Villanova's National Championship Win Over North Carolina Shows That Skill And Toughness Is Still What Matters In College Basketball
Villanova won because games aren't played on paper.
I wrote the following in the wake of Villanova's winning the National Championship last year but left it half-finished and thus unpublished.
A lot of people seem surprised that a Big East team was able to defeat a high profile program such as Roy Williams' North Carolina Tarheels. They shouldn't be.
It was obvious that North Carolina had no clue how to play Big East basketball. They got punched in the mouth after taking an early lead, and they had no idea how to react. Their highly touted big men routinely got outmuscled by less-heralded wing players who wanted it more. Kris Jenkins got rebounds against Kennedy Meeks multiple times throughout the game and basically took North Carolina's starting center to school. Villanova's guards denied Brice Johnson the ball the same way they frustrated Oklahoma star guard Buddy Hield. It didn't matter that North Carolina's star forward had almost a half foot on everybody other than the frontcourt tandem of senior Daniel Ochefu and junior Darryl Reynolds. Giving in to the size disadvantage just isn't Villanova, Big East, or Big Five basketball. Anybody who has watched either of the three will attest to that.
Many pundits say Villanova doesn't have a legitimate NBA player. Nonsense. Kris Jenkins is one of the most naturally gifted offensive players in the country and yet will do whatever his team needs of him to win, Josh Hart is an incredibly talented and fearless offensive player and a relentless defender who looks like he could be at the very least a solid NBA starter if not a star someday, Daniel Ochefu is 6'11" and tough and talented enough to definitely be a backup center in the NBA for years, and Ryan Arcidiacano may very well be the best point guard in the country. None of these players would probably start for Roy Williams at North Carolina but maybe that's exactly the problem.
With the exception of Brice Johnson, Joel Berry III, Justin Jackson, and late in the game Marcus Paige, the players on North Carolina didn't come to play.... in the biggest game on the biggest stage in college basketball. Don't let the fact that Justin Jackson went silent as the game went on fool you. He was fighting against Josh Hart's relentless energy the entire game. It's possible however that nobody on North Carolina wanted to win more than Brice Johnson. He was shut down by Villanova's defenders and took the loss harder than maybe anybody else on the team. I gained a ton of respect for him as a competitor watching how emotional he was getting. Nobody can ever say that Johnson was playing for future NBA dollars rather than a National Championship. The rest of the team however, it was plainly obvious they weren't used to playing as hard as Villanova and every other Big East and Big 5 school does night after night. The Tarheels were considered the most talented and deep school in the country, and Villanova made the vast majority of them look like scrubs. Most of these players were highly touted McDonald's recruits and even All-Americans, and they sure didn't play like it.
Villanova was the best team in by far the best conference in college basketball this year. Xavier was right up there with Villanova but they really didn't have some of the pieces Nova did. Providence and Seton Hall have maybe the two most talented backcourts in all of college basketball, and none of their major players are seniors. Kris Dunn is a lock to be a lottery pick this June but he has one year of eligibility left if he chooses to use it, and backcourt mate Ben Bentil can be even better than Kris Jenkins. He's 6'9" with guard skills and a silky smooth jumper. Seton Hall is made up almost entirely of young, very talented players from New York, with forward Henry Rodriguez of the Bronx and Brooklyn backcourt duo Isaiah Whitehead and Rodney Carrington as the standout players for a team that is most definitely on the rise. Carrington has his off nights but has tons of potential, and watching Whitehead is reminiscent at times of watching Chris Paul at Wake Forest in the mid 2000s. He's like a 6'4" Isaiah Thomas.
While big programs like North Carolina continue to bring in the most highly touted recruits, largely from prep schools, the Big East continues to bring in the best overlooked players in the country. Any of the aforementioned players could have probably helped North Carolina beat Villanova on Monday night but North Carolina and the other big programs don't recruit those players anymore. That came back to bite them on national TV when their larger players got spanked physically down low and they learned what it takes to win a championship.
Everybody talks about the ACC being steeped in tradition but that tradition hasn't been apparent in years. Whether it's the many violations of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, the outright disgraceful cheating of North Carolina, Florida State football players committing sexual assault, Louisville's prostitution scandal, Miami's scandals, or any of the other violations that have come out in the past decade alone, it is clear the ACC is not the conference it at one point was. Even its most storied basketball programs have sold their soul in order to bring in highly touted recruits year after year. A league that at one point was every bit as traditional and fundamental as the Big East has become a virtual All Star Game with overly showy, selfish play and zero defense or toughness. So too, has college basketball at large.
Not the Big East. If you don't play defense or play team basketball in the Big East, you sit. We saw that on Monday night when Jalen Brunson -the top-rated point guard in the class of 2015 by some publications- sat on the bench for long periods after not playing defense and being selfish with the ball. None of these bigger schools would do that to their most prized recruit, and that's why it was a Big East team hoisting the trophy at the end of the year. Two years ago, it was a former Big East team run by a coach who was known for being no-nonsense as a player that was hoisting the trophy. That also isn't a coincidence.
People will claim that this was a weak year for college basketball but isn't that exactly the problem? The most hyped teams featured multiple highly-touted McDonald's All Americans, some who were considered one and done lottery picks. Notre Dame, Cal, Oregon, Kentucky, Duke, and many others were considered among the most talented teams in the country and yet none made the Final Four. Instead it was tough Oklahoma, dangerous Villanova, defensive-minded Syracuse, and only one of these so-called super teams in North Carolina.
Villanova beat Oklahoma by 44 points, the most ever in a Final Four game. With seven minutes to go, Oklahoma was done and feeling it on the sidelines. Nobody thought Villanova would win but not only did they beat Oklahoma, they embarrassed them. Nobody thought Villanova had a real shot against mighty, talented, deep North Carolina and yet they led for a good amount of the game and would have led for longer if they had made their easy shots early and Jalen Brunson had played defense and played smarter offensively.
The biggest programs in college basketball are almost entirely stocked with players who have never really been tested on a basketball court in their lives let alone forced to play defense for 48 minutes, while the so-called "non Power Conferences" bring in the toughest, most battle-tested players in the country year after year. Guys who sit on the bench of these big programs. The majority of the most highly-touted recruits year after year come from schools whose local competition is such an unbelievable joke that the only way to play a remotely competitive schedule is to play most of their games against other high profile high school basketball programs. Year after year these kids flop in the NBA, and I'm never surprised when it happens. I'm not surprised when their over-hyped college basketball teams lose in the Tournament, either.
One play early on set the tone for the whole game Monday night. 6'3" Ryan Arcidiacano drove into the paint, got position on North Carolina's bigs, and banked in a difficult jump shot that most players these days probably can't make. All Tournament long the commentators mentioned how Villanova is so good at maintaining their pivot foot offensively. That's called fundamentals. It used to be common in college basketball. It's sad that people are impressed by it these days.
If you look at the most hyped teams of the past year, it becomes apparent what the problem is. Take Notre Dame, for example. The player who is literally the only reason they didn't bow out of the Tournament sooner is point guard Demetrius Jackson, yet it was players like Zach Auguste -who played zero defense and allowed himself to be outrebounded game after game- that got the spotlight and were talked about as if they were the reason their team won. It was the same case for Oregon. Clark was pretty much the only reason Oregon beat St. Joseph's yet it's the incredibly overrated and overhyped Tyler Dorsey who got the praise and the spotlight despite playing like exactly the type of player he really is. If one of these supposed "power programs" does recruit one of the type of players who actually make teams win, those players either end up on the bench or are overshadowed by overhyped recruits whose teams win in spite of them. A great example is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson who was clearly the best player at Arizona during his two years there yet both years was overshadowed by an overrated player from California who didn't believe in playing defense. Rather than lead his teams far into the NCAA Tournament like he should have, he was forced to play a more defensive role while his teammates cost them games. Another great example is LSU, where Ben Simmons was overshadowed by a much lesser player who doesn't realize his own limits in Antonio Blakeny, or Kentucky where Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray cost their team any hope of winning anything meaningful with their play. For every Andrew Wiggins or Anthony Davis, there are a thousand D'Angelo Russells or Jamal Murrays.
Meanwhile, the Big East, Atlantic Ten, and AAC have been doing the complete opposite for decades and have become the strongest Conferences in the country because of it. Increasingly, so has the Big Ten. And the SEC for the most part builds its teams this way as well.
Don't be surprised if one of those Conferences is hoisting the trophy again in 2017.