The first nine minutes of Monday’s national championship game painted a different picture than most expected. Third-seeded Michigan, the last team standing from a pair of regions that cannibalized their most talented squads, led top-seeded Villanova 21-14. At no point in the early minutes did the Wildcats look like the legendary offensive unit they’d been hailed as for months. Moritz Wagner, Michigan’s do-everything big man, had 11 of his team’s first 21 points, and Villanova’s sputtering offense was unable to keep up. That’s when Donte DiVincenzo came alive.
Over the next 11 minutes, the sophomore guard scored 12 points and would have 18 of Villanova’s first 32. In a contest expected to be dominated by Villanova’s trio of future NBA talents (Mikal Bridges, Omari Spellman, and AP national player of the year Jalen Brunson), it was DiVincenzo—the Michael Jordan of Delaware—who took control. Somehow, despite holding Bridges, Brunson, and Spellman to just 15 combined points in the first half, the Wolverines still went into the break trailing 37-28. And it only got worse from there.
DiVincenzo kick-started a 30-9 run for Villanova, helping head coach Jay Wright’s squad build a lead that would sustain them through the final whistle. In the end, when the confetti fell from the Alamodome rafters, the margin was 17. The Wildcats claimed their second national title in three years, 79-62.
As the game wore on, the Wolverines’ hot shooting start slipped further and further into the rearview mirror. Heroic bank shots were replaced by bricks. Roaring fast breaks were swapped for turnovers. Each time Michigan seemed to show a glimpse of life, Bridges (and more often, DiVincenzo) was there with a dagger. Bridges—the only Wildcat starter to score in double digits—finished with 19 points while DiVincenzo dropped 31 points (and one monster block) off the bench to join Michigan’s Glen Rice as the only players to score 30 or more with at least five 3s in a national championship game. Brunson sat for much of the second half with four fouls and scored just nine points on 4-for-13 shooting, and Villanova still got its 10th consecutive double-digit win. Villanova’s early shooting woes—at one point the Wildcats were 8-for-21 from the field and 1-for-9 from deep—didn’t last long. They quickly returned to form and shot 19-for-36 and 9-for-18 from deep to close the contest.
There was little Michigan could do to keep pace. Even with Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman (23 points on 8-for-13 shooting) giving Wagner the running mate he lacked for much of the tournament and the Wolverines’ third-ranked defense giving Villanova fits early, Michigan was outmatched. I wrote before the game that the maize and blue needed a perfect performance to have any chance of topping the Wildcats. In truth, even that might not have been enough. John Beilein’s squad did their best to slow down the nation’s best offense, and Villanova still managed to come close to scoring its season average.
Three years ago, Wright was lambasted as a choke artist; a coach whose teams put up gaudy numbers in the regular season but folded as soon as the tournament began. After his 2016 team brought him his first title, those criticisms subsided. But when the top-seeded Wildcats fell in the second round last spring, murmurs that Villanova’s championship was nothing but a fluke started to grow louder. With Monday night’s win, Wright definitively shut down his critics, becoming the 14th coach in the history of the men’s tournament to win multiple titles and just the second active coach to win two titles in three years.
The NCAA tournament is built on chaos. Watching the top teams lose early to upstart mid-majors and wily underdogs is what makes the Big Dance so captivating. Any team on any floor can do something spectacular. The format—a 68-team, winner-take-all single-elimination bracket—lends itself to high drama. For decades, this structure has determined the squad that finishes the year as champions, but as often as not, the team that comes out alive isn’t the best. The closest analogue for the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats might have been the Monstars. They still didn’t cut down the nets. In 2014, the Florida Gators were the top overall seed and the betting favorite to hang a banner. But when the final buzzer sounded, it was 7-seed UConn that finished on top. This season wasn’t like that.
Virginia held the top spot in the AP poll as the regular season came to a close, but Villanova—with so much talent and an offense that expected shots from beyond the arc to fall like they were free throws—was the country’s best team. Monday’s national title game wasn’t another test to determine their greatness. It was a coronation.
Only one school since 1993 has successfully defended a national championship. Those teams—the 2006 and 2007 Florida Gator squads—were led by seminal NBA talents like Al Horford and Joakim Noah. They were two of the most dominant teams the sport had ever seen. And still, neither iteration posted an adjusted efficiency margin close to the one earned by Villanova this season.
The Wildcats will have a tougher test next season. They should still bully the Big East and could earn another no. 1 seed in the tournament. But college basketball is a revolving door. Duke will reload, Kansas will bulk up, and Kentucky will restock its cabinet of five-star one-and-dones. But Villanova has the makings of a dynasty. And though there will be challengers to the throne, it shouldn’t surprise many if next season ends as this one did: with the Wildcats cutting down the nets.