Kris Jenkins connecting from three as time expired set a course of immense ramifications throughout the basketball world. Not only did Villanova secure their 2nd national title in school in history and help to validate the “new” Big East, but Jenkins turned himself into a college basketball icon. Because of his heroics he will be honored in the same manner as Lorenzo Charles, Keith Smart, and even Michael Jordan for years to come.
And finally, my long felt prognostication about Villanova falling in the NCAA tourney was invalidated.
At the beginning of the season, certain characteristics stuck out and influenced my thinking for how the Wildcats would perform in the 2015-16 campaign. I knew from the get-go that they had tremendous guards with Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Phil Booth, and Jalen Brunson. Finding playing time for the quartet would be a fortunate challenge that many college coaches wish they had. Yet there were weakness on paper for Jay Wright’s recent teams and many of them were shown in their field of 32 game against NC State in the 2015 NCAA tourney.
The first limitation was on the interior where NC State outrebounded the Wildcats 45-32 and NC State outscored ‘Nova 34 to 14 in the paint. The second chink in the armor was the Wildcats reliance on the three point shot, and on that day against the Wolfpack, Villanova shot 9-29 from deep.
As is true in sports, each season is different but those same two areas were exploited against Oklahoma on December 7th in Pearl Harbor. In that game the Sooners were +8 on rebounds while the Wildcats were a horrid 4-32 from three. This game against a quality opponent on the road validated my opinion that while ‘Nova was good, they could face an early exit come tournament time because of their consistent weaknesses in the past couple years under Wright.
While I respected Villanova as a team and would say they are the model program in the Big East, I had a gut feeling that Xavier was more equipped for a deep tournament run. The reasons had to do with Xavier’s guards, who were just as talented as Villanova’s, and their depth in the frontcourt. Bronson Koenig and Wisconsin proved me wrong as Koenig’s three pointer at the buzzer moved the Badgers on and eliminated the Musketeers.
Villanova did eventually move on to the Sweet 16 and looked unstoppable against a top ranked Miami team, as the Wildcats racked up a 92-69 victory. In the Elite Eight against number 1 seeded Kansas, I just felt that the Wildcats run was destined to end and eventually Villanova would be unable to connect from three and their weakness inside would be exploited. Once again I was wrong as the Wildcats added to their DNA a tenacious defense that was not illustrated through the course of the season until tournament time. The Wildcats were able to suffocate the Kansas Jayhawks and were able to force live ball turnovers and convert in transition. This was a dimension that was not truly visible against the top tier teams in the Big East or anyone else in the regular season.
That suffocating defense showed their tenacious side in the national semifinal as Buddy Hield, one of the best collegiate players this year, was locked down by the Wildcats. Hield shot a pedestrian 4-12 from the field and his teammates did not do much better as ‘Nova shot an incredible 67% from the field en route to a 95-51 victory. While I was surprised of the lopsided result, the Wildcats played with that “defense wins championship mentality.” However, despite their strong play as of late, I felt that ‘Nova would keep it close but would ultimately fall to the Tar Heels in the championship game.
As had happened all through the tournament, I was wrong once again. The Wildcats not only kept it close but were able to hold a lead and were just one stop away from securing the title until Marcus Paige did his best Mario Chalmers impression, and hit a double clutch three pointer to tie the game.
Unfortunately for Paige, he was morphed from being Mario Chalmers to being Sean Woods, who hit the shot that would have sent Kentucky to the Final Four in 1992 if not for some guy named Christian Laettner. The Wildcats had one more opportunity and made it worthwhile as Arcidiacono pushed the ball up the floor and did a dribble handoff to Jenkins, who let the shot fly. And as the ball sailed in the air the final horn sounded and when the ball dropped through the net, pandemonium occurred. Villanova celebrated what many thought could not be done: winning an NCAA tournament title.
Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
-(1) Villanova faces (9) Alabama in the second round of the NCAA tournament