HOUSTON — Kris Jenkins will never have to pay for another cheesesteak in Philly ever again, not after he hit the game-winning three to beat North Carolina in the national title game on Monday night. But did you know that his recruitment to Villanova didn’t ramp up until after he tagged along on his brother — and current North Carolina point guard — Nate Britt’s visit?
Josh Hart, Villanova’s best player all season long, grew up in DC as a Georgetown fan. But the Hoyas never extended him a scholarship offer, which is a major reason why he wound up on the Main Line. Another reason? Villanova hired Doug Martin as an assistant coach. Martin had coached Hart with Team Takeover, but he was fired for lying on his résumé two months before Hart committed to Jay Wright.
Jalen Brunson wound up at Villanova after a sexual assault allegation against his father kept Temple from being able to hire him and cost the Brunsons a shot at being a package deal to the Owls. Ryan Arcidiacono is a lifelong Villanova fan. Phil Booth’s dad is from Philly and was partying in the street after the 1985 title.
That’s kind of who this Villanova team is, an amalgam of dudes from cities all along the I-95 corridor in the Northeast that somehow ended up on Jay Wright’s roster. They weren’t so much overlooked — no one in Villanova’s top seven was ranked outside the top 75 — as they were underwhelming additions. None of those commitments moved the needle, not even Brunson’s. He’s the McDonald’s All-American freshman on this roster, but the hype was somewhat minimized because Brunson doesn’t have the physical tools to ever be considered a good professional prospect and his addition for this season meant that he’d have at least a year playing as Arch’s apprentice.
The perfect summation is this: In the national title game, the Wildcats were led by a career-high 20 points from Booth, who had averaged a total of 5.0 points in Villanova’s eight prior postseason games. The game was won when Archidiacono, the face of the program and a lifelong Villanova fan, made a pass on a play that was more or less designed for him to get a shot at the rim.
“We don’t care about who gets the credit, we don’t care about who the leading scorer is, we don’t care anything about that,” Hart said after the game. “We care about this team. We care about each other. We care about this program.”
“I think this is a great team,” Hart continued, making a point to detail to reporters after the game just how tough their road to the title was. They beat an Iowa team that was top five for much of the year. They beat a Miami team who was top 15. They beat Kansas, Oklahoma and North Carolina, three teams that were ranked No. 1 this season and exactly half of the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That’s impressive. “I’m trying to be as humble as I can.”
It’s that mindset that allowed Villanova to become arguably the least-talented national title winner in modern college basketball history.
And I mean that as a compliment.
Barring Mikal Bridges making a significant step forward next season, Hart improving his jumper at a Kawhi Leonard-esque pace or Brunson getting markedly better measureables, we’re looking at a team that just cut down the nets in Houston without the benefit of a first round pick on their roster. That hasn’t happened since 1987, when Keith Smart carried two-time all-american and second round NBA Draft pick Steve Alford to a national title game win over Syracuse. The only other team that could be in that conversation is UConn in 2014, and they had Shabazz Napier, Deandre Daniels and Ryan Boatright on the roster. Even Villanova’s 1985 title team had a top ten pick on the roster in Ed Pinckney.
So yes, I think it’s a fair argument to make.
And it makes me wonder what the legacy of this group is going to end up being.
This was a college basketball season devoid of elite talent and great teams. Are we going to remember this group as the team that finally broke the spell on Jay Wright in big games in March? Are we going to remember them as one of the most connected and mentally tough teams to come through the college ranks in year? Or are we going to remember them as the random Villanova team that ran through a tournament that was devoid of star power? The team that annually mows down a mediocre Big East and mowed down a mediocre tournament field?
The answer, to me, lies in what happens next season.
The Wildcats lose Arch and they lose Ochefu, both of which will be major blows; particularly Ochefu, who was the only low-post scoring threat on the roster. But they bring back Brunson, Booth, Hart, Bridges, Jenkins, Darryl Reynolds and Fordham transfer Eric Paschall while adding a pair of talented freshmen. There’s a reason we have them ranked No. 3 in the country in our Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25.
But that puts even more pressure on the Wildcats to perform well.
If they win the Big East again next season and, like they did the last two years, flame out early in the tournament, the questions are going to return. This was a great team that capped an amazing run with a thrilling game that was won on a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
But if Villanova wants to be in the same breath as the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world, if they want to prove their program can consistently win at the highest level, they have to do it in a year where the Blue Devils and the Wildcats loaded.
They’re the preseason No. 1 and No. 2 team, respectively, in our top 25.
“It’s not over yet,” Hart said. “We’re going to be a strong team next year.”
“But I’m going to celebrate this one first.”