Villanova will play for another National Championship tonight. They are currently seven – SEVEN! – point favorites over Michigan after opening at -6.5, with roughly 70% of the bets and money falling on the Cats. This is a good sign.
They should win.
I can wax poetic about how far they’ve come as a program from the time I was a freshman living off-campus in 2001 and used to park behind the Pavilion and walk past Jay Wright’s Range Rover on the way to class. I would occasionally cut through the Pavilion on my way home to catch a glimpse of practice and marvel at how Wright, who has such a pleasant public demeanor, would lambaste the likes of Derrick Snowden and Reggie Bryant in expletive-filled rants. I was in on the ground floor of the Jay Wright era, even if I wasn’t supposed to be in the building gaping at practice. To see how high they’ve built this tower still hasn’t fully registered, though Kyle Lowry tried to put it into words in his excellent piece in The Players Tribune last night:
All I’m saying is, you probably wouldn’t have seen very many kids rocking the ’Nova apparel in the inner city when I was a kid. The brotherly love, for whatever reason, didn’t extend 15 miles west.
And then Jay Wright got there in 2001.
He was some guy from Hofstra who nobody really knew much about, coming to coach a team that nobody cared much about. And even though he had grown up in Bucks County, he had the perfect Philadelphia attitude — he didn’t give a s*** about what anybody in the city thought about him.
Then all of a sudden it was like the Wildcats was looking a little better. Tougher, grittier, whatever you want to call it. And then the next season they got better again.
Then they weren’t a middling program anymore. They were up-and-comers. Underdogs.
And suddenly Philly felt like it had gotten a little bigger.
But I’ll get all sappy after they win. If they win. Right now it’s all about Michigan and, more importantly, John Beilein, who has given Wright fits in the past. Mike Jensen detailed how they used to recruit against each other in Division III. More recently, Beilein’s West Virginia teams took it to Wright’s 2005 and 2006 squads, sometimes in brutal fashion.
After Villanova throttled West Virginia at the Pavilion in their first Big East game of the 2004-2005 season, one in which Villanova would establish itself as a tournament team and looming national competitor, West Virginia, seemingly out of nowhere, knocked off Villanova on a Friday night in the conference tournament. I was at both games, and the progression in West Virginia’s offense, which did its damage with backdoor cuts, was striking. West Virginia wound up making a remarkable run to the Elite 8, beating a Chris Paul-led Wake Forest on the strength of Kevin Pittsnogle, Mike Gansey, and Patrick Beilien, John’s son.
The next year, when Villanova would get as high as number two in the country and earn a number one seed, West Virginia was one of only three teams to beat them in the regular season, handing them their first loss, at home after a 10-0 start.
That’s what I think of when I think of John Beilein– the one guy who figured out Jay’s dominant four-guard team.
Both coaches have improved since. Jay said as much at his press conference this weekend.
Beilien has more talent to work with by virtue of coaching Michigan. He now runs a lot of pick-and-roll to complement the nasty backdoor cuts that are always in his pocket. Oh, and he has one of the best defenses in the country. Wright, on the other hand, has one of the best offenses in college basketball history and mixes in zone defense from time to time.
I’ve worried about this potential matchup since the start of the tournament. I had Michigan in the Final Four on the strength of Beilein alone. I had them losing to Virginia (…), but always felt they could wind up playing Nova for the title.
Here we are.
Michigan defends the three better than anyone Villanova has played all tournament and probably all season. That doesn’t mean Nova can’t (or won’t) just shoot over them, but they will have to find some other ways to score, too. Thankfully, they can do that. Jalen Brunson can neutralize a good three-point defense by backing defenders down in the paint and then either scoring or kicking it back out. To me, this is a game where Villanova will have to rely a bit more heavily on its ability to drive, which is why I see another potential National Championship takeover from Phil Booth, or perhaps Donte DiVincenzo. They are Villanova’s LEAST GREAT three-point shooters along with Eric Paschall – but the secret might be out on him after Kansas – and have the athleticism to drive and get to the basket. But Villanova can win in a variety of ways, and they have been dominating their way to a championship. They’ve won nine straight games by double-digits, dating back to the last game of the regular season. And their spread numbers are RIDICULOUS.
Meanwhile, Villanova will look to join an exclusive club of national champions that finished the tournament 6-0 ATS. Only five teams have accomplished that feat over the past 20 years:
2009 North Carolina
Yes, Villanova could win its second national championship in the past three years with a perfect 12-0 ATS record. A potential legendary run in the betting world. (I also can’t verify it with 100% certainty, but I believe the 1985 Villanova championship team also went 6-0 ATS).
Since 1985, only four other teams have entered the National Championship after winning five NCAA Tournament games by double-digits:
2000 Michigan State
2009 North Carolina
2016 North Carolina
Three of the four won and covered in the national title, while the lone exception, 2016 North Carolina, lost to … Villanova.
National powerhouse. This is a storied run, and accordingly most of the attention this week has been focused on Jay Wright, but interestingly, Beilein will be right up there with him if Michigan wins. Just like Wright, Beilein will have two title appearances over the last few years, with one win. Not to mention that he’ll beat Wright to get it and own a 6-3 coaching record against him. If Villanova wins, Jay Wright goes to the Hall of Fame.
That’s what’s on the line.