I had no idea I would be writing about the Villanova basketball team this week, but now I find it impossible not to. The Wildcats’ wild ride through the NCAA Tournament, capped by Monday night’s thrilling championship game victory over mighty North Carolina, is not only one of the best sports stories of the year, it’s one of the best ever.
Disclaimer: I am not an unbiased observer. My father was a starting forward for Villanova in the mid-1930s and I’ve been a Wildcats fan my entire life, so this championship meant more to me than most.
But, bias aside, the second that Kris Jenkins’s game-winning shot zipped through the net as time expired, the national media started to debate whether this was the greatest championship game in history. They’ve compared it to buzzer-beaters like North Carolina’s Michael Jordan in 1982, Indiana’s Keith Smart in 1987, Kansas’s Mario Chalmers in 2008 and, of course, the last-second dunk by North Carolina State’s Lorenzo Charles after he grabbed an air ball shot by teammate Dereck Whittenburg in 1983.
And they’ve also compared it to Villanova’s other championship game victory in 1985, when the Wildcats played an almost perfect game to slay Goliath – also known as Georgetown – in what many still call the biggest upset in championship game history, as Villanova stunned Patrick Ewing and Co. 66-64.
But this one was better than all of them, an intense, well-played game that featured two incredible clutch shots in the final 10 seconds, one by each team – Villanova just happened to take the final one. The poise and intelligence the players from both sides showed throughout the night – including the post-game press conferences – was remarkable.
But this wasn’t just a memorable game for the Wildcats – their entire tournament was unforgettable and we’re willing to say that it was the best NCAA Tournament any team has ever had. That is not to say that this Villanova team is the best in NCAA history or ever in the Top 10. But no team has motored through the tournament the way the Wildcats did this season, which is even more remarkable considering the ‘Cats haven’t been able to get out of the second round in recent years and after they lost the Big East championship game to Seton Hall there was no indication that this tournament would be any different.
But then it started and the Wildcats chewed up every team they played – they won by 30, 19, 23, 5 and 44 points leading up to the championship game and their only close one came against Kansas, which came into the tournament as the top overall seed.
Villanova has a bunch of terrific offensive players who played their best when it meant the most – in their two Final Four games, against Oklahoma and North Carolina, the Wildcats shot 71.4 and 58.3 percent, respectively.
But it was their defense that paved the way to the championship trophy. The Wildcats faced three of the best players in the country — Kansas’ Perry Ellis, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Carolina’s Brice Johnson – and held them to a total of 27 points. What makes that even more remarkable is that two of those All-Americans, Ellis and Johnson, were high-scoring big men, whereas Hield is a sharp-shooting guard who had scored 36 and 37 points in his two previous NCAA games, and averaged 29.3 points per game during the regular season while scoring a total of 916 points, the most in the nation.
Then he ran into Villanova’s swarming, pestering, defense and scored nine points while missing eight of his 12 shots from the field. So, the Wildcats faced dominating big men and cut them down to size, and then they muzzled the most prolific shooter in college.
So, it was a memorable tournament capped off by the best championship game in history – and don’t worry if you somehow missed it, because that game, and especially the game-ending sequence, will live forever in highlights heaven.
Still, as unforgettable as this tournament was for the Wildcats, it’s not as magical as the ride the 1985 team took, simply because the 2016 team was ranked No. 1 in the nation for three weeks during the regular season and came into the tournament as a No. 2 seed. The 1985 team struggled at times during the season and came into the tournament as just a No. 9 seed, so as improbable as this championship is, that one was even more so.
There is something else that links those two championship teams from the Main Line. The NCAA Tournament is usually dominated by big schools that also have a Division I football team (call it FBS if you want). So, it’s rare for a small school to win college basketball’s biggest prize, and Villanova just became the first school without a Division I football team to win the NCAA basketball championship in more than three decades.
And the last school to do it? Villanova in 1985.