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Nobody Saw This Villanova Dynasty Coming

A few years ago, the Wildcats were an unspectacular program in a league that was falling apart. Now, they’ve won two national titles in three years. How did they become the gold standard in college basketball?

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You never see Villanova coming.

Michigan controlled the early part of the 2018 national championship game, racing out to a 21-14 lead behind 11 quick points from center Moritz Wagner. Villanova’s top two scorers, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, had combined to score six points at that juncture in the first half; the Wildcats’ record-setting 3-point barrage was nowhere to be found, as they were 1-of-9 from beyond the arc. It seemed that the Wolverines’ aggressive defense, which had limited opponents to 18-of-75 shooting from 3-point range over the first five games of the tournament, had slowed what was supposed to be the best offense in college basketball.

And then, in what seemed like an instant, Villanova seized control. Five minutes after Michigan led by seven, the Wildcats went ahead 25-23. Five minutes after that, Nova was up 37-28. Reserve guard Donte DiVincenzo outscored the Wolverines 12-7 by himself in the last 11 minutes of the first half. In that stretch, the game essentially ended. Nova cruised to a 79-62 win, holding a double-digit lead for the final 18 minutes and 53 seconds.

This is how Villanova won every game en route to its championship. Every game seemed close, and then, whoosh: The Wildcats had rattled off an unstoppable scoring spree that facilitated a double-digit victory. In the first round, against Radford, the Wildcats led 9-7 before the first TV timeout; they proceeded to go on a 22-1 run. In the second round, against Alabama, Villanova turned a five-point halftime lead into a 22-point lead within a span of four and a half minutes. In a Sweet 16 matchup with West Virginia, the Wildcats actually trailed with less than 11 minutes remaining in the second half; after tying the game at 60, Nova drilled four 3s in a four-plus-minute stretch to go up by 10. And while one might have assumed that top-seeded Kansas would have been able to give the Wildcats a fight in the Final Four, such was not the case. Villanova hit six 3s in the first seven minutes to take an 18-point lead right after the tip.

I saw this process happen during the Big East tournament in early March. The Wildcats turned a close game against Marquette into a blowout by hitting 10 3-pointers in a span of 10 minutes, and although Providence managed to tie Villanova at the end of regulation in the tournament final, the Wildcats somehow won by 10 in overtime. Nova delivers knockout blows in the middle of potentially fun battles, ending fights on a whim.

This is fitting, because we never saw Villanova coming in the first place. Until the last few seasons, even the program’s greatest successes were seen largely as outliers. Now, the Wildcats have won two national titles in three years—and this time, they didn’t just win; they put together one of the most dominant NCAA tournament performances of all time.

Not so long ago, the Wildcats were a middle-of-the-pack team in a conference whose very existence felt tenuous. As of Monday, they’ve become the undisputed gold standard in men’s college basketball.

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This is the third men’s basketball national championship in Villanova history, and it barely resembles the prior two. The first two were absolute stunners: The 1985 win is perhaps the biggest upset in national championship history, as the 8-seeded Wildcats took down Patrick Ewing and Georgetown by shooting 78 percent from the field for an entire contest. The 2016 win is perhaps the best ending in national championship history, as North Carolina and Villanova traded 3s in the final seconds, with Kris Jenkins’s buzzer-beater giving Nova the title. The Wildcats won both titles as underdogs against notably great opponents, and their margin of victory was a combined five points.

On Monday against Michigan, Villanova was favored by six and won by 17, the largest margin of victory in a national title game since 2009. The result made the Wildcats just the third team to win all of its NCAA tournament games by more than 10 points since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. (North Carolina in 2009 and Michigan State in 2000 were the others.) Even more impressive, these Wildcats also won all of their Big East tournament games by double digits. Michigan had a great run in March, but entered the Final Four as a surprise contender that needed a buzzer-beater to avoid a second-round NCAA tournament exit. Villanova came in as a recent champion that looked the part of a champion all tournament long.

There haven’t been many college basketball dynasties of late. Since Florida won back-to-back national titles behind Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer in 2006 and 2007, seven programs have captured national championships, with none winning twice in three years. At 103-13 over the past three years with two titles, the Wildcats can safely be called a dynasty.

And again: Nobody saw Villanova coming. The team won three NCAA tournament games in the 1990s. It went to the NIT two seasons in a row before Jay Wright took over as head coach in 2001; he took the Wildcats to the NIT in each of his first three years on the job. (Wright was legitimately on the hot seat after that fifth-straight NIT trip.) At the turn of the century, it would have been hard to argue that Villanova was even the dominant college basketball program in Philadelphia. In the 1980s and 1990s, Temple won or split the city’s Big 5 competition 15 times. St. Joseph’s accomplished that eight times, and Villanova seven.

The program really had the potential to bottom out near the start of this decade. In 2012, the Wildcats finished 13th in the Big East after going 13-19, their only losing season under Wright. But the Big East itself was falling apart at that time: In 2013, the league collapsed, with its strongest members realigning to major conferences, and its football schools forming the new American Athletic Conference. The league swapped out programs like Syracuse, UConn, and Louisville for mid-major all-stars such as Butler, Creighton, and Xavier. And honestly, Nova looked more like the incoming mid-majors than the outgoing perennial powerhouses: It’s a tiny Catholic school with an enrollment around 10,000 that lacks either big-time football or a long-standing history of success. Villanova basketball could have faded.

Instead, it has entered the era of its greatest prosperity.

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The new Big East has emerged as a league with the basketball quality of a major conference, if not the looks or size. Villanova has been its class during its five years of existence, winning the conference’s regular-season or tournament title in all five years. In each year, the Wildcats have been a no. 1 or no. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament; in several of those, Wright’s teams fared poorly, with Nova developing a reputation for choking in the tourney’s opening weekend. Those poor performances now seem like outliers that go against Villanova’s incredible track record of success.

The Wildcats have gone 165-21 (88.7 winning percentage) over the last five seasons; the major-conference program with the next-best record over that span is Kentucky, which sits at 152-38 (80 percent). Wilder yet, Villanova is 21-0 after its 21 losses. It hasn’t lost back-to-back games since the days of the old Big East.

You’d assume this surge would come with some gaudy, massive program uptick in recruiting. However, Villanova arguably recruits worse now than it did during the 2000s. In 2007, Villanova landed two five-star recruits, Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher. In 2009, the Wildcats landed three more: Maalik Wayns, Dominic Cheek, and Mouphtaou Yarou.

Throughout the entire 2010s, the Wildcats have signed just two five-star prospects: Jalen Brunson and Omari Spellman. By comparison, Arizona has landed 13 in that time span (without ever making it past the Elite Eight), UNLV has landed five (and hasn’t even made the NCAA tournament since 2013), and schools like Memphis, Washington, Baylor, and LSU have each landed three. In terms of five-stars this decade, Villanova is on even footing with Pitt, which went 0-18 in ACC play this season. It would be dishonest to pretend Nova is recruiting nobodies—most of its players were considered four-star recruits, like Bridges and DiVincenzo. But Villanova recruits fewer five-stars than just about any elite program—and a lot of not-so-elite programs as well.

Villanova has never had a one-and-done player. If Bridges becomes a lottery pick this spring, he’ll be the program’s first player to do so since Randy Foye in 2006. Bridges actually redshirted at Villanova at Wright’s behest in order to get his weight up and learn how to shoot. He’s less a one-and-done and more a one-and-maybe-you-can-get-in-the-rotation.

In this year’s national semifinal, Villanova’s leading scorer was Eric Paschall, a Fordham transfer whose 24-point showing marked the first time he’d eclipsed 20 as a Wildcat. In the championship game, the hero was DiVincenzo, who racked up a career-high 31 points. The same sort of thing happened in 2016, when then-sophomore Phil Booth tallied a career-high 20 points in the national title game against Carolina. That wasn’t the start of a Phil Booth revolution; two years later, 20 points remains his career high. Paschall, DiVincenzo, and Booth were highly efficient scorers and integral parts of the roster prior to their breakout games, but none were Villanova’s star—up until they needed to be on the sport’s biggest stage.

Wright told me at the Big East tournament that he has a strategy for recruiting players who can develop into knockdown shooters; in his words, he looks for basketball junkies. That seems to have worked, as a group of relatively unsung players formed the most devastating offense in college basketball, having smashed the records for 3-pointers in a season (464) and in an NCAA tournament (76). This group finished the season with an adjusted offensive rating of 127.8, according to Ken Pomeroy’s stats, the second-highest total ever recorded and a stunning five points per 100 possessions higher than the second-best team this year (Purdue, 122.7).

You didn’t see these players coming. Some of them will soon turn pro—Bridges should, and Brunson probably should as well. If Wright has correctly assessed his ability to find players who will develop into potent offensive threats, it won’t stop Villanova from consistently ruling the sport.

You didn’t see this program coming. The Wildcats were an also-ran, and that was before their conference died. Their opponents never see them coming, either. The game starts, and boom: A flurry of 3-pointers has all but ended a contest into which everybody was just getting settled.

But Villanova is here now, and its place in college basketball is unmissable. It’s the best program in the nation, and it’s here to stay.