It was a familiar scene on the floor at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. Villanova’s players smiling and hugging in their commemorative T-shirts and championship hats, snipped bits of nylon tied conspicuously around their snapbacks as they traversed a court strewn with confetti. The Wildcats had just become the first program to win three straight Big East tournament titles and also claimed their fourth in five years, a span that includes two national championships, most recently last April.
But it was only the ends that were so familiar. Anyone inside or who closely observes Villanova will tell you the means this time were different — that this season provided instances of tumult and types of difficulties rare in recent years. That it tested the steady continuity that had become the Wildcats’ engine and that their arrival at Saturday night’s scene signified the team’s passing.
“What you did in the past doesn't matter,” coach Jay Wright said after Saturday’s final, a 74-72 squeaker over Seton Hall. “This is thrilling. There's more to this one, just watching these two, what they did.”
Wright meant the two players at his side, seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, the lone scholarship players who have been in the program for more than two years. “We lost our two top assistants,” Wright continued. “We had young coaches who did a great job, and these two” — Booth and Paschall, who combined for 33 points Saturday — “were like coaches. I would really go to them and have meetings with them. ‘We've got to do this. We've got to get the guys to do this. You have to teach them this. You have to be patient. Don't strangle [sophomore forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree].’ We have to keep teaching them, and they did it.”
The burden of keeping Villanova rolling was not supposed to fall so heavily on Booth and Paschall. No one foresaw the early departures of guard Donte DiVincenzo and forward Omari Spellman after last season before their NCAA tournament breakouts elevated them into first-round NBA draft picks. With them gone, the Wildcats lost four of their top-five minutes-getters from a championship team and entered this season without any juniors on the roster.
And then they lost, badly. First they were dismantled at home by Michigan on Nov. 14, then shocked by Furman on the same floor three days later. Things steadied for a few weeks before they fell at Penn, too. Then there was a bizarre Instagram controversy involving freshman point guard Jahvon Quinerly. Villanova fell out of the AP Top 25. It seemed college basketball’s metronome was slipping off-beat.
“We always knew we could accomplish a lot,” said senior guard Joe Cremo, a grad transfer who arrived from Albany last summer. “But at the same time, we knew it wasn’t just gonna happen. We had to work for it.”
Lacking continuity on the roster, they embraced continuity in messaging, the perennial tenets of “Villanova basketball” and ATTITUDE. There was no drastic lineup alteration or shift in strategy. But there was a change in result: the Wildcats won 11 in a row, leaning heavily on Booth and Paschall to be, in Wright’s words, “like big brothers, fathers almost” to their less experienced teammates. Younger players like freshman forward Saddiq Bey became reliable contributors. Sophomores Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels came to be counted on like upperclassmen.
That they began losing again — five times, all on the road, in their final eight games — triggered no panic. They harped on defense, rebounding, details. “It was just about creating habits in practice,” Gillespie said. “Coming in every day with a growth mindset.”
Then they arrived in New York for the Big East tournament and ground out three wins in as many nights, even trailing for the entire second half in the semifinal against Xavier before winning in overtime. The final against Seton Hall began as a slog — the Wildcats led 28-26 at halftime — then picked up down the stretch, Villanova withstanding Pirates guard Myles Powell’s counterpunching heroics to eke their way to a victory not decided until the final play, when Samuels knocked away a loose ball off a last-ditch Seton Hall inbound. “We had to dig it out at the end,” said Gillespie, talking about the game in a way that doubled as a description of their pre-tourney season.
The Wildcats knew Saturday’s proceedings as well as they know what follows. On Sunday they will hear their name called on the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, surely as the lowest seed a Villanova team has received since being a No. 9 in 2013. They do so on a three-game winning streak but not the humming, building juggernaut of a year ago. Their offense is good but not transcendent, their defense inconsistent even if congealing of late.
No matter. Whatever may come next, they were here now and champions. College basketball is a game where most seasons meet bitter ends, but it’s what came before, not after, that made Saturday’s familiar scene so sweet.