UNC, Villanova face disparate expectations ahead of title game
HOUSTON — Villanova and North Carolina will share a floor Monday night, but on the sport's grander stage, they play very different roles. One school needs titles and the other school wants them, and you don't need me to tell you which is which.
North Carolina may be the premier program in the sport. When you think of the Tar Heels, you think about Michael Jordan and Dean Smith and NBA prospects coming off the assembly line. This would be North Carolina's sixth national championship, and every time, the Tar Heels entered the tournament as a No. 1 seed (except for in 1957, when there were no seeds, but UNC was undefeated that year).
Villanova is no North Carolina, and Villanova is not fooling itself: It will never be North Carolina. The Wildcats want championships but don't need them.
Coach Jay Wright said that plainly Sunday: "I don't think, considering where we are now, I don't think whether we win or not is going to make that big a difference about our program." He said if his players win a championship, "it's not going to make them more loved at Villanova than they already are."
Wright probably underestimates the impact of a title. But when Villanova lost in the second round to NC State as a No. 1 seed last year, it did not create the hysterical reactions you would have seen in Chapel Hill. Wright said he was proud of the team, which just lost to a hot opponent. He can say that at Villanova and get away with it.
North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige says when Carolina loses, "questions get asked immediately ... do we need a new coach? Do we need a new system?"
The difference goes beyond varying expectations and social-media anger. They help explain North Carolina's academic scandal—if not the scandal itself, then the reaction to it.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams dismisses the talk about the school's academic scandal as "junk," and it's frankly sad that nobody at that great university has convinced him to drop that word. If you take academics seriously, you should take academic scandals seriously. You don't minimize and dismiss them at every turn.
Most of us recognize that nobody is perfect. If Williams said he was mortified by the phony classes at UNC, even while insisting he was unaware, people might give him the benefit of the doubt. Instead, it's all self-defense.
North Carolina has won so much, the way Kentucky has won so much or Alabama football has won so much, that winning has become the most essential component of North Carolina's athletic identity. Nothing can get in the way of that train.
Here is the fundamental reality about North Carolina, the one that has gotten lost in the arguments over who knew what, and when: North Carolina has to compete for national championships.
And this gets to what Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told me a few days ago was "the biggest lie in the history of the world." He was speaking of college sports in general, not about North Carolina or even Syracuse, which dealt with its own scandal that resulted in wide-ranging NCAA and school sanctions:
"If you win, it don't matter what you do [bad]," he said. "If you lose, it don't matter what you do good. The only reason Bobby Knight got let go at Indiana is they weren't winning [as much]. That's the bottom line. You can do everything right, everything off the court, it doesn't matter."
It says something about college sports that the cynical Boeheim is, in his own way, one of the enterprise's most honest men. He speaks in uncomfortable truths, whether it is saying he thought his team would have lost to Michigan State or admitting that he coaches because he likes basketball games. (Many coaches would respond to such a question with a hard sell on mentorship, education, relationships and "life lessons.")
The vast majority of Tar Heel fans will not care about their team's GPA if they miss the NCAA tournament. And while that attitude is true everywhere, it becomes more prevalent at a place that has enjoyed such astounding on-court success.
There is a lot to love about North Carolina—the school, Chapel Hill, the way Williams's teams usually play, and the way this particular team plays. If you don't appreciate Paige trying to push his school to a national title in his senior year, then college basketball is not for you.
But it's also true that North Carolina cannot afford down years. People here are asking about the Tar Heels ending a championship drought—and it's been seven years!
Villanova has not won a championship in 31 years, but nobody considers it a drought. That 1985 title was one of the NCAA tournament's great miracles, and Villanova is one of those schools that can win, but isn't really supposed to win it all.
North Carolina recruits nationally; Villanova recruits regionally. North Carolina considers itself the best program in the country, for good reason; Villanova is the best of Philadelphia's Big Five. This dynamic gives Villanova's program a chance to breathe. It's why Wright has stayed so long (he's in his 15th year), even though he surely could have jumped to a school with greater resources. He says: "I don't think the way we do it would fit at other schools."
Wright says he would not mind if a player left after one year to go to the NBA, but "we just want guys that want to be part of Villanova University for life." If you put aside the sales job in that sentence (everything a college coach says can be interpreted as a recruiting pitch), it is also true. He has no choice. It's the only way Villanova can succeed.
Most top-10 recruits aren't rushing to Villanova. One level of the school's practice facility is open to the student body for workouts; the basketball program is unlikely to become bigger than the school.
Said Wright: "We are able to recruit quality people that allow you to coach them, that might not be the biggest names ... [freshman guard] Jalen [Brunson] may be the most hyped of all of them. Our school doesn't get caught up in that. Our fans don't get caught up in that …
"I know some guys have lost jobs because they haven't gotten the top recruits in their area. Villanova, the administration, appreciates the way we do it, that we want to get guys that fit our culture ... as long as you're completing and graduating on time, that's what Villanova cares about."
Understand: Wright was not comparing his program to North Carolina when he said that. He was just talking about Villanova. But it underscored the difference between the two best teams in this NCAA tournament. For 40 minutes, they may look like equals. That doesn't mean they are the same.