When the only comparison to your Final Four performance starts flashing on TV as UCLA from 50 years ago, it serves as a final confirmation of just how dominant this Villanova team was all season. Kansas and Michigan were just the last two teams to get overwhelmed by the skill, athleticism and incredible shot-making of a group that kept playing better until it finally just ran out of games.
It was the Wildcats’ dramatically improved defense in its 11-game winning streak to end the season that ensured a second national championship in three years. But it was a 40-game offense that, by any measure, was as good as any in college basketball history that will always be this team’s most memorable attribute.
Only Kansas, mostly because of garbage-time hoops in a game that was essentially over in the opening minutes, scored as many as 1.1 points per possession during the Wildcats’ winning streak that began on the last day of February and culminated on the first Monday of April.
If there were just a few moments that perfectly encapsulated how this team played and why it was so successful, they came in the second half against Michigan on a few possessions when conventional wisdom suggested the Cats run a little clock. Naturally, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo tossed up threes. And just as naturally, they went in. They never looked at the clock or the scoreboard, just the basket, always the basket.
By the end of the game, they had made a tournament-record 76 threes and a season-record 464, numbers that will be very hard for any team to duplicate, especially while shooting 41.5 percent in the tournament and 40.1 percent on the season.
Villanova made 192 more threes than its opponents, which is 576 points or 14.4 points per game. Threes not only aid the math; they are soul killers for a defense.
Combine the threes with superior two-point accuracy (59 percent), excellent free-throw shooting (77.9 percent), scoring volume (nation’s best 86.6 points per game) and 230 more assists than turnovers (655-425), you have an offense so devastating that defenses get so overwhelmed they lose their will to compete.
Villanova’s adjusted offensive efficiency (1.28 points per possession) is the second best in the 17 years kenpom.com has been compiling the numbers. Only 2014-15 Wisconsin, the team that ended Kentucky’s 38-0 season and lost to Duke in the championship game, has been better.
Nothing against Bo Ryan’s team, but the Badgers’ numbers were accumulated in a far different manner. They didn’t overwhelm defenses as much as they almost never made mistakes, committing turnovers on a nation’s best 12.4 percent of its possessions, but having 10 possessions fewer per game than Villanova. A better measure of the Wildcats’ offensive dominance might be that the gap between first and second (Purdue, 1.23 ppp) is easily the biggest over the 17 years.
The question that remains unanswered is: How do you defend three players who made more than 80 threes and two others who made more than 50? The answer became obvious over the season: You don’t.
What made this an impossible dilemma for defenses was that Bridges (104 threes), Jalen Brunson (86), DiVincenzo (85), Omari Spellman (65), Phil Booth (55) and Eric Paschall (36) could all shot fake, find a more open man or get to the rim and finish.
According to kenpom.com, the Wildcats were 11th nationally in three-point and free-throw accuracy but third in two-point shooting, the secret sauce and a fact that critics who opined they would live or die by the three either never knew or chose to ignore. When defenses are constantly trying to run you off the three-point line, there will be openings at the rim and ‘Nova had devastating finishers in Bridges, Spellman, DiVincenzo and Paschall and an incredibly clever finisher in Brunson. Over the last three seasons, the Cats were second, second and third in two-point shooting.
So which championship team was better? I don’t really have an answer, but I can say this: the 2016 team had a tougher NCAA road with No. 3 seed Miami, No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 1 North Carolina in the last four games. And that team, believe it or not, had two NCAA games with a more efficient offense than this incredibly efficient offense ever had (1.56 ppp against Miami and 1.51 against Oklahoma in a two-way Final Four performance that will stand the test of time).
That said, the 2018 team’s offense was historically great from start to finish. The 2016 team had a very good offense that became great over those six NCAA games, shooting for 56-for-112 (50 percent) from three. As good as that was, this team made 20 more threes over the six NCAA games. That’s actually insane.
By the way, that UCLA team that popped up on the screen late Monday night had junior center Lew Alcindor whose three-year run would end the next season at 88-2. Those Bruins won their 1968 Final Four games, 101-69 over Houston (the ultimate revenge for Alcindor/ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s first college loss in the legendary Astrodome game earlier that season) and 78-55 against North Carolina. Villanova was not that dominant, but in the half century that has passed no team had won each Final Four game by 16 points or more — until now.