Villanova's Road to the 2018 National Championship

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2018

Villanova's Road to the 2018 National Championship

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    Villanova began the 2017-18 college basketball season as one of the favorites to win the national title, and throughout the year, showed this wasn't just preseason hype.

    The Wildcats lived up to their lofty expectations on Monday night by beating Michigan 79-62 in the national championship game in San Antonio, Texas. It was their third title in program history and second in three years, following the 2016 championship won on a buzzer-beater over North Carolina.

    There wasn't nearly as much suspense this time around, with Villanova taking a nine-point lead at halftime and keeping the margin higher than 10 the rest of the way. In doing so, it became the first team to win every NCAA tournament game by double digits since North Carolina in 2009.

    Monday night was the culmination of a year mostly full of highs for the Wildcats. Follow along as we chronicle their path to the 2018 national championship.

Putting Last Season's Disappointment Aside

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    As defending national champion, Villanova played the 2016-17 season with a huge target on its back, something that was handled with ease for most of the year in dominating the Big East yet again. But when it came time for the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats met a fate similar to the previous nine NCAA champions and were bounced early.

    The top-seeded Wildcats lost 65-62 to No. 8 Wisconsin in the second round and shot only 41 percent from the field with just five three-pointers. The dream of repeating as national champs, which seemed so plausible throughout the season, suddenly came crashing down.

    Villanova gave itself little time to brood on that disappointment, with junior guard Phil Booth saying at the team's media day in September that "it makes you more hungry coming back this year," while coach Jay Wright noted that the past is the past, per Villanova.com.

    "This year is like we have to prove ourselves all over again," he said. "Last year, we had to work at being hungry. This year, like every other year, you have to prove yourself. It's much easier to be hungry this year."

Dodging Upsets in Bahamas

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    Villanova was part of a stacked field at the 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, an eight-team event over Thanksgiving that's widely regarded as one of the best early-season tournaments around. The Wildcats had a shot to play Big Ten power Purdue and potentially Arizona along the way, but a rash of upsets sent those other teams to the losers bracket.

    But not 'Nova. After getting past a pesky Western Kentucky team that would go on to win the NIT, the Wildcats slugged their way through an 85-76 win over future co-SEC champ Tennessee thanks to a 33-of-37 performance at the free-throw line before holding off Northern Iowa in the tourney championship.

    Villanova won the Battle 4 Atlantis for the second time, the other in 2013, as part of a 13-0 start to the season.

Reasserting Big East Dominance

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    Since the Big East splintered into two conferences in 2013-14, it's been owned by Villanova. The Wildcats won the first four regular-season titles and two conference tournament crowns, sweeping both in 2016-17.

    But all good things must come to an end, and in 2017-18, Villanova discovered this by failing to finish in first place in the new-look Big East for the first time. The Wildcats went 14-4 to take second, their most league losses since 2012-13, and they finished a game behind a Xavier team they swept and beat by an average of 20 points.

    Three of those four conference losses came on the road to teams that would make the NCAA tourney, but the outlier was a Feb. 7 home loss to last-place St. John's.

    Villanova headed to Madison Square Garden for the Big East tourney as the No. 2 seed, easily beating No. 7 Marquette and No. 6 Butler to reach the title game. The Wildcats didn't get a third chance to beat Xavier, though, as fifth-seeded Providence upset the Musketeers in the semifinal.

    Providence took Villanova to overtime before falling 76-66, which returned the Wildcats to their spot atop the Big East.

Getting over the Hump Against Alabama

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    Villanova earned the No. 1 seed in the East Region for the 2018 NCAA tournament, the second year in a row and third time in the past four seasons it was a No. 1. The Wildcats' first-round NCAA tournament game was a breeze, an 87-61 triumph over No. 16 Radford.

    The second-round matchup, on paper, looked much tougher. Ninth-seeded Alabama featured one of the top freshmen in the country in Collin Sexton, who had 25 points and six assists against No. 8 Virginia Tech in the first round.

    The Crimson Tide had played one of the toughest schedules in the country and were battle-tested, but they proved to be no match for Villanova and its perimeter shooting. The Wildcats made 17 three-pointers, their most in almost two months, en route to an 81-58 victory.

    The second round had been 'Nova's nemesis in recent history, the place it was eliminated in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017 as either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

Solving Press Virginia

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    Among the many things Villanova excels at is taking care of the ball. During the 2017-18 season, it averaged only 10.7 turnovers per game and on 20 occasions gave it away fewer than 10 times. But then came Sweet 16 opponent No. 5 West Virginia, often referred to as "Press Virginia" for the Mountaineers' penchant for poking the ball away and forcing teams into turnovers.

    Villanova turned it over 15 times against West Virginia, which tied for the fourth-most in a game all season. And many of those giveaways came early, with three turnovers in a 65-second stretch in the first half that put West Virginia up 33-30.

    The Wildcats managed to fight through the turnovers by hitting their shots, going 13 of 24 from outside and shooting 50 percent overall, and they committed just two turnovers in the final 11:32, with one of those a shot-clock violation with a second remaining. That care enabled 'Nova to pull away with a 22-6 run in the second half on its way to a 90-78 win.

Winning With Defense

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    Villanova led the nation in scoring in 2017-18, which often caused its solid defense to get overlooked. But in the Elite Eight against third-seeded Texas Tech, it was how the Wildcats defended that mattered most.

    The 71-59 final score wasn't even indicative of how hard baskets were to come by. Villanova shot a season-low 33.3 percent and was just 4-of-24 from three-point range, but it held Tech to 33.3 percent shooting as well and allowed the Red Raiders to make only five threes.

    "Wasn't really a pretty offensive game, but we played pretty good defensively, too," Villanova coach Jay Wright said, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). "We never worry about missing shots. It's fun when they go in, but we don't worry about missing them."

    The difference came at the foul line, where Villanova was 29-of-35 while Texas Tech was 14-of-18.

Perimeter Party

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    When Villanova was hitting its three-pointers, it was almost impossible to beat. Just ask Kansas, which came into the Final Four holding opponents to 32.7 shooting from deep but had no answer for the Wildcats' torrid touch.

    'Nova's first five shots were from three-point range, and while the first two didn't connect, the next three did. So did 10 more in the first half, as Villanova jumped out to a 47-32 lead. And when the final buzzer sounded, it had made a Final Four record of 18 threes in the 95-79 victory.

    Seven different Wildcats hit triples, and six made at least two, with junior forward Eric Paschall scoring a Villanova career-high 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting.

    "They were unbelievable," Kansas coach Bill Self said, per Sean Frye of Kansas DieHards. "We knew that for us to have a chance, they would have to miss some, but they got us discombobulated."

Another Title in Texas

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    The Final Four was held in the Lone Star State for the second time in three years, setting up in San Antonio this time after being in Houston in 2016. And both times, it was Villanova cutting down the nets in a stadium normally reserved for football.

    The Wildcats' 79-62 victory over No. 3 Michigan wasn't in doubt for much of the night, not after they went on a 23-7 run after to end the first half and took a 37-28 halftime lead. It helped that Big East Sixth Man of the Year Donte DiVincenzo decided to have the game of his life on the same night that Naismith National Player of the Year Jalen Brunson struggled and was in foul trouble.

    DiVincenzo had 18 first-half points and finished with a career-high 31 for the most points in a national final since Seton Hall's John Morton had 35 in the 1989 final (a loss to Michigan). For that and his 15 points against Kansas, he was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player.

    Mikal Bridges had 19 points (15 in the second half), while Villanova held Michigan to 3-of-23 shooting from three-point range. The Wildcats were 10-of-27 from deep, giving them the most threes made in the Final Four (28) in addition to the most in the NCAA tourney (76) and the season (464).

          

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.