A college basketball season like 2015-16 deserved better than the past few rounds of the NCAA Tournament had provided, and Monday night a thoroughly enjoyable year received a fitting sendoff with one of the great Final Four championship games in the sport’s history.
In the 78 wondrous years of the NCAA Tournament, Villanova’s 77-74 win over North Carolina-decided on a Kris Jenkins three-pointer at the buzzer-immediately goes down on the short list for the greatest finishes in a title game in tourney history. There is the Lorenzo Charles put-back dunk for North Carolina State in its shocker over Houston in 1983 and Keith Smart’s winner with four seconds left for Indiana in 1987 was every bit as clutch, for it came with the Hoosiers down a point to Syracuse. Loyola (Ill.)’s 1963 overtime win over Cincinnati on Vic Rouse’s tip-in at the buzzer also belongs right there.
In all there have been 14 title games now decided by a single possession, and placing one above the rest doesn’t do justice to those others, or the history of an event that so often leaves us with our jaws on the floor. Nevertheless, it is fair and safe to say that no game has had a more amazing back and forth in the final five seconds than this year’s, with the Tar Heels’ Marcus Paige hitting a double-clutch, hanging 25-footer to tie the game, only to be trumped by the Wildcats and Jenkins hitting the winner.
As awe-inspiring as it was, this game was so much more than just the finish. There was a tightly contested first half, with Carolina matching and even exceeding Villanova’s impeccable defensive intensity. There was UNC taking a seven-point lead late in the half with a chance to make it nine in the final seconds, but the Heels missed a fastbreak layup and then unlikely hero Phil Booth hitting a jumper just before halftime to get the Wildcats within five at the break.
The second half saw Villanova start to gain control, as Carolina cooled off from three-point range (after hitting seven triples in the first half) and also softened some on defense. But the Tar Heels weren’t done, and they fought back from 10 points down, including six down with less than two minutes left to set the stage for the unbelievable finish.
Again, to say this was the greatest title game ever doesn’t do justice to the many incredible games before it-along with those listed above, North Carolina-Kansas in 1957, Cincinnati-Ohio State 1961, Carolina-Georgetown in 1982 and Duke-Butler from 2010 are among the many that had as much overall intrigue and drama throughout-but suffice to say this is every bit the equal of those others.
The Wildcats are a worthy champion, a team reminiscent of Butler’s 2010 national runner-up squad that didn’t have the most in size or individual stars but is a testament to mental toughness. It’s also a team that has shown how to be tough and do so with class.
After early exits from the NCAA Tournament as a high seed the past two years, the Wildcats were tagged by some as a program unable to come up big when it counted. Rather than hiding from the questions, though, head coach Jay Wright answered them all, saying he knew the program had to own those past opportunities missed and live with them. Now, his team is a national champion, and there will be no more wondering if the Wildcats can win the big one.
Villanova’s shooting performance throughout this tournament, the itinerary it faced to win it all-four straight top 15 teams to finish it off, including three teams that were ranked No. 1 this year-the way it played on both ends, the greatness of players such as Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart-all will have a special place in this sport’s history, as will the re-emergence of the Big East and the reminder that basketball-first conferences can still be national players, even in a landscape so obviously being slanted towards football leagues.
Villanova now joins very exclusive company as one of just 15 schools to win multiple national titles. Only one other school on that list (Kansas 1952 and 1988) had a longer stretch between titles. Like the 1985 championship team, a family led by patriarch Rollie Massimino that still gets together and is remembered warmly to this day, this team and its members will hold iconic status for Wildcat and college basketball fans alike. As it should be.
- Hoopville has more coverage of the championship game, with Phil Kasiecki’s story on the game right here, plus a podcast with Phil and Ted Sarandis taped after the game as well that you can listen to here.
- News from multiple sources Monday is that Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew will be named the new head coach at Vanderbilt, most likely on Tuesday. When he leaves, it will end a string of 28 consecutive years that a member of the Drew family has coached at the school. And while it was always likely that Drew would eventually leave the school-he has been a hot name for several years and could’ve had his pick of jobs over time-the plight of schools like Valpo-avoided at almost all costs in scheduling by bigger-name schools, being all but blackballed from NCAA tourney at-large bids right now-does not help, and was summed up quite well by Paul Oren of the Northwest Indiana Times the day after Selection Sunday. When the selection committee is so obviously going to turn its nose up at schools like Valparaiso, Monmouth, St. Bonaventure and the like, it only makes it even more attractive for them to leave for a school where they can lose 12-13 games a season and still get the benefit of the doubt. One can only wonder if things might have been different if Valpo had gotten Vanderbilt’s NCAA bid this year.
- More coaching news from the Horizon League, where there has been a lot of it in the last month: Scott Nagy has officially been named the coach at Wright State. For a school that fired previous coach Billy Donlon in controversial fashion-and received a fair amount of criticism for it-this is an incredibly strong hire. Nagy won over 400 games in 21 years at South Dakota State, leading the school from NCAA Division II to Division I and taking the Jackrabbits to three NCAA Tournaments. Given his long tenure, many were assuming he was going to be at SDSU for a long time, but Nagy had interviewed for other jobs in recent years and is reportedly receiving a very nice compensation package to come to Dayton.
- Alabama-Birmingham has its new coach, and it is Rob Ehsan, who was an assistant for the past four years under Jerod Haase, who left for Stanford after four years at UAB. Ehsan also has been an assistant at Virginia Tech and Maryland, where he studied under Gary Williams.
- The men’s season is complete, and it’s been quite a ride, but the Women’s Final Four championship game is tonight with Connecticut facing Syracuse.
Have a terrific Tuesday.