BOSTON -- When you almost forget to cut the nets, you know you're really damn good.
Villanova's on Sunday afternoon in the East Regional final was rugged and skittish. After it was over, and after the team had walked off the podium and hoisted its latest trophy, Villanova players unintentionally revealed how businesslike -- how ordinary -- they considered the outcome.
Wildcats junior Mikal Bridges tucked the East Regional hardware beside his chest and aimlessly made his way around one end of the floor. Jalen Brunson and other Wildcats snaked behind Bridges, moving through the media horde taking up much of the court.
"Guys, to the locker room," Brunson said.
And then a Villanova staffer reminded them: Hey, you get to cut the nets!
So they did. And it was a fun but also sort of subdued ceremony. This is a team with bigger plans. Brunson, Bridges, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall -- those five of the Wildcats' top six players were a part of the 2016 national championship squad. The nets they want to cut are dangling in San Antonio, not Boston. The traditional, Elite Eight-winning ritual every team goes through simply appears to be another motion in the process of what might wind up being inevitable: a second national title in three years for Villanova basketball.
As his Wildcats eventually got on the ladder and snipped the twine, coach Jay Wright was goofily smiling like a proud papa and yell-talking into the phone near the team's bench. Given how happy and playful he looked, you would think he might've been on the phone with a grandchild or beloved youngster.
Half the team treated the postgame celebration in the arena like a casual cookout. Freshmen Omari Spellman, Collin Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels and others climbed 10, 20 rows up into the stands to chat with friends and family members, twine tied to their hats and taking selfies.
The players eventually got back to the locker room ahead of Wright and Brunson, who was the last guy off the floor. As the players waited for their coach, they held hands and were in faux prayer -- then revealed their watery weapons in the forms of uncapped Dasani water bottles and doused the best-dressed man in college basketball right after he got in.
A soggy-suited Wright did his interviews disheveled, which is to say his tie was just barely loosened and his hair only somewhat out of place.
A good suit ruined was worth the cost of this kind of win. Villanova had its laundry dirtied and won in a way that used to be how this program defined itself. It was a throwback victory.
What Villanova did to Texas Tech on Sunday was frightening. The Wildcats entered the game shooting 59.1 percent from 2-point range and 40.5 percent from 3. They rated -- and still do -- as the best offense in college basketball (No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency at 127.5 points per 100 possessions). Villanova's never been this good under Wright.
Through three tournament games, Villanova set a record with 44 3-pointers, winning by an average of 21.3 points and blowing the doors off Radford, Alabama and West Virginia. They looked like the best team in the field.
But Texas Tech was going to be a different challenge. The Red Raiders mucked up the game up and induced Villanova into one of its worst showings, cosmetically, of the season. The Wildcats were brutal from 3-point range, making only four of 24 attempts. From 2-point range, Villanova shot merely 15-of-33. The Wildcats had 12 turnovers and only seven assists.
It still won by 12.
A team that had re-established itself this month as a title favorite got kicked in the shins and tugged back down to earth by a well-coached Texas Tech club that was trying to win with its best player, Keenan Evans, laboring through a busted toe.
Despite shooting 33 percent from the field, Villanova still got to 71 points against the most athletic team it's faced all season. It's gross how good this team can be even when it's ordinary on offense.
"That was definitely our best defensive effort of the year," Wright said.
Rebounding won the day. Villanova snagged 50 percent of its misses, accounting for its best offensive rebounding performance of the season. Villanova went more than 11 minutes in the first half without allowing Texas Tech to grab an offensive rebound.
"We really got whipped on the boards," Texas Tech coach Chris Beard said. "We haven't got out-rebounded like that all year. It's a real problem. And then we just fouled too much."
Combine it with Villanova's talent level, and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Rick Brunson warned his son that he wouldn't get to see Jalen play unless they made the Elite Eight, because of Rick's NBA schedule.. Brunson, who wouldn't wobble in an earthquake, is the most reliable player in college basketball. After the game, he had an embrace with his father, Rick, an assistant with the
, but it never came easy. That work ethic and mindset is why Villanova's coaches dubbed Brunson "the ultimate Villanova basketball player" when they recruited him, assistant Ashley Howard said.
"The thing about Jalen is, he's one of those rare players that doesn't want any of the credit, doesn't really want the attention, but he wants the responsibility of running our team, being our leader, having the ball in his hands," Howard said.
He plays with a fire deep within. Always a straight face, a flat line -- steady -- but there's a boil underneath. Reliable, the same guy every day.
"Nothing changes," Brunson said.
Championship-level teams need a constant. Brunson, the first Villanova player to score more than 700 points in a season since Kerry Kittles in 1994-95, is the constant.
"I was missing a lot of shots, and my teammates looking me in the eye in the huddle and saying, 'Jalen, keep shooting the ball. Keep shooting the ball. Don't worry about it. Don't worry about it,'" he said. "That's just the confidence they have in me and we have in each other."
Brunson said in the locker room afterward that this kind of win, having it not come easy, was beneficial for the team's mindset heading into the Final Four. The NCAA Tournament is supposed to be hard. Villanova finally showed that it can be.
On Saturday afternoon, Texas Tech went through its warmup routine in the hallway of the TD Garden. Because NCAA rules suggest, if not demand, that teams not blare their own music in the arena of tournament venues during practice, Tech took it upon themselves to crank the volume to max capacity and go through stretching routines ... right outside Viillanova's locker room.
At one point, Bridges poked his head out for five seconds, took the scene in, then dipped back into the locker room and closed the door.
NCAA does not allowed teams to play music in the arena during practice. So Texas Tech just took their routine and blared it right next to Nova’s locker room. pic.twitter.com/Dqc9rMN2cd— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) March 24, 2018
Because this team is media-savvy to a fault, none of the players would admit that Tech's routine was bothersome. Maybe that's true. But they all acknowledged it. And if you're Tech you're going to do what makes your team most confident and comfortable.
But you also poked the bear.
Tech opened up with a 9-1 lead, then Villanova outscored the Red Raiders 35-14 the rest of the first half and held them off down the stretch.
"They can obviously beat anybody in the tournament with a 3-point shot," Beard said. "They proved tonight that they can beat good teams without the three as well."
The Wildcats' win brought the program to a remarkable 134 in the past four years. No other school can match that. Five straight seasons as a top-2 seed in the tournament. The victory helped secure the Wildcats' argument to be labeled the most consistent team in college basketball (further helped by Duke's inability to get to the Final Four this year).
More records could come on Saturday. With seven more 3-pointers, Villanova will set the record for most (443) in a season in Division I history. The Wildcats are headed to their sixth Final Four in school history, tying them all-time with Arkansas, Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, Syracuse and Michigan, which is also bound for San Antonio.
Wright has built a powerhouse. And this team, which could go down as the best in school history, doesn't even have a senior on it -- though keeping those four NBA players for another year might be difficult.
"You think, why me?" Wright said. "You know there's a lot of great teams out there, a lot of great programs. At this point, you don't really try to figure out why. You figure out -- you're kind of saying, why us, you know, and just soaking it in. I know we have really good guys. And we have talented -- it's always talented players. It really is. Jalen and Mikal and Phil and even Eric and Donte, they were on a National Championship team. So they're pretty good players. And you still have them. That's something that's really important."
In a just world, Brunson would be a lock for National Player of the Year. This team is the best in the sport and the program honestly might be cruising just above all others. In order to secure that, though, it needs two more wins. Kansas , then either Loyola-Chicago or Michigan.
It's one thing to win a national title. It's another to get back two years after that, with a lot of the same guys on the roster, but doing it in a different way. This Villanova team is younger than 2016's. And you know what? It's better. I think the coaches know that. The players want to believe it too.
But it's going to need two more wins to validate that. At this point, it's hard to envision how that won't happen.