SAN ANTONIO, Texas — You saw the play. As the Kansas Jayhawks desperately tried to get back into Saturday’s NCAA semifinal early in the second half, Villanova had its first-year big man on a Kansas senior all-American point guard. Advantage, all-American, to the naked eye.
Except this was Omari Spellman on Devonte’ Graham up top after a switch. The redshirt freshman never looked around for help. Hey, I got this. The ball rotated to Graham, and he did what he should have done, drive to the basket.
The result might show up in “One Shining Moment.” Now, maybe focusing on Villanova’s defense on this night at the Alamodome might sound like discussing the food intake on some lunar mission, but that end of the court obviously counted, too. As all those Villanova three-pointers kept dropping, trading baskets against Kansas wasn’t the goal. It never became an issue, right to the 95-79 final.
Going into this, Villanova’s adjusted defensive efficiency as calculated by Ken Pomeroy shot up from 48th nationally on Feb. 12 to 14th. This perfectly aligned with what you saw in the last month: from a team not good enough to get to a Final Four if it threw in an offensive clunker to a squad so obviously capable of winning it all.
Asked about what had happened, Jay Wright said Friday what he’s said a lot lately, pinning it on the tremendous on-court growth by Spellman.
“Probably individually the most important part of our growth as a team,’’ Wright had said. “Everybody else on our team is pretty experienced. And to get this far, you’ve got to have a good big man.”
Wright went on, talking about how Villanova has always had good perimeter players, but two years ago, Daniel Ochefu had dominated inside in the NCAA tournament, playing better than any inside player in that tournament.
“And Omari has approached that level,” Wright said, speaking just about the defensive side. “I don’t think he’s at the level Daniel was yet. But if not for him and his development, we probably wouldn’t be at this point. Other guys are kind of — they’ve each improved, but not at the rate that Omari has.”
Villanova began the night with the base defensive assignments you kind of expected. Phil Booth would be in charge of keeping Graham in front of him. Mikal Bridges was to keep Malik Newman from continuing his torrid NCAA tournament play.
Quickly, Villanova showed little nuances defending Graham. Right after Bridges had hit a three-pointer, he harassed Graham a bit at midcourt, Graham got past it, and past Booth guarding him. But Spellman appeared and Graham stutter-stepped, earning a travel call.
In the beginning, it was almost like old times, as in that time Villanova dismantled Oklahoma in the 2016 national semifinal game. Bridges was hiding in plain sight in the middle of a passing lane, forcing a turnover that led to an Eric Paschall putback dunk and a 16-4 ‘Nova lead.
Freshman Collin Gillespie, just into the game, took a charge from Newman and threw a fist in the air. (Then he hit a three.)
During one stretch, the Jayhawks were down 15 and scored on five straight possessions, which put them down 17.
Afterward, Wright talked about how the defense had coasted a bit early in the season after taking leads. He didn’t see that here. He saw a defense that held Kansas below its season and NCAA scoring averages. He professed himself pleased.
“That’s our true measure of success,” Spellman said of the defensive end, the “playing hard and tough” portion of the game.
For Kansas, trading twos for Villanova threes was a tough deal, but even that was no given, especially with Spellman protecting the rim effectively. The game wasn’t over at the break, however. A 47-32 lead wasn’t a TKO. At halftime, Silvio De Sousa’s five first-half offensive rebounds probably came up in Villanova locker room, among other topics.
As Villanova racked up 11 first-half assists while dropping 13 three-pointers, already tying the Final Four record, Kansas had just three first-half assists, to six turnovers.
Back to that Graham decision to drive on Spellman. It was a good idea, other than where the ball ended up. It wasn’t quite a layup attempt, since the ball never got that close to the rim. Spellman deposited it over a row of photographers, right off the raised court.
Yeah, the development of the new big man probably has had the biggest impact, Villanova’s coach had said the day before, knowing nothing about how this one would play itself out.