SAN ANTONIO – When running at full octane, Villanova basketball is an organism of resplendent beauty. It is kinetic and connected, unselfish and uninhibited, smooth and sublime. Villanova like it was against Kansas in the Final Four on Saturday is a Springsteen encore, Brady in the fourth or Brazil on the pitch – it’s as much an experience as an event.
Villanova showed why it’s college basketball’s version of the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night at the Final Four in a national semifinal that doubled as a showcase of a basketball ideal. Villanova eviscerated Kansas, 95-79, hitting 18 3-pointers and turning the day’s marquee blue-blood matchup into an anti-climactic bloodbath. Villanova treated Kansas like it was an NEC school invited to the Pavilion for a $90,000 knuckle sandwich on a sleepy December Tuesday. And the way the Wildcats did it could resonate through the sport for a long time.
To read the score and rattle off all the records doesn’t justify the feel elicited from the game – the ball whipping around the perimeter like it was laced in acid, the celebrations after charges drawn by the national Player of the Year and the program’s lone lottery pick deflecting passes and diving for loose balls like he’s on the scout team.
This game transcended the cliché of a team putting on a clinic. With No. 1 Villanova playing No. 3 Michigan in the national championship on Monday night, the Wildcats’ performance on this type of stage is the kind of game that forces coaches to re-think the way they play. Villanova is on the cusp of its second national title in three years, and it’s a safe prediction that college basketball is going to look a lot more like Villanova in upcoming years – the same impact the Warriors had on the NBA.
Villanova basketball has become an entity, a brand, uniquely identifiable for its style as much as its success.
“In the old days, if you had a television and it was fuzzy, sometimes you couldn’t tell who was who,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “But the way they play, you could say, ‘That’s Villanova,’ even if you couldn’t see their uniforms. They play beautiful basketball and have created a model.”
Villanova didn’t just set the record for 3-pointers in a Final Four, the Wildcats tied it in the first half and broke it nearly 21 minutes into the game. (UNLV had 13 in 1987, and it may take three more decades for someone to break Nova’s 18). They also broke the record for most three-pointers in an NCAA tournament, as they blew past VCU’s 61 midway through the second half.
“I feel bad for Kansas,” Wright said after the game. “They’re a great team; we just made every shot. And that happens sometimes.”
Villanova didn’t just share the ball, it registered assists on its first nine 3-point shots, as the ball movement was equal parts dizzying and dazzling. Perhaps the highest compliment to Villanova’s ball movement was that it scored 47 points in the first half without attempting a free throw – Kansas couldn’t even catch up to the Wildcats to foul them. (Villanova didn’t attempt a free throw until more than 31 minutes into the game, at which point it’d scored 71 points.)
“When you have that kind of chemistry, it’s inspiring,” said Villanova assistant Ashley Howard.
To list the stars of the Kansas blowout is to read the roster, as the Wildcats got 18 from Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, 15 points and 13 rebounds from forward Omari Spellman and a surreal 24 on 10-of-11 shooting from Eric Paschall. (At the under-eight time out in the second half, the Villanova cheering section chanted Paschall’s name in salute to his near-perfect night. His performance puts him next to Bill Walton, Jerry Lucas, Sean May and Billy Thompson as players to shoot 10-for-11 in a Final Four game.)
To say Villanova shot the lights out would actually be accurate. Midway through the second half, the scoreboard ribbon looping the Alamadome and some lights in the upper deck temporarily went dark. In 1985, Villanova shot 78.6 percent against Georgetown in the contest forever known as “The Perfect Game.” The Wildcats’ 18-for-40 performance from 3-point range Saturday may be remembered as the modern, analytic-driven version of that. ‘Nova attempted just 25 two-point field goals, a sign of where the sport is continuing to head.
Certainly, Villanova’s national title run two years ago helped perpetuate the 3-point happy era of college basketball that we’re entering.
“In my generation, coach Jay Wright changed basketball,” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard in Boston last week. “He’s the one that kind of invented small ball, where your four-man can shoot 3s. They always have four guys on the floor that can shoot.”
On Saturday night, seven different Wildcats hit 3-pointers. Kansas recently converted to Villanova’s style, more out of necessity than Bill Self’s preference, and looked like the jayvee version as the game played out like a race between a Tesla and a Ford Tempo.
Here’s the dirty little secret about the Wildcats this NCAA tournament: They hadn’t played that well. We predicted that Villanova would run away with the national title after seeing the Wildcats last weekend in Boston, and Villanova struggled – by their standards – against West Virginia and Texas Tech in the East Regional. They endured the weekend as much as they advanced through it, gummed up at points against two unconventional matchups. The bruising West Virginia pressure defense and intense man-to-man man of Texas Tech left Villanova uncomfortable for stretches. But the matchups in San Antonio were much more appealing, a stripped-down version of themselves in Kansas and an athletically inferior Michigan team waiting on Monday night.
Villanova has won all nine of its March games by double-digits. The Wildcats entered the game with an average margin of victory of 18 points over that stretch, and managed to lead by as many as 22 points Saturday against the best team in the Big 12.
Villanova’s otherworldly start to Final Four weekend ended in another blowout, more broken records and less drama than a vote picking the better dressed coach on the floor. They played the type of game so overwhelming and resplendent that it stays with you, the type that prompts copycats, changes paradigms and will remain a basketball touchstone for decades to come.
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