SAN ANTONIO — Seven Villanova players piled into Dylan Painter’s Ford Expedition at the end of July and set off for Ocean City, New Jersey. Two other drivers followed with the rest of the team. Jalen Brunson’s parents helped arrange for a house so the Wildcats could get away for a night amid a summer full of two-a-day workouts and open scrimmages.
Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo played pop-a-shot on the boardwalk, but still couldn’t break the high score. Mikal Bridges posed for pictures with fans. At night, they played NBA 2K and FIFA on X-Box and ate hoagies that walk-on Tom Leibig’s mom brought them. But the main event was a beach football game clouded by a controversial ending.
Brunson quarterbacked one team, Omari Spellman quarterbacked the other. Villanova still cannot decide who won. To hear most tell it, the game came down to the final possession. The score was tied and it was fourth down. Brunson lofted the ball into the end zone and claimed his receiver was mauled. Pass interference was called. Team Spellman didn’t agree and walked off the beach and back into the house.
This is about as divided as Villanova would become all season.
Michigan punched first in the national championship game. It found a way to limit Villanova’s three-point attempts on defense and get star big man Moritz Wagner the ball in space on offense. Wagner had just torched Loyola-Chicago to put Michigan in the title game and he was picking up where he left off, scoring nine of the Wolverines’ first 11 points.
It was only a matter of time until Villanova woke up.
The spark came from Donte DiVincenzo. Villanova’s sixth man provided instant offense, splashing threes, cutting to the basket for backdoor dunks, and finishing through contact. DiVincenzo is far from the Wildcats’ best player, but he might be the best personification of their raw power.
What other team could bring a player this talented off the bench?
Villanova’s 79-62 victory over Michigan was the greatest example yet of its ruthless competence. Jay Wright built a team that flooded the court with shooters and ball handlers. It had a star point guard in Jalen Brunson, who could control any game. It had an emerging NBA lottery pick in Mikal Bridges, who spent four long years developing as a jump shooter and honing his prowess as a long-armed defender. It had a pair of big men who could play on the perimeter or down low in Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall.
Somewhere down the line was DiVincenzo, and another capable scoring guard in Phil Booth.
Brunson thrived in the post and Spellman dropped 50 pounds since graduating high school to turn into a knockdown shooter at center. The Wildcats inverted the court and played with pristine spacing. Together, they formed the No. 1 offense in college basketball — and the second most efficient offense since KenPom started tracking stats in 2002.
Villanova had so much talent, but that was only part of it. The traits that define this program — patience, selflessness, togetherness — would sound corny if they weren’t so true. This is just the start of how Villanova won its second national championship in three years.
Josh Hart was again standing on stage as confetti rained down from the sky in San Antonio. Kris Jenkins and Ryan Arcidiacono were there, too. The trio formed the backbone of Villanova’s 2016 national champion. All three had exhausted their eligibility, but they never really left the program.
They’re all still on the team group text. Jenkins said “You’ve been here before. They haven’t”. Hart told them to “lock in” and “do it for your brothers”.
Jenkins has been around the team for almost a week now. He showed up when they arrived in San Antonio and immediately made himself useful. He didn’t just talk to the team in practice, he actually scrimmaged with them. His role? Emulating Kansas shooter Svi Mykhailiuk on the scout team.
Yes, the man who hit one of the most iconic shots in college basketball history is now volunteering his free time just to keep his alma mater prepared.
This is what life is like at Villanova, where the players talk about being a family so often they’ve essentially spoke it into existence.
It’s remarkable Villanova’s roster isn’t sick of each other at this point. That’s how much time they all spend together. In the summer, when rest of the student body is away from campus, the basketball team is still there, living together, training together, playing Fortnite together, doing everything together.
It’s that togetherness that has helped spawn the phrase “Villanova basketball”. It comes out of the players’ mouths almost every time they talk. It should be a completely useless platitude, only they’ve charged it with meaning by breathing real life into it.
What is “Villanova basketball”? All the players answered with variations of the same thing. Defending. Rebounding. Running. Executing. Playing hard, but also playing smart. It all sounds like such a vague concept, but Wright and his staff have found a way to make it tangible.
That’s where Attitude Score comes in.
The coaching staff gives players an Attitude Score after every game. Attitude plays are hustle plays: diving on the floor, deflections, taking charges, rebounding. These plays are counted up and are divided by the number of minutes you played. To hit the mark, you need a score of at least 0.75.
“We don’t pride ourselves on scoring, so success isn’t measured by scoring,” Spellman said in the glow of the postgame locker room. “We pride ourselves on defending and rebounding, diving on the floor, taking charges. That’s why we’re able to have success. If you work hard, anyone can do those things.”
DiVincenzo was caught winking as he ran down the court after another three-pointer in the second half, the game and the championship now easily in hand. Who was he winking at?
“Josh Hart. Josh and I competed every single day in practice. He beat me up for two years.”
When Villanova won it all in 2016, DiVincenzo was in his redshirt year. He’s one of six players on this roster who were hit with a redshirt. That stands in stark contrast to how bluebloods typically do business, where most recruits come with the intention of being a one-and-done.
Yes, that’s the kind of company Villanova keeps now. It really is turning into a blueblood.
Over the last five years, Villanova is 165-21. It hasn’t lost back-to-back games since 2013. It’s 13-1 over the last three NCAA tournaments.
Villanova is a singular presence within the college basketball landscape right now, something like a self-sustaining upstart that just keeps getting more powerful. Two years ago, DiVincenzo and Paschall were redshirting and Bridges was a defensive stopper off the bench. Now they’re the ones who powered a national title run.
That cycle is going to continue, even if you don’t know the names of their future stars just yet.
Villanova isn’t going anywhere. It wins a lot and it wins on its own terms. Now it’s on the rest of college basketball to catch up.