SAN ANTONIO, Texas — They’re like a prehistoric monster adapting to new surroundings, learning in the moment, fearsome and smart.
They’re what we all fear Artificial Intelligence will be when it finally assumes command of the planet.
After 39 games the Villanova Wildcats are just finding their identity. They’re just hitting their stride. And they’re in command at the Final Four.
You almost felt sorry for Kansas in the national semifinal Saturday night. The Jayhawks were a fellow No. 1 seed, but they clearly were overmatched from the start. They trailed by 18 points just 7 minutes into the game, at which point the next 33 minutes were little more than ceremonial. By the time Villanova won, 95-79, on the strength of a Final Four record 18 3-pointers, you almost pitied the Jayhawks.
And now, you almost feel sorry for Michigan, the next victim, a No. 3 seed. Their evening win over No. 11 Loyola of Chicago scheduled them for destruction in the title game Monday night. Michigan will surely carry some sort of curse for derailing the dream of their 98-year old nun. Sister Jean won’t be praying for the Wolverines.
The Wildcats, always good sportsmen, warned us. They felt this coming. All week long, they told anyone who would listen.
“We’re getting better,” coach Jay Wright said Tuesday. “We got better today.”
“We’re getting better,” said Wright’s top assistant, Ashley Howard, on Thursday. “We got better at practice today. Better rebounding. Better defensively.”
“We’re getting better, yes,” said Jalen Brunson, the Associated Press Player of the Year, on Friday. “We’ve been getting better all along.”
We’re sure you think that, J. Every team still playing the last week in March believes that.
Brunson had evidence.
The Wildcats had won nine in a row. They’d won their first two NCAA Tournament games by an average of 24.5 points. They won their Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games by 12 points each. They’d held six of their last seven opponents to 70 points or less, and defense was supposed to be their weakness.
Yes, the Wildcats were trending up as they approached the end of this year’s road to the Final Four, but they seemed too good to be true; at least, too good to be this good.
They’re exactly this good.
Maybe, come Monday, even better.
“This is not the finished product,” Brunson said after the win. “Tomorrow, we’re going to get better at practice and watching film. We’ll try to be the best team we can be Monday night.”
That’s a chilling thought if you’re a Wolverine.
Wright spent the past two seasons grooming an NBA-caliber point guard in Jalen Brunson, the nation’s best player. He spent three years polishing a potential lottery pick on the wing, Mikal Bridges, his most talented player in years. Brunson scored 18 points, with six assists. Bridges scored 10. But six Wildcats scored at least 10.
How else are they getting better?
Redshirt freshman Omari Spellman had eight rebounds … in his first 13 minutes. He finished the game with 13, and 15 points.
This shocking and awesome display of execution and balance and talent rained like fire from the sky. Meteors. Missiles. Pick a metaphor. It will fit.
The barrage began thus: 3, 3, 3, take a charge, runner, (opponent’s layup from their best player), jumper, steal, tip-slam, rebound, 3, take another charge, 3. That made it 22-4.
You give an 18-point lead seven minutes into the game to the third-best offensive team in the nation — a team that thrives on half-court execution, has superb guards and is the best long-range team in the land — you’ve cut your own throat. Wright knew that.
“You get up, 22-4, if you’re a decent free-throw shooting team, it’s hard to come back from that,” he said.
Villanova made 16 of 20 free throws last night, 80 percent, right on track for their 78 percent rate over their first 38 games.
By the end of the half Villanova had hit 40.3 percent of its 3’s and was 13-for-26, tying the Final Four record for 3’s set in 1987 by UNLV (they broke it 61 seconds into the second half). They turned the ball over three times. They led, 47-32. They weren’t breathing hard.
The Wildcats were playing on five days’ rest. The Wildcats brought back four players from the title team two years prior. The Wildcats were made for this.
And they’re still getting better.
Poor, poor Michigan.