Jacob Hebda | Staff Writer
A day before this year’s NCAA Tournament Championship, I promised a friend that Villanova would beat Michigan handily.
By at least 15 points, to be specific. I bet five bucks on it.
Following Villanova’s 17-point beat down of Michigan, I have some extra spending money for when my FLEX inevitably runs out.
Another friend of mine somehow possessed enough clairvoyance to pick Villanova over Michigan in the title game of his bracket.
While he predicted the right outcome, even he didn’t expect Villanova to win as easily as it did in defeating Michigan, 79-62.
For a year full of unexpectedness and uncertainty, this outcome was about as predictable as possible.
Once the Final Four, which consisted of Villanova, Michigan, Kansas and Loyola-Chicago was set, the Wildcats were considered the clear favorite. It isn’t hard to understand why, as Villanova had been dominant and its potential opponents each possessed obvious flaws.
For as magical as Loyola’s Cinderella run may have been, the Ramblers didn’t have a single dunk in the tournament. That isn’t to say they were a bad team by any means, but that stat emphasized the athletic disadvantage Loyola faced compared to the three other Power Five schools. Against Michigan, this issue was on full display as Loyola couldn’t score against a strong Wolverine defensive effort.
Kansas had talent, but many questioned its ability to defend effectively against the powerful Wildcat offense. This concern quickly became a reality as Kansas’ perimeter defense failed to slow the 3-point barrage Villanova put on, as it set a Final Four record for 3-pointers made in a game with 18.
Michigan’s elite defense proved challenging for Villanova in the title game, but the Wolverines lacked the offensive firepower to compete with the Wildcats. Veteran stars Moritz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman played well in the title game, but they didn’t get nearly enough offensive support from their teammates.
Whereas the rest of the Final Four teams possessed clear deficiencies, Villanova is a historically great team. Its high-powered offense has garnered most of the attention, but their tremendous defense was equally important to its title run.
After all, you can’t go undefeated through the entirety of March and April without both an excellent offense and defense.
That’s right. Following a Feb. 24 overtime loss to Creighton, the Wildcats won eleven straight games to close out the season.
Not only did Villanova win eleven consecutive games, but it also won its last ten by double-digits, including its championship game victory over Michigan.
Villanova capped its dominant run with a rout of the Wolverines, who were clearly overwhelmed by their opponent’s talent and depth.
Michigan took an early seven point lead, but Villanova quickly seized control of the game, taking a 37-28 lead into the half.
The Wildcats were paced by Big East Sixth Man of the Year Donte DiVincenzo, who had 18 of his game-high 31 points in the first half.
In the second half, it was all Villanova. DiVincenzo continued his terrific performance, making a number of crucial plays to help seal the game for the Wildcats.
After the Wolverines pulled within 12 points of Villanova, DiVincenzo hit two straight bombs from downtown to essentially put the game out of reach.
He also showcased his prowess on the defensive end. Perhaps the highlight of the game came when the 6-foot-5 DiVincenzo rose up for a stunning two-handed block of 6-foot-6-inches Michigan guard Charles Matthews’ layup attempt.
DiVincenzo’s clutch performance was especially important considering the fact that teammate and AP Player of the Year, point guard Jalen Brunson, played far less than usual due to foul trouble. Brunson posted just nine points, a season-low.
Even with an off-night from Brunson, the Wildcats cruised to their second national title in three years and third in the school’s history. Michigan started well and did receive solid contributions from a few, but it just wasn’t enough to contend with such a mighty Villanova team.
DiVincenzo, who earned the much-deserved Most Outstanding Player Award, was the biggest reason for Villanova’s commanding win. Like so many of his other teammates did in this tournament, DiVincenzo stepped up when it mattered most. Whether it was him, Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall or another Wildcat, there was always someone ready to step up to the proverbial plate.
That should be the legacy of this Villanova squad — a team that truly understood the art of teamwork. Jay Wright’s team possessed exceptional depth and cohesion, separating itself from so many other talented teams.
Perhaps the scariest facet of Villanova’s dominating run is the fact that most of this team should be returning next year. Bridges should declare for the NBA Draft, and Brunson and DiVincenzo could, too, but there’s a chance some of them may be back.
Even then, the Wildcats are bringing in a talented recruiting class, bolstered with three ESPN Top 100 athletes.
The rest of this championship core is likely to return, as well, meaning Villanova will be in contention for yet another title next season.