SAN ANTONIO – Near the end of the media’s incursion during the 35-minute open locker room session, an assistant coach reminded Villanova’s players that it was time to take the court for Friday’s Final Four practice.
“Turn off the phones, get focused. Time to get connected to each other.”
Connectivity is a major component in daily life but the ties that bind Villanova are especially important.
Starting with Saturday’s semifinal against fellow No. 1 seed Kansas, the Wildcats will try to win their second national championship in the last three seasons. The 2016 title team will be forever remember for Kris Jenkins’ game-winning 3-point and the sub-zero cool of coach Jay Wright, whose one-word play-by-play – “bang” – as the play unfolded just added to the legend.
— Kyle Kensing (@kensing45) April 5, 2016
Two years later, starters Jalen Brunson and Phil Booth don’t’ have to “act like they’ve been there.” The junior guards were playing supporting roles in 2016 and they’ve tried to instill a similar mindset to this year’s team that has experience despite no starters who contribute.
“Throughout the time that coach Wright has been here he’s preached about worrying about what goes on between the lines,” said Brunson, who picked up his second national player of the year Friday when he was named the USBWA Oscar Robertson Award. “I think this team has been focused like the 2016 team in terms of not letting the outside stuff bother us. It’s all about 94 by 50 (feet).”
Brunson said he’s tried to counsel the younger players who weren’t involved with the team two years ago about dealing with the myriad distractions that come with playing on the final weekend. Booth said one thing the rookies will have trouble acclimating to is playing in a stadium venue.
“Two years ago, walking into (NRG Stadium) in Houston, I had trouble getting over how big it was,” Booth said. “Now I’m used to it but when you come out for the game, the huge crowd, being on that elevated stage, the atmosphere, the hotels, seeing your face plastered on walls – it was something I had never experienced.”
Over the last four seasons, Villanova has set an NCAA record with 134 victories and needs one more victory to equal the school record of 35 set in 2015-16. What the Wildcats have accomplished ends any talk that Wright is an empty (if extremely elegant) suit. And the coach sees elements in this season’s team that remind him of 2016.
“To get this far, all the teams that are here, you have a laser focus, you have an ability to prepare for different opponents,” he said Friday. “If you don’t, someone’s going to catch you along the way. And it really has to be at a high level. This group reminds me of our group in ’16 in that way. And I feel like we’re getting better as the season goes on, even at this time of year. And that’s something that’s similar to our team in ’16.”
Villanova tops KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency rankings and the Wildcats average 86.6 points per game and outscore opponents by 16 a game. They average 11.5 threes per game and five players have made 50 or more 3-pointers. For most of the season, Villanova could rely on the fact it could outscore anyone.
“Coach has been on us all season about playing better defense,” Booth said. “There were some games where we might be up 20 and knew we were gonna win but we’d kinda slack off on defense. We had to come around to the idea that if wanted to win a championship, our defense needed to improve.”
And that’s the improvement Wright mentioned. Since losing to Creighton, 89-83 in overtime on Feb. 24, Villanova has won its last nine games. During that stretch, opponents are shooting 39.4 percent from the field (in the macro, foes made 42.7 percent of their shots for the season.) In four NCAA Tournament victories, the Wildcats are allowing 36.7 percent shooting from the field and an icy 27.3 percent from three.
“No matter how many years you’re in coaching you continue to learn from your players,” Wright said. “This group taught me to never give in on the ability to improve defensively. They were so efficient offensively and they picked up so many things we were teaching offensively that I thought it might be really tough to get them to be a good defensive team. 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. But these guys taught me a lot. And I’m really proud of their commitment.”
Two years ago, Villanova beat top-seeded Kansas in the regional final. One step farther along in the bracket, the teams meet again. The Jayhawks are averaging 81.4 a game so the scoreboard operator will need to be nimble.
“In terms of trusting each other on defense, having a belief in each other, there are similarities between this team and the championship team,” said Booth, who scored 20 points off the bench against North Carolina and would have been the most outstanding player if not for Jenkins’ shot. “This team is connected like that one was.”