SAN ANTONIO — All week, Villanova and Kansas laid out their chosen narratives for the national semifinal they were set to play late Saturday. Neither account seemed all that believable. The Wildcats emphasized that they had indeed faced some adversity in their dominant 2017–18 season, but at 34–4 they might as well have been selling snorkels to aquaphobiacs. The Jayhawks, meanwhile, peddled the idea that they were underdogs, that no one believed they could actually win, that a school with 100-plus years of basketball history needed divine intervention to beat a new-money basketball power. Kansas! Underdogs!
Perhaps we should have listened to them, because Villanova did not simply beat Kansas late Saturday at the Alamodome. The Wildcats mollywhopped the Jayhawks, 95–79, burying them with a hailstorm of three-pointers, baffling them on defense, seeing six players score in double figures. It all made this affair seem less like the penultimate game in college basketball’s season and more like a rec-league contest in which the teams are stacked beforehand.
What happened was exactly what was supposed to happen. The Wildcats played Mike Tyson and the Jayhawks spent most of Saturday dazed, confused and looking up from a hardwood canvas, unable to summon the kind of magic that had defined their strange season, which was downright turbulent by Kansas standards. The Billy Preston incident, the NBA departures, the three home losses, the time coach Bill Self ridiculed his team as “soft” in front of more than 100 alumni—that was nothing compared to the annihilation Villanova laid down on Kansas, as the Wildcats advanced to face Michigan in the national title game on Monday night.
Villanova (35–4) made 18 three-pointers, a Final Four record, and shot almost as well from behind the arc as inside it, and it did that inside a football stadium where it’s supposed to be harder to shoot from deep. At one point in the second half, the lights went out in the upper deck and that started all sorts of Twitter jokes about how the Wildcats had actually, you know, shot the lights out.
Guard Phil Booth was asked about all this in the locker room. He pleaded ignorance. A record? “That’s amazing,” he said. Eighteen triples? “That’s amazing,” he said again.
All of which made one conversation with forward Mikal Bridges from Thursday afternoon inside the Villanova locker room that much funnier (and ridiculous) in retrospect. Bridges was asked what it was like for the Wildcats this season, when they didn’t have any major turning points to catapult them, when other than a few injuries they hadn’t really gone through what most championship teams at least say steeled them for glory. The Wildcats were team anti-adversity, or so it seemed.
“That’s not true, actually," Bridges said, as his facial expression twisted into a look best described as disgusted confusion.
“We went through a lot of adversity,” he added.
Um, O.K. Lost to Butler (at Butler), lost to St. John’s at home (fairer point), lost to Providence on the road, lost to Creighton on the road (in overtime). What is everybody missing? What adversity do you speak of, Mr. Bridges?
“We had some home losses,” Bridges said. “We had a lot of injuries, a lot of young guys playing. We went through a lot.”
Fair enough. The reporters around Bridges nodded. Apparently, he did feel like the group was convinced, as he added a “don’t say we didn’t have adversity.”
Here’s where Villanova undoubtedly faced zero adversity: in their national semifinal against Kansas on Saturday night. The Wildcats drowned the Jayhawks in triples, making so many so early that Self turned redder and redder until he was closer to beet than tan.
At one point, Villanova had more made three-pointers (five) than Kansas had points (four). At another, Villanova had taken 18 attempts from the beyond the arc, before Kansas had hoisted so much as one triple. The ball movement was impressive; the Wildcats finished with 20 assists.
Kansas scored first and then watched Villanova sprint to a 22–4 lead. The only tension that remained was whether Villanova would break the Final Four record for three-pointers in a game (previously 13)—in the first half.
What happened was intense, a beautiful display of what basketball has become, with all those interchangeable Wildcats spread out on the wing, or into the corners, catching and shooting and scoring and scoring … and scoring. What it wasn’t was surprising. Villanova has won 135 games now in the last four years, counting Saturday, setting the record for most in a four-year span, held previously by the 2001 Duke Blue Devils. The Wildcats drained 47 three-pointers through their first four games in this NCAA tournament, which was good for another record and also not surprising. This was a team that ranked first in adjusted offense at KenPom.com, averaging 127.3 points per 100 possessions, which was only the second-best rate in those rankings in the last 16 years.
Bridges was right about one thing. This Villanova team is young. Junior guard Phil Booth was injured earlier this season and while sitting at the end of the bench, he looked toward head coach Jay Wright. Everyone between them was a freshman. Booth said that was the Wildcats adversity, that the injuries happened late and they needed time to come together once everyone returned.
The youth movement hasn’t seemed to impede Villanova’s progress. One could pretty easily make the case that this version of Wright’s Wildcats is better than the one that won the title with a thrilling Kris Jenkins buzzer beater against UNC two years ago. This team, Booth says, never talks about that shot—because, he adds, everyone else does that for them. This team shoots better, scores more and is better on defense than it is given credit for.
Forward Eric Paschall, while fishing like Bridges for pivotal moments in a dominant season, said that Wright told his team later in the year that they needed to go back to basics. He meant, Paschall says, they needed to focus on their stated “core values”—defense and rebounding—to be the most complete team they could be, which is to say even more dominant. “He knows what he’s doing, man,” Paschall says. “He knew we weren’t good enough, even though we were winning games.
The defensive improvements were evident in Villanova’s match-up with Texas Tech in the Elite Eight. The team that can’t miss actually missed a lot, making only 33% of its field-goal attempts. But the Wildcats grabbed 20 offensive rebounds, locked down on Tech’s scorers and advanced to the sixth Final Four in program history. That Villanova met a fellow No. 1 seed, while third-seeded Michigan took on the last remaining Cinderella in Loyola-Chicago, seemed like bad luck. It most definitely was not. This wasn’t a reprise of Danny and the Miracles. This was the Three-Point Massacre at the Alamo.
Paschall finished with 24 points, proof, his teammates said, that at least six Wildcats that play regularly could go for that much on any given night. As Bridges took questions at his locker, reporters tried to steer him toward all the three-pointers, how Villanova did that, what it meant, all the unselfishness. Bridges kept saying that it started with defense, that the Wildcats prided themselves on defense, that shots will fall because all great players can make shots but that teams that can win with defense, too, are the kinds of teams that win it all. “It’s not about three-pointers,” he said again, even if the stat sheet said otherwise.
As the final seconds had ticked off, half the stadium headed for the exits. Villanova guard Collin Gillespie dribbled out the clock. The horn sounded and no one on the Wildcats sideline seemed to celebrate, or even crack a smile. Adversity, schmadversity; Villanova expected this. It’ll be favored to win again on Monday night.
In the locker room, there was more of the same. Bread and meats and cookies and fruit sat on a table, untouched, while roughly nine reporters for every player fought for carpet space. All anyone wanted was the secret to Villanova’s magic, the gist behind the three-point machine. The Wildcats weren’t buying it. Not yet, anyway, not outwardly. “It’s all about Monday night,” Booth said.