As all great coaches do, Jay Wright is always learning.
Which is good for Donte DiVincenzo, and really good for ’Nova Nation. It’s why Villanova is celebrating its second national championship in three years. It’s why we now know that DiVincenzo will, one day, be a fixture in the NBA.
Wright had been a head coach for 16 years on March 21, 2015, when No. 1 seed Villanova played No. 8 seed N.C. State in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was the second day of spring but it was still cold in Pittsburgh, just above freezing outside the Consol Energy Center.
Inside, no one was colder than junior guard Dylan Ennis. Wright knew it.
Late in the game, Ennis was 2 for 11. He had missed all six of his three-point shots. In contrast, freshman Phil Booth had hit 3 of 4 threes. That’s why Booth was in and Ennis was out when Darrun Hilliard hit the three-pointer that cut N.C. State’s lead to two points with 41.1 seconds to play. Wright subbed Ennis in to press, and the press worked; the Wolfpack threw the ball out of bounds with 36.8 seconds left.
Booth came back in, right?
Wright stayed with Ennis, and the ball found him, alone, just beyond the top of the key, with 17 seconds to play.
“That didn’t lose the game for us,” Wright said, though it did, really.
Wright swore to himself then and there that he’d never again pull a backup for a starter if the backup was hot.
Ennis transferred after the 2014-15 season, so he never got another chance to be a Villanova hero. Thanks to Wright’s resolve, Booth did, a year later, in the NCAA championship game.
Booth had averaged just 15 minutes in the three previous games, but he was hot again. This time, Wright rode him for 25 minutes. Booth delivered a career-high 20 points on 6-for-7 shooting. He hit 4 of his 5 threes.
Fast-forward two years, to Monday night, and Villanova is struggling against Michigan in the final. DiVincenzo, a redshirt sophomore, put the team on his back in the first half, and Wright knew he’d found his horse.
DiVincenzo had averaged slightly more than 25 minutes per game in the tournament. He played 37 on Monday. He scored a career-high 31 points. He was named most outstanding player, and Villanova won its second title in three years.
“I wasn’t going to take him out,” Wright said.
DiVincenzo replaced Omari Spellman with 17 minutes, 38 seconds to play in the first half. He didn’t leave until halftime, when he bounded off the elevated court with 18 points. He replaced Spellman again 52 seconds into the second half.
“I had it going,” DiVincenzo said. “I was just in the zone.”
This time, he didn’t leave the court again for almost two hours.
He called for the ball at the end so he could be the one to throw it in the air as time expired. About 30 minutes later, he slung his arm around teammate Jalen Brunson on the corner of the awards platform at center court as Brunson clutched the championship trophy.
Together, they watched the “One Shining Moment” montage on the Alamodome’s big screens. Together, they cried.
“I blame Jalen,” DiVincenzo said. “I was fine, and he came up to me, and he was bawling his eyes out.”
By the time DiVincenzo finally left the court, every college basketball fan knew who Dante DiVincenzo was.
“He’s a bad man!” Josh Hart shouted.
One of a dozen Wildcats alums who shared Monday’s triumph, Hart was the man in the stands DiVincenzo winked at as the Wildcats ran away with the game in the second half. Hart tormented DiVincenzo the previous two years in Villanova practices. Hart now is a rookie with the Lakers. Ryan Arcidiacono is a rookie with the Bulls. They expect DiVincenzo to join them soon. They’ve seen DiVincenzo’s raw ability, especially in 2016 as they prepared to destroy Oklahoma and their consensus player of the year in the national semifinals.
“I wasn’t surprised tonight, because I saw how he kicked our [butts] two years ago, when he was a redshirt acting as Buddy Hield in practice,” said Hart, screaming over the music.
DiVincenzo was so good as Hield it was scary.
“He lit us up in practice to the point that I was nervous going into the game,” assistant coach Ashley Howard said. “Donte absolutely abused us in practice.”
Villanova beat Oklahoma by 41 points. Hield, a lottery pick, scored nine.
On Monday, Hart stood on the court where a handful of NBA prospects had just finished playing the biggest game of their lives.
“He was the best player out here on the court, period,” said Hart, who is confident DiVincenzo can play in the Association. “I’m not sure when, but I’ll see him.”
At least three of DiVincenzo’s five three-pointers were from NBA range. He pinned a layup attempt between the rim and the glass, and he blocked a two-handed dunk, chest-to-chest.
“Oh yeah! He’s a player! He’s a player!” Arcidiacono hollered. “Just saying, in general: The guy’s a player!”
Just being “a player” isn’t enough to handle the NBA, but DiVincenzo seems to have the thick skin a pro needs, too. Asked Monday night about a handful of alarming tweets from several years ago dredged up by Twitter muckrakers after the game, DiVincenzo shrugged, said he didn’t remember sending those tweets, then deleted the account, which had been inactive for almost a year.
He isn’t quite polished enough for the NBA. He needs to improve his ballhandling, and he could be an elite defender but for lapses of concentration, but he showed Monday that he has all-American talent. Three of Villanova’s other top six players will return, and Wright has a fine recruiting class, so a third title in four seasons isn’t unrealistic. The Big Ragu could be a much bigger deal next year this time.
In the afterglow of a performance of a lifetime, wearing a national-championship hat with a piece of net tied to it, he was asked if he’d considered what the next level might be like, sooner than later.
“I’m not. … I’m not focused on any of that right now,” he said.
And he wasn’t.
He was just glad Wright hadn’t sat him, the way he sat Phil Booth.