- Villanova's best player in its national championship game victory over Michigan didn't start. But the Wildcats have become used to big things from Donte DiVincenzo off the bench.
SAN ANTONIO – After Donte DiVincenzo buried Michigan with 3-pointers and dunked in traffic and swatted one shot into the stands and even forced headline writers across America into splashing Donte’s Inferno across their sports pages, it came time to reconsider one of his two glorious nicknames. The Michael Jordan of Delaware? Meh. DiVincenzo was the Michael Jordan of Anywhere at the Alamodome on Monday night.
DiVincenzo did not start the national championship game for the Wildcats, but he certainly did finish it. When future NBA players like guard Jalen Brunson and forward Mikal Bridges struggled in the first half, combining for 11 points as Michigan shot to an early lead, DiVincenzo shook Villanova from its funk, scoring and driving and dunking and swatting. He drove the left side of the lane for a twisting lay-up and converted a three-point play … and knocked down three first-half triples … and threw a no-look pass that resulted in a dunk … and lifted a basketball powerhouse that had not played like one to a 37-28 halftime lead.
Consider that Act I. Act II came in the second half, as Villanova turned a relatively close game into a blowout and Michigan started to cut into that lead, and it felt safe to utter so-you’re-saying-there’s-a-chance. The Wolverines whittled the Villanova advantage to 56-44, with just under nine minutes remaining, and that’s when the Michael Jordan of Delaware again paid homage to His Airness, knocking down two more three-point attempts as part of an 8-0 run that ended any Michigan comeback before it started.
When it ended. 79-62 in Villanova’s favor, DiVincenzo took the game ball and threw it toward the ceiling, maybe 30 feet in the air, as teammates encircled him. Celebration boomed over the stadium speakers and the Wildcats took a lap in front of their fans, arms waving, asking for extra noise. DiVincenzo danced. DiVincenzo hugged. DiVincenzo cut out a snippet of the net, and it wasn’t lost on him or his coach, Jay Wright, how DiVincenzo had evolved from the flashy and sometimes problematic freshman who had been injured and redshirted during the team’s national title run two years ago to solid if unspectacular reserve last year to this season, when he served as more of a sixth starter than a sixth man. DiVincenzo proved that on Monday night, by posting 31 points on 10-of-15 shooting, with five rebounds, three assists and two blocks.
]“He’s the Michael Jordan of Delaware, right?” former Villanova star Kris Jenkins said in way of explanation.
There was some obvious symmetry in that moment, because Jenkins won the Wildcats a national championship two years ago, his last-second jumper toppling mighty North Carolina and delivering Wright’s first title. Now, Jenkins stood on the court as One Shining Moment played, a black title hat turned backward, sweat dripping down his neck. Here was one championship catalyst speaking about Villanova’s latest championship catalyst, the one who had missed the last title and didn’t start in this one.
This version of DiVincenzo was better in every way, Jenkins said—more energy, higher effort, less reckless and, of course, a better shooter. Anyone with eyesight noticed that on Monday. One Shining Moment could have just featured just the shots he drained against the Wolverines. “When he was out his freshman year, we knew how bad he wanted it,” Jenkins said.
A broken bone in his right foot forced DiVincenzo to redshirt that freshman season. But the week before Villanova’s national semifinal, he was healthy enough to practice. His role was to mimic Oklahoma’s superstar shooting savant, Buddy Hield. He did it so well, Lakers guard and former Villanova star Josh Hart said on court late Monday, that all Hart can remember is that DiVincenzo “kicked our ass in practice.” The Wildcats won, 95-51, to advance to the title game.
Hart laughed at the memory. He was laughing about how Wright operates, how perfectly it works, how easy it all seems. Players like himself, like Bridges and, now, like DiVincenzo, they all start out as contributors, became sixth starters and, sometimes, they transform into All-Americans and NBA lottery picks. There was DiVincenzo during his can’t-miss first half, simultaneously sprinting back down court and catching Hart’s eye. Hart almost couldn’t believe what he saw; there was DiVincenzo, winking at him. “Coach can take guys like him and make them into NBA players and develop them,” Hart said. “Donte was that kind of player. He always had this talent and the drive.”
Hart kept laughing. It was all a little much. “He’s a bad, man,” Hart continued. “I’m telling you! A bad man!”
DiVincenzo returned last season, after the injury and the redshirt. He had a ring—and all the accompanying championship gear—but he didn’t really feel like he had earned it. So he carved out a role in his second, redshirt freshman season, playing just over 25 minutes a game and averaging 8.8 points. Villanova won its fourth straight Big East title. But the Wildcats were on the verge of something bigger.
It was during that season that DiVincenzo picked up another nickname, The Big Ragu. The broadcaster Gus Johnson bestowed that moniker upon the Villanova guard, after DiVincenzo tipped in the game-winner at home against Virginia. Johnson, in a text message on Monday night, said the nickname had just come to him. “Red hair, Italian, great Showman, watched a lot of Laverne and Shirley growing up,” he wrote.
DiVincenzo’s growth continued throughout this season, giving Villanova the kind of depth that allowed the Wildcats to win 36 games. He gave Wright so many options, subbing in for versatile forward Eric Paschall, post menace Omari Spellman, or guard Phil Booth. He ended up averaging starter’s minutes, with 29 minutes a game, fourth-most on the team. He even started some in February, when Booth was injured. But Wright preferred to bring DiVincenzo off the bench. Keep the scoring going. Give his team an energy shot.
Early into the season, Jenkins said he told the current Villanova players, “Look, all you guys gotta do is defend a little bit, because nobody can stop you.” That was true. The Wildcats made 3-pointers the way normal shooters make lay-ups, which is to say with relative ease. Villanova led the nation in scoring (86.6 points), made an NCAA record 454 3-pointers and set a Final Four single-game record with 18 triples against Kansas, after which coach Bill Self said “They’d be hard for anybody to deal with if they shoot the ball like that.”
DiVincenzo won the Big East’s sixth man of the year award this season, reinforcing the misleading notion that he’s not simply another starter, the sixth Villanova player capable of dropping 25 like it’s a random Wednesday. Wright described him earlier this week as a high-risk, high-reward player, but made sure to correct himself, adding a “mostly reward.”
In five NCAA tournament affairs before the title game, DiVincenzo reached double figures three times, scoring 18 against Alabama in the Round of 32 and 15 (on only six shots) against Kansas in the national semifinal. But he saved his best, most important work for Monday night.
This was the DiVincenzo who attended the Salesianum School, a private and Catholic school, in Wilmington, winning consecutive state titles. DiVincenzo played like that on Monday night, after spelling Spellman at the 17:38 mark. The game changed, because DiVincenzo, The Michael Jordan of Delaware, The Big Ragu, he changed it. “He picked us up big time,” Bridges said. “And I love him for it.”
Against the Wolverines, DiVincenzo also showcased what might be possible in his future, showing that he’s capable, like Bridges, of ascending from pivotal role player to surefire NBA draftee. The smooth shooting stroke is obvious, as is his athleticism and his passing capability. He had the second-highest assist rate in the Final Four, trailing only Brunson, the national player of the year who stars as Villanova’s point guard.
Villanova had won its first five NCAA tournament games by an average of 18 points. The Wildcats beat Michigan by 17, or 10 more than they were favored (6.5). In a match-up billed as the country’s hottest team (Michigan) against the country’s best team (Villanova), the best team won, behind its sixth starter and future star.
The Michael Jordan of Delaware became the Michael Jordan of Anywhere at the Alamodome on Monday night. An hour after the game ended, he sat next to Brunson, on the back of a golf cart. Both guards wore black hats turned backward, with cut pieces of the title game net affixed to the brims. National champions, the hats read. The Big Ragu had done it.