer beater to win. It was a blowout (79-62). This was one of the great NCAA Tournament runs ever. Nova won every game by double digits in both the Big East and NCAA Tournaments (with an average margin of victory of 17.7 points). They were so balanced in every facet of the game: defense, shooting, scoring. The 2018 Wildcats have to be considered as one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time.

It’s officially ten years since I graduated, so it feels like a lifetime ago that I was on campus with my class of 2008 mate, Kyle Lowry, now a multiple time NBA All-Star. It’s certainly different watching the team now. I don’t feel the same connection I did when I went to the school and saw the players on campus and went to all the home games. I now realize these are just kids. Which is one of the reasons I stopped blogging about the team. How could I, as an adult, criticize 18 and 20-year-old kids who aren’t even getting paid? (Though with this particular team, there’s nothing to criticize.) Plus, I’m not as fanatic about sports in general as I used to be. In the grand scheme of things, basketball isn't that important. But still, it’s great to see the team win and represent the school in such a classy way.

Jay Wright has turned into perhaps the greatest coach in the country, and one of the greats of all time. He doesn’t just recruit good players or get them to play hard. He gets them to play the right way (aka “Villanova Basketball”). 

What is "Villanova Basketball"? Well, it is playing hard, but also unselfishly, with amazing chemistry built through a family atmosphere. In the post-game speeches, the players repeatedly mentioned how they were “brothers.” And it really showed. That kind of camaraderie doesn’t happen automatically. It comes top-down from the coach.

But a coach can only do so much. It ultimately comes down to the players. So let's talk about those players.

Jalen Brunson: The well-deserved National Player of the Year. And he didn't even need to play down the stretch of the game (because of foul trouble). Brunson is the perfect college point guard. He's not the most athletic, fastest, or highest jumper, but he just knows how to play the game. He reminds me of Chris Paul in that respect. He's a savvy point guard who uses his basketball IQ to control the game.

Donte DiVincenzo: The “Michael Jordan of Delaware” nickname is no joke. DiVincenzo took over this game with 31 points (off the bench!). He might be my favorite player to watch on this team. He's so exciting between the dunks, blocks, and heat-check threes. This was the kind of performance that will get attention from NBA scouts, but I’d like to see him return to school so we can get a full year of him being the number-one option (assuming Brunson leaves, though of course it would be great if he returned as well).

Mikal Bridges: Another all-around solid game from Bridges (19 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assists, 1 steal). The prototypical 3&D player brought both (three 3-points and great defense). A projected NBA lottery pick, I could see him becoming a Kawhi Leonard type player (minus this year’s injury drama in San Antonio).

Omari Spellman: In 2016 I called Daniel Ochefu Villanova’s best big man since Ed Pinckney. Well, Spellman is better than both—and he’s only a freshman. The future is so bright for Omari. Nova guards always get the most attention and accolades, but they could not have won the title without a big man in the middle on defense like Spellman. (and this next guy)

Eric Paschall: Maybe Villanova’s toughest player. Jay Wright called Paschall his best defender, and he’s also a great rebounder. Jay’s teams have always had great guards, but they always fell short in March (and April) because they didn’t have the big men to compete. But now Jay is recruiting great big men like Spellman and Paschall, which takes his teams to the next level.

Then there’s Phil Booth (who seems like he’s been around forever, but is just a junior) and Collin Gillespie who each chipped in on both ends of the floor.

And don’t forget Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who may have only played four minutes in this game, but he will no doubt play a bigger role in the future. Freshmen like him, staying patient and waiting their turn, is what makes continued success for Villanova’s program possible. 

One championship can be a fluke, but two in three years is a trend. Villanova will be competing for national titles as long as Jay Wright is at the helm. At this point, I wouldn’t even blame him if he left to try the NBA (a la Billy Donavan). But if he stays at Villanova for another two decades, he can create something truly special.

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