After the final buzzer sounded and Villanova had won its first Big East conference tournament since 1995, Jay Wright still had some coaching to do. He stood at the center of his players, all of whom were now wearing their Big East championship t-shirts and many of whom were holding their commemorative watches in boxes in their hands, and directed traffic. It was time to cut down the nets, and Wright knew who had to go last.
Wright called for the man in question, and he stepped up onto the ladder. As he did, a familiar tune began:
Start spreading the news
I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York
The man on the ladder was JayVaughn Pinkston, a fifth-year senior forward and Brooklyn, N.Y., native. “I kind of figured it would be me,” Pinkston said after the game, “I’m the old head.” Pinkston was a high school McDonald’s All-America but was suspended for a season after getting into an off-campus fight his freshman year. He never considered transferring, and in the years since his suspension has emerged not only as one of Villanova’s best players, but also its strongest leader.
Pinkston is case in point why Villanova is not just a lock for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but is also a national title contender. These Wildcats have completely bought into Wright’s system and are playing with enviable balance.
“I think we have guys who are capable of being stars,” Wright said, “but know they don’t have to be.”
Pinkston doesn’t average double-digit scoring, and he only had 7 points in the Wildcats’ 69-52 win over Xavier on Saturday night. He’s one of six players on his team who averaged more than 9.4 points a game, though. Those six players—junior guard Dylan Ennis, senior guard Darrun Hilliard, junior center Daniel Ochefu, junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono, sophomore guard Josh Hart and Pinkston—each use between 18.6% and 23.1% of available possessions with an offensive rating of 106.8 or greater.
The Wildcats don’t have a player as talented as say, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, but they’re also not as reliant on the success of one star. As a team, they boast the fourth-most efficient offense in the country and the No. 13 defense, according to kenpom.com. That combination makes them the third-most balanced team in the country behind only Kentucky and Arizona. They are a top-25 team in three-point shooting and two-point shooting and top-50 in creating turnovers on defense and avoiding them on offense.
All of those numbers add up to a team capable of having an off night in many aspects of its game and still surviving and advancing. That’s what happened on Friday night, as Villanova withstood a late surge from Providence to win and get into Saturday night’s championship game. Those same statistics also make for a team that is capable of routing its opponents, like it did Xavier. The Wildcats shot 50% from the floor and 39.1% from three while holding the Musketeers to 37.9% and 13.3%. They had 24 points in the paint and 27 points off the bench.
The emergence of Ochefu as a post presence and an improved defense make this year’s team distinct from recent Villanova squads that have had short NCAA tournament stays. But the biggest difference is that this team, to a man, has bought into Wright’s brand of basketball.
“We have a laser focus that comes from guys believing in what we do,” Wright said. “They know, when we do what we do, we win. When we don’t do what we’re supposed to do, we lose.”
[daily_cut.college basketball]Every aspect of the game that is in Wright’s control is clicking. As Championship Saturday rolls into Selection Sunday, there aren’t any questions about what kind of team Villanova is and there is no doubt that it deserves a No. 1 seed in the tournament—the only question left is what its path to Indianapolis will look like.
“We could win it all," Wright said. "Or we could get beat by anybody. We don’t have the depth or talent of Kentucky, but we could beat them. We could also lose to a No. 15 or 16 seed if we don’t play right.”
Wright knows better than anyone that the tournament isn’t always about being the best team—it’s about having the best matchups. Five times in Wright’s tenure, the Wildcats have exited the Big Dance at the hands of the eventual national champions. It happened in 2005 (Sweet 16, North Carolina), 2006 (Elite Eight, Florida), 2008 (Sweet 16, Kansas), 2009 (Final Four, North Carolina) and 2014 (Round of 32, UConn).
“You never know when you’re going to play the national champion,” Wright said. “Or if you’re going to be it.”
As Pinkston snipped the final piece of the net from the rim on Saturday night, he twirled it over his head and the fray flung off like confetti falling in the air. Wright never made it up the ladder, but after a game like this one and a season like he’s had, it was easy to imagine that he hasn’t missed his last opportunity to cut down a net.