This time, there was no need for dramatics, because Villanova had Donte.
Actually, the Wildcats had everything—everything they needed to win the national championship. Their 79-62 dismantling of Michigan was the culmination of a season that was the perfect example of what a true team can do. Nova brought its pitiless style of play to San Antonio and ripped a pair of big-conference foes with an efficiency that symbolized the program Jay Wright has built during his 17 years on the Main Line.
Monday night, it was Donte DiVincenzo who led the way, scoring 31 points. He helped Villanova climb out of an early ditch and kept the throttle open in the second half when National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson was tethered to the bench by foul trouble.
DiVincenzo was the hero, all right. But any of the Wildcats could’ve assumed the lead role. That’s just how this team has played. Aside from a 3-3 February hiccup, Villanova was overwhelming all season, with just about each of its talented, selfless, intelligent core taking a turn in the spotlight. No matter who emerged on a given night, the real star of the game was the team-first culture crafted by Wright.
Perhaps now, Wright will be known more for his coaching acumen than for his sartorial splendor. The man sure looks good, but he also knows how build a winning program. That’s what won against Michigan and Kansas.
Sure, the Wildcats have several players who will be on NBA rosters some day, but the overriding theme in all of their victories is an ethos that directs all skill, effort and commitment toward the team’s goal. Wright doesn’t recruit selfish people. He brings in young men who want to be part of something that dwarfs their individual goals. That isn’t always the case in a national basketball climate that celebrates the five-star prospect for whom college is a mandatory one-year way station en route to a fat professional payday. After winning two titles in three seasons, it’s possible Wright might be able to convince some of those me-first types to spend a few years at Villanova, in order to become better players and—more importantly—men.
In the locker room after Arizona lost to Buffalo in the first round of this year’s tournament, two UA players declared for the NBA Draft. In that moment, it was hard to imagine they’d spent the previous nine months caring about the program and the school. Nova may well lose a couple players early this spring, but they sure won’t be announcing their intentions anytime soon. They’d rather bask in the joy of another title, celebrate with their teammates and be part of the university community.
Monday night, the Wildcats were clearly the better team, but they were also the better program. Coaches around the county must’ve been envious of the players’ ability—and more importantly willingness—to complement each other. If Villanova’s basketball team were a person, it would be the guy who helps you move when everybody else has “plans.” It would be the person you call at 2 a.m. when you really need help. It would be the guy you’d want your sister or daughter to marry.
Some might consider this a little syrupy. How is it possible to assign such grand characteristics to a basketball team? But if you talk to enough coaches, you hear the same refrain from each one when they discuss the ingredients necessary for success. There must be talent, for sure. But there has to be a buy-in to a set of principles that leads to individual and group success. Villanova players go to class. I know, because I have taught several. They do their work. They’re respectful. What does that have to do with basketball success, you ask?
In March, I spoke with Damien Harris, a senior running back at Alabama and asked him about head coach Nick Saban’s process, which has produced so many accomplishments in Tuscaloosa. “It’s all the same, every year, every week, every day,” he said. “You go to class, get treatment, go to practice, go to meetings and to study hall, and you do it every day. There is no complacency and no lackadaisical behavior. The values and principles that are instilled with you as part of the process stay with you the rest of your life. You are organized and have accountability. Every day molds you as a man.”
That’s what has happened at Villanova. By creating a culture that celebrates the whole, Wright has brought ultimate success on the court. More importantly, he’s created a template for prosperity. Those players who consent to participate—and these days, it’s all of them—enjoy the championship glow. They also learn that being a successful person is about joining a community that grows because of one’s daily, contributions and hard work.
Monday in San Antonio, that community manifested itself overtly in a thorough victory over Michigan. The real product, however, was a shining example of how to win as a whole—and what it means to be part of something so much bigger than one’s self.