SAN ANTONIO, Texas – For the second time in three years, the Villanova Wildcats have climbed the top step of college basketball's highest staircase, a journey that seemed unlikely at times this season, but one that was almost preordained when they reached the NCAA's final stage.
"At the end of the season you look back, sometimes you're on the bus ride over and you look at the assistants and you're like, 'Can you believe this? Can you believe we're here,'" coach Jay Wright said. "I really haven't gotten my mind around the whole thing yet."
Villanova captured the national championship, its third in program history, with a 79-62 win over Michigan on Monday night in the Alamodome. The Wildcats accomplished it with great defense that suffocated the Wolverines, and with a spectacular offensive game from sixth man Donte DiVincenzo, who picked up a flagging Villanova offense and set an NCAA championship game record for points by a non-starter. DiVincenzo finished with a career-high 31 points.
The Wildcats' clinging defense put them in foul trouble in the second half. As they protected their lead, three of the starters were on the bench with four fouls, but the reserves came through, although none as much as DiVincenzo. That was fitting in a way, because this season's Villanova team was never star-driven by any one player on a given night. They picked up each other and were carried along through the season with a variety of heroes. Villanova won its title without a scholarship senior on the team, relying instead on leadership from a junior class that learned the path during the 2016 run to the championship, and from the culture of a program that was established long before them.
"It's just great to see how things come full circle," said junior guard Jalen Brunson, who has won several national player of the year honors. "As younger guys, we were taught by our leaders and they made sure we were locked in. Nothing changes, no matter what game we're in. To see that now, as leaders, we are saying the same thing to our younger guys, that nothing changes."
The consistency of the team in the last five seasons under Wright, who began as Villanova's coach in 2001, is what certainly hasn't changed. The Wildcats are now 164-21 over that span, with the two national championships. Regular season success is no guarantee in the NCAA tournament, however. This season, the Wildcats were the best offensive team in the nation, particularly playing at the breakneck speed they prefer, but they had to develop defensively late in the season to get to Monday night's ultimate game.
"This group taught me to never give in on the ability to improve defensively. They were so efficient offensively…I thought it might be really tough to get them to be a good defensive team," Wright said. "I almost thought, all right, we've never had a team this good offensively, so you just can't get them to be good defensively, but they stuck with it and they're becoming one of our best defensive teams, which I never would have thought midway through the season."
That development, which hinged in large part on the return of junior Phil Booth from a hand injury, is what really got Villanova through the NCAA tournament, and all the way through the championship game against Michigan, one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
After winning its first two games easily in the tournament to reach the Sweet 16, Villanova had to play three straight games against rugged Big 12 opponents, all of whom were intent on slowing down the pace and turning the game into a struggle decided by defense and rebounding. The Wildcats advanced to the Final Four with wins over West Virginia and Texas Tech, then obliterated the challenge presented by Kansas, a fellow No 1 seed, with a return to their high-flying offensive ways in the national semifinal on Saturday. Despite that, Villanova's focus didn't change for the final versus Michigan.
"It will come down to just defending and getting stops," said junior swingman Mikal Bridges, who is expected to be selected in the first round of the upcoming NBA draft. "Every game we go into thinking it's going to be defending, rebounding, and playing hard together."
Defense built them a nine-point halftime lead against Michigan as Villanova held the Wolverines to just 3 of 16 shooting to close out the first half. Michigan held a 21-14 lead midway through the period, but Villanova's slow-starting offense came alive with the help of sophomore DiVincenzo, who dropped in three three-pointers and scored 18 of the team's 37 points in the half.
True enough to the Bridges' prediction, the Wildcats were rebounding better and defending better than Michigan, and they continued to do so for the rest of the game. At the end, they were able to dance on the court together while confetti fell from the ceiling of the massive football stadium, and each in turn climbed the ladder to snip a cord from the net that will be draped on the championship trophy and displayed on campus for as long as the game still matters.
"It's been fun," Brunson said. "I think the outside perception is that we're just so machined and robotic and that we don't have any emotion. This is really fun to be a part of. I love playing with my teammates and being a part of this program."
The program is now on the short list of nine schools that have won three or more NCAA championships. Wright is just the 14th coach to win multiple championships, joining a list that includes legends like John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Hank Iba, Adolph Rupp, and Bob Knight.
For a small, private school in suburban Philadelphia, that's not bad company. The Wildcats, particularly this season's team, have done it by playing each game as if it were merely the next game – even if it is the last game.
"We wish we could play more and get better," forward Eric Paschall said.