NCAA Tournament 2018: Villanova is just a victory away from capping an epic 5-year run
The Wildcats could take their place among the great programs by beating Michigan on Monday
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SAN ANTONIO – The barrage started fewer than a minute and a half after tipoff, when Villanova's Omari Spellman grabbed a long rebound and dished to point guard Jalen Brunson on the wing. Brunson took two dribbles toward the rim, then turned and shoveled the ball to Eric Paschall in the corner. Paschall launched the 3-pointer, and it swished: Villanova's first 3-pointer in what would become a historic night of them.
At the end of 40 minutes of basketball, Villanova had obliterated fellow No. 1 seed Kansas, 95-79.
The Wildcats had tied the all-time Final Four record of 13 3-pointers made in a game – but Villanova made that many in the first half. By the end, 18 3-pointers had rained through the hoop, three shy of the all-time NCAA Tournament record set in 1990 by Loyola-Marymount.
This wasn't some sort of anomaly for this Villanova team Jay Wright's squad shoots an enormous amount of 3-pointers (15th in college basketball in percentage of points that come off 3-pointers), and it hits them at a high rate (11th in college basketball in 3-point percentage). The Wildcats also set the single-tournament record for most 3-pointers. It all adds up to a historic offense (its offensive efficiency this season is the second-highest in college basketball over the past 17 seasons, which is as long as KenPom.com's database goes back).
On Saturday, that historic offense had a historic night.
"This is one of those nights where everything went in," Wright said.
But what this Villanova team is on the cusp of is more than just an incredible offense playing an incredible NCAA Tournament.
What Philly's finest can accomplish with a win over Michigan on Monday night is nothing short of completing one of the finest five-year runs in college basketball history.
Check out what Villanova has accomplished over the past five seasons. It's simply absurd.
- In 2014, Villanova was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It lost to UConn (which went on to win the title) in the second round, finishing with 29 wins.
- In 2015, Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It lost to North Carolina State in the second round, finishing with 33 wins.
- In 2016, Villanova was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It beat North Carolina at the buzzer to win the national title, finishing with 35 wins.
- In 2017, Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It lost in the second round to Wisconsin, finishing with 32 wins.
This season, Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If the Wildcats beat Michigan on Monday night, that'll be Villanova's second national title in three seasons, and will be a program-record 36 wins.
If Villanova cuts down the nets on Monday night, this will without a doubt be one of the greatest five-year runs in college basketball history. The program's record since the 2013-14 season would be 165-21.
Coach K's greatest five-year run (in terms of win totals) started with the 1997-98 season. Those five seasons, Coach K's teams won a combined 164 games, and one national title. Bill Self's greatest five-year run started with the 2006-07 season: 165 wins, and one national title. Jerry Tarkanian? Starting in the 1990-91 season, UNLV won 163 games over five years, and one national title. Should Villanova win on Monday night, its current run bests all of those.
"Making this run in itself – I wish I could give you a better answer, (but) it's so exhilarating," Wright said after Saturday's win. "You can't say it's a dream come true because you don't even dream about it. You don't dream about getting two out of three years. You don't think about it. I don't. So it's hard to even comprehend it."
Wright was talking about his team's run during this year's tournament. But his words easily could be extrapolated to his program's remarkable five-year run.
Is it the single greatest five-year run in modern college basketball history? Maybe. Maybe not. I'm going to arbitrarily say that the "modern era" of college basketball began in 1978-79; as Seth Davis' book about that season is titled, that was "When March Went Mad" as Magic Johnson's Michigan State team beat Larry Bird's Indiana State squad for the title. If you're counting just the raw win total, then yes, Villanova's your team. But teams do play more games nowadays than in the past.
There are a few teams that have an argument to be made over Villanova – two in particular. Kentucky went on a five-year run starting in the 1994-95 season that included two national titles, one national runner-up and two Elite Eights. If you want to argue that Villanova's had a better five-year run, here's your argument: Kentucky's record was 160-25 over the time, which is a worse winning percentage than Villanova. And the fact that that five-year run encompasses two coaching regimes, Rick Pitino's to Tubby Smith's, means that the run had two architects. It doesn't have the continuity of Wright's run.
Duke? Starting in the 1989-90 season, Mike Krzyzewski's squad went on a five-year tear: National runner-up, national title, national title, losing in second round, national runner-up. Pretty damn good. But here's the argument for Villanova, if you choose to make it: Duke's combined record those seasons, 147-32, pales in comparison to Villanova's record the past five seasons. And there was one dud of a year in there, where Duke went 24-8. Villanova hasn't had any duds.
I know the argument against Villanova's five-year run as the single greatest should they beat Michigan: Sure, regular season wins are nice and all, but three of those Jay Wright teams didn't make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. I get that. But I do believe there's something to be said for this remarkable consistency for five straight years. There's also something to be said for how silly it is to judge an entire season's worth of games on a single loss in March. In 2014, Villanova lost to the eventual national champion, UConn, a team that absolutely caught fire in March. Last season, Villanova was the tournament's No. 1 overall seed – meaning, Villanova had the best regular season of anyone – but lost a one-possession game to Wisconsin.
It's no coincidence Villanova's run started in the first year of the "new" Big East Conference. The breakup of the old Big East was a potential death knell for programs like Villanova; instead, the new basketball-centric conference has rejuvenated not just Villanova but old-school Big East school like Seton Hall and Providence as well as new-school Big East schools like Xavier and Creighton.
It's also no coincidence that Villanova's remarkable five-year run has come as traditional blueblood schools have become obsessed with one-and-dones. Villanova has eschewed the pursuit of one-and-dones in favor of "program" guys. Players like Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges have developed over their three or four years at Villanova into legit NBA talents, but they've also become accomplished collegiate veterans. And that's how you get sustained success in the college game: Not by chasing the talent, but by mixing talent and experience in a program with such a distinct identity as Villanova's.
I don't know for sure if Villanova will win Monday night. But after seeing how the Wildcats dismantled Kansas on Saturday, it's hard to see how they could lose.
"It's our best offensive team," Wright said. "We've had some good ones, and this is definitely our best. Our challenge has been that we were so good offensively earlier in the year that we got lazy defensively. So it was hard to get to this point where we are."
Here's where Wright's team is now: If Villanova, for the second time in three seasons, again cuts down the nets on a Monday night in April, this isn't just one great college basketball team.
This is the crown jewel in what may go down as the greatest five-year run in modern college hoops.
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