At the risk of letting myself be prisoner to the moment, the 2018 NCAA Tournament is the wildest in my years following basketball.
Maybe if I referred to statistics, my immediate instinct would be disproved. However, no other NCAA Tournament saw a No. 16 seed upset a No. 1. Only a select few featured a No. 11 seed going on a run to the Final Four. And that opening weekend…
Whether the insanity of this postseason can be quantified, I don’t know. But I do know that 2018 was full of surprises — the last of which being that the best team throughout the season was the last team standing.
Villanova was not dominant in the classic sense; like, say, 1991 UNLV or 2015 Kentucky, both of which tromped through all comers in the regular season on their way to the Final Four. The Wildcats went undefeated until Dec. 30. However, aside from wins over Tennessee (before anyone knew how good the Vols were) and Gonzaga, Villanova’s nonconference slate was not especially impressive.
A midseason stretch, which included an utterly confounding home loss to St. John’s, was enough to prompt at least one dolt to suggest Villanova was not a clear team-to-beat.
The Wildcats found another gear in the final seven weeks of the season, though — getting Eric Paschall and Phil Booth back from injury didn’t hurt, either.
So Villanova didn’t mow through all competition in the regular season in a fashion comparable to those aforementioned UNLV or Kentucky teams; neither of those squads won national championships. And that in and of itself speaks to the turbulent nature of the NCAA Tournament.
College basketball’s best team doesn’t always win the national championship. Duke was the No. 3 team overall in the KenPom.com rankings in 2015, for example, but Kentucky was clearly that season’s best team — except for one night in a semifinal matchup with Wisconsin.
Likewise, Villanova finished 2016 ranked atop the KenPom rankings, as it did this year — but who would argue the first of Jay Wright’s two title teams stacked up with this most recent champion?
The NBA-influenced, analytical approach Wright adopted with the 2015-16 team remained in 2017-18; so, too, did the defensive intensity and discipline characteristic of Wright’s teams. But never had any Villanova team featured the level of talent seen on this season’s roster.
National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson arrived at Villanova a rare blue-chip prospect for the program, and lived up to his billing. Both Mikal Bridges and Omari Spellman have the tools necessary to transition to the NBA. Eric Paschall provided an interior presence not often seen at ‘Nova in Wright’s tenure.
The star of Monday night’s national championship game, Donte DiVincenzo, demonstrated why he’d have been a starter at the vast majority of programs in this past NCAA Tournament. His 31 points guarantee him legendary Final Four status, which beats cracking the starting five.
Not to worry, though: DiVincenzo will move seamlessly into the starting rotation next season, as Villanova seeks to replicate the winning formula once again.
The 2018-19 Wildcats won’t enter the season with hype approaching the levels seen the last time VU won the national championship. That team returned Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins in the backcourt, sparking a season full of repeat talk.
The Wildcats’ second-round loss to Wisconsin a season ago, when Villanova was arguably the best team in the nation for the duration of the regular season, is as much a testament to the difficulty of winning the Tournament as UNLV and Kentucky bowing out in the semifinal in 1991 and 2015.
The NCAA Tournament distills a season down into one game. Virtually every team in every sport in the history of competition is susceptible to a bad performance at least once. Thus, no one is safe come Tournament time.
Villanova could have laid an egg in the Dance comparable to its midseason defeat against St. John’s. Not only did the Wildcats avoid such a pitfall, they crushed any hope opponents had of getting just hot enough to be better for 40 minutes.
With six wins all by 12 points or more, this Villanova team cemented its place among the most dominant in NCAA Tournament history. And that’s quantifiable.