It did not have to happen. It was not preordained, Villanova winning a second NCAA title in three years. The Wildcats were always in the mix, one of the most capable groups by any estimation, in and out of the top spot in the national polls. There were times during the season, however, when they themselves knew they weren’t good enough … yet. Here are five reasons Villanova got it right by the end and showed up in March at full potential:
More of a preamble. Every single player on the roster came into 2017-18 with something to prove. Only Jalen Brunson was a starter against North Carolina in the 2016 title game and he wasn’t on the court at the end. That was not his team. This was, beyond being the eventual national player of the year. Go down the line and appreciate the hunger that drove each player. I talked to Jay Wright about this after Villanova had played at Temple in December.
“You see it,’’ Wright said in the hallway of the Liacouras Center. “It’s kind of like the team was — the team that did win it — when they’d lost in the second round [in 2015], and you could just tell they were just hungry to prove themselves. I think these guys want to prove themselves.”
Injuries helped. Injuries helped? Listen to one of the guys who got injured:
“Honestly, I think it helped us,’’ Phil Booth said Monday night after Villanova had taken out Michigan, 79-62. Let’s pause to realize that Booth may be the preeminent expert on coming off the bench ready in a national title game. No chance Villanova won in 2016 without his 20 points. This season, Booth started, but a broken hand took him out for seven Big East games. Eric Paschall, another starter, also missed a couple of games while Booth was out.
“Those young guys got experience,’’ Booth said. “Omari (Spellman) had to play more minutes than usual. You saw how Collin (Gillespie) came in and played (tonight) and Da-Da (Cosby-Roundtree) got in there. Those reps were tremendous for them. By the time we got healthy, we were a way better team. Those injuries kind of helped us out. When we got everybody back, we were a full unit.”
They got better by getting better. This is fundamental but always important: Good teams have players who understand individual improvement is part of the package. Walking out to the Wells Fargo court 90 minutes before Villanova played Providence in January, Paschall was taking pass after pass from assistant Ashley Howard, then taking jump shot after jump shot. The coaches had identified that Paschall actually jumped too high on his jumper last season, pushing too many variables into play, allowing his form to break down. As a result, Paschall only made 27.9 percent of his threes in 2016-17.
Toning that down, literally, took time and effort, and Paschall began this season struggling even more, In November and December, Paschall took 27 three-pointers and made two. In this new year, Paschall took 74 threes and made 45.9 percent, including 4 of 5 in Saturday’s semifinal win over Kansas.
Deciding starters. This is one area where Jay Wright has always earned his salary. Going into this season, I assumed Donte DiVincenzo would start. The talent you saw on display Monday when the redshirt sophomore took over the national title game didn’t simply emerge out of a box that night. Most who have watched DiVincenzo all along, and know what they’re watching, assume his talents will eventually take him to the NBA.
Looking at DiVincenzo as a bench guy was, in fact, the wrong approach. He came in games often within three minutes and then played as much as the starters. It was more a case of who had earned the right to start. I’d been thinking maybe Paschall would be the guy off the bench. Except it made sense that with Spellman being new inside, having Paschall in there with him from the start would provide inside protection and energy. It couldn’t have been easy for DiVincenzo to watch the five starters get their own interview rooms during the Final Four while he stayed back in the locker room. Ironically, they call those rooms breakout rooms. DiVincenzo, not invited to those rooms, turned out to be the breakout star of the Final Four. Living with this role while his own game kept improving required sacrifice.
The defense. The most important change. Villanova assistants said the team looked at the same stats as everyone else, how they were putting up historically good offensive numbers through the first half of the season, but needed to get better in the area where half the game is played, or history said they wouldn’t be winning a championship. From January onward, that became an overwhelming focus of practices. Much of the improvement, they all agreed, came from Spellman’s personal improvement, since it takes time for a first-year player to understand the rotations and other defensive demands. Remember that Daniel Ochefu was a fourth-year player in 2016.
“By the end, he became the anchor of our defense,” said Villanova assistant Kyle Neptune in the locker room after the title game, adding about the overall defensive emphasis: “It’s just holding guys accountable. One thing Coach does, he puts it on the seniors and the older guys, just constantly meeting with those guys, showing them film, going over details in practice. Making it the focal point of what you do every day. Then the guys holding each other accountable.”
The rise of Spellman at the defensive end topped Howard’s lists of improvements.
“He has an unbelievable basketball IQ,’’ Howard said. “The biggest thing we just had to get better at was communication. And that’s easy. The strides he made during the season were huge. And then how our guys handled success and not getting complacent. When we win, allowing us to push them. I think that was huge. Our guys’ ability to remain humble, I felt was a huge component of it.”
Winners always get to talk about grit and work ethic and togetherness. Sometimes, it even happens to be true. Anyone who chooses to focus on how Wright dresses might not notice how hard GQ Jay pushes his players.
“That’s what we’re here for,’’ Howard said. “We’re here to get the best out of them. We have great guys who allow us to push them to the limits — that they never knew they could reach.”