Last time around, it took a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Kris Jenkins to secure Villanova the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship over North Carolina in 2016. This time, the Wildcats thoroughly dominated the Michigan Wolverines to win their second championship in three years and secure Greater Philadelphia its second major championship of the calendar year.
The story of the tournament going into the Final Four was the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, the No.11 seed that somehow emerged from a South Region containing such blue-blood programs as Virginia, Arizona, and Kentucky. Sister Jean, the team chaplain and de facto mascot, became an instantly recognizable face throughout America as the Ramblers, featuring tenacious defense and lights-out 3-point shooting akin to Villanova, improbably continued their run to the final weekend of the tournament. There, they sought to become the first-ever double-digit seed to advance to the national championship game. However, they first ran into Moritz Wagner and the Michigan Wolverines in the national semifinals, and ultimately their storybook run ended there.
The Ramblers had certainly faced tough opponents in their previous matchups during the tournament, but they hadn’t seen a player quite like Wagner, the German giant who can match up with the best big men in the country while also hitting threes like Steph Curry. And Loyola had no answers as Wagner went off for 24 points and 15 rebounds, only the third time a player has posted a 20-point 15-rebound stat line in national semifinal history. The Wolverines rolled to a 69-57 victory in spite of Loyola’s 29-22 halftime lead.
The other side of the bracket saw a matchup that in other years might be worthy of the national championship game as the Wildcats tipped off against the Kansas Jayhawks, another traditional powerhouse with a treble of titles to its name. Villanova had steamrolled its way to the Final Four, winning all of its games by double digits with a historically efficient and hot-shooting offense. Kansas, also a No.1 seed, had struggled a bit in its journey to the semifinals, squeaking out 4-point wins over Clemson and Seton Hall, and an overtime nailbiter against Duke. Led by National Player of the Year contender Devonte Graham, the Jayhawks looked poised to fight once again for the national championship. However, the Wildcats had other ideas as they once again won by double digits to secure their own spot in the national championship game. Jalen Brunson, the presumptive National Player of the Year, scored 18 while the Wildcats maintained a balanced attack that saw them make an NCAA tournament record 18 3-pointers, with seven players making at least one.
Ultimately that set up a matchup between the Wolverines and the Wildcats in San Antonio on Monday night. In a tournament filled with drama, including the first-ever upset of a No.1 seed by a No.16 seed, this was a matchup that actually made some sense. Michigan has only won the tournament once, in 1989, though they finished as runners-up in 2013; the team was riding a 14-game winning streak into the championship game. Villanova was seeking some amount of redemption after an unceremonious first-weekend exit in last year’s tournament, but there was no question of its pedigree with its two national championships and roster featuring Brunson and likely NBA draft lottery pick Mikal Bridges.
But it was neither of these players that made the biggest impact for the Wildcats. Instead, it was sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo, coming off the bench, who dropped a career high 31 points and led ‘Nova to a 79-62 rout of the Wolverines. At one point, Villanova was trailing by 7 midway through the first half before DiVincenzo erupted, accounting for 18 of Villanova’s 37 first-half points. The offensive outpouring did not stop there as DiVincenzo finished 10 of 15 from the field, including an incredible 5 of 7 from 3-point range. Mikal Bridges added 19 for the Wildcats while Brunson had a fairly quiet night on the stat sheet, scoring only 9. On the other end of the floor, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahman did all he could to keep the Wolverines in it, scoring 23. However, it was not enough to overcome the smothering defense of Villanova, which held Michigan to 3 of 23 shooting from 3-point land while keeping Wagner fairly in check throughout the night, holding him to 16 points and 7 rebounds.
With his team’s win, Villanova head coach Jay Wright became just the third active head coach in the NCAA with multiple basketball championships on his resume. Mike Krzyzewski, whose Duke Blue Devils suffered that heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Kansas in the Elite Eight, stands as the unrivaled kind of active head coaches with five national championships to his name. Duke will likely lose its entire starting lineup to the NBA, but is bringing in the top three rated high school recruits for next year’s class, the first time a team has managed that since recruit rankings began. Duke certainly looks like the team to watch out for next year. But Villanova has certainly set itself up well to once again challenge for the national title. They will likely only lose Bridges and Brunson to the NBA, returning DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall, who scored 24 in the national semifinal game, and Omari Spellman, who blossomed into one of the best big men in the country, among others. But for now, Villanova may take a few well-deserved months of rest before they set their sights on next year’s title.