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A game-changing national championship

April 5, 2016 Columns No Comments

When Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer in the national championship game, it made Villanova the champions of college basketball. It gave the school their second national title, with the first one coming 31 years earlier. It was the end of an epic game, one that you don’t feel calling an “instant classic” does full justice to.

And it did much more than anyone might appreciate at the moment it happened. It is potentially a game-changer, and this isn’t about the perception of head coach Jay Wright, much as that will change.

The first big development has to do with the Big East. The conference has a rich and storied history, and was a powerhouse for many years. In its final years before it broke up in 2013, it was as good as they come, putting 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament in 2010-11 and producing four national champions over the final 11 years, including two in the last three. When the breakup happened, and the American Athletic Conference was formed with a number of the old members while a couple of others headed to the ACC, it appeared a new era was upon the conference – and one not as prosperous.

The new-look Big East had a few schools with good history, like Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova, but to a large degree, that history was largely in the distant past. The first two haven’t been national powers for a couple of decades, while Villanova has been good but not a national power. While Xavier has had its share of success, they have been a bit shy of being a national power. No other schools in the conference appeared to have that going for them.

It was a conference with good, not great, teams, from appearances, and also with a whole different set of characters among the coaches. While the current edition of the Big East has some very good coaches, it’s hard to look right now and definitively say there are several future legends there.

From a perception standpoint, the new Big East has had an uphill battle as a result. It used to be one of the “Power Six” conferences, but now most discussion speaks of a “Power 5” that does not include the Big East; it is often thought of in the same category as The American Athletic Conference, Conference USA and the Mountain West, and even at times the Atlantic 10, basically, the next tier. Meanwhile, in the first year after the breakup, UConn won the national championship, giving the American Athletic Conference a great beginning.

Still, conference teams have had great non-conference performances, but that hasn’t translated into much come March. In the first two seasons, the conference placed four and six teams in the NCAA Tournament, and only Xavier last season made it past the first weekend. This year, again only one team made it past the first weekend, so for a while, it was looking like another early ending for the conference.

Now, the story changes. Villanova, the program that has basically carried the flag for the new-look Big East thus far, not only made the Final Four, but won the national championship. This is a big feather in their cap going forward; it is just the breakthrough they need. It will not turn the Big East into a powerhouse conference once again overnight, but certainly helps push it there. Whether it leads to better times ahead will be the product of many factors, but the potential is there more than it was about a month ago.

Perhaps the bigger game-changer is in the composition of a national champion. Indeed, this Villanova team may change some of the thought behind how you win a national championship, or even so much as make a run to the Final Four.

Much has been made of how Villanova recruited players with big reputations for a few years after making the Final Four in 2009. All the same, those teams didn’t come close to matching the success of the 2008-09 team, as the Wildcats’ inability to even reach the Sweet 16 before this season was well-documented. The Wildcats had talent, but it seems they didn’t fit what Jay Wright wanted to do.

It’s clear that Wright has found the right fit with his teams the last couple of years. That was the case even before they won the national championship, as the Wildcats have been on a great run of late. The current senior class is the winningest in school history with 117 wins, including 68 the past two seasons; this season’s team won a school-record 35 games. They didn’t lack talent, but this is far from a star-studded group, something that largely runs counter to what we normally see with national champions. While a team can go far without elite talent dotting their roster, the reality of college basketball has consistently been that national champions at least have one thing: big-time talent.

How talent is measured varies from one person to another, but the normal metrics are McDonald’s All-Americans and future NBA draft picks, especially in the first round. Going back to 2000, every national champion except for Maryland in 2002 and UConn in 2014 has had at least one McDonald’s All-American; there is a note on the latter because Rodney Purvis sat out that season as a transfer. Most of these national champions have had multiple McDonald’s All-Americans; Villanova joins just three others who had only one.

Where this team could truly break ground comes in the NBA Draft. The book is not yet closed on this year’s team, or the last three national champions, for that matter, but this Villanova team is not thought to have a first round pick on their roster by most analysts. That would be a new one; since 2000, every national champion has had at least one player who went on to be drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft, though not necessarily in the same year. Only two teams – Louisville in 2013 and UConn in 2014 – did it with just one future first round pick. Last year’s Duke team had three and could have more in the future, while the 2009 North Carolina team had five and the 2004 UConn team had six.

For a long time, it’s been known that the college game and the NBA are different. The success of players in college and subsequent lack thereof in the NBA have helped drive that home. Winning a national championship with a team of good talent that fits greatly together is a new development in recent times, and it may be one that does more than cement the reality that the college game and NBA are different, and that there is far from an exact translation from one to the other.

It is neutral in terms of what this means for the future of the game. On the one hand, it can give teams that don’t necessarily recruit rosters full of big-time talent hope that they, too, can win a national championship. It can also give athletic directors and presidents the wrong idea as well and lead to coaching moves made with unrealistic ideas in mind. They might think, “If this team can win without first round picks, so can we” and hold their coaches up to that standard. We have already seen such a mindset espoused before; after George Mason made the Final Four in 2006, some mid-major athletic directors and presidents got the idea that their team should be there, too.

At the end of the day, winning is not easy. Some teams and programs might make it look easy, but the simple reality is that it is not. Winning championships is that much harder, even if it helps to have great talent.

The college basketball season in 2015-16 was memorable for a lot of reasons. The national championship game only adds to that given the way that it finished, with heart-stopping moments no one watching the game will forget. When Jenkins’ game-winning shot went through the net, it changed a lot more than first meets the eye, as fate would have it. What those changes mean will not be known for some time, but this will be a moment one can point to as a significant one.

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