SAN ANTONIO – Loyola’s remarkable run to the Final Four coincided with the 55th anniversary of the school’s national championship. The Ramblers defeated defending national champion Cincinnati in overtime in what was called The Game of Change. In an era where there was a quota or a complete segregation of black players, Loyola started four blacks.
This is also the 35th anniversary of another Final Four game that was thought to signify a new day. Phi Slama Jama (Houston) defeated the Doctors of Dunk (Louisville) in the 1983 semifinals. The 94-81 outcome was highlighted by fast breaks and dunks. Official Hank Nichols called it “The Blitzkreig”: “When you were under the basket and they came down with all those thunderous dunks, you looked around for a bomb shelter.”
During the game as the players raced on fast breaks that usually ended with a thunderous throw down, a writer – his identity is lost to history, but it might have been Dallas Times Herald columnist Blackie Sherrod – passed a note along press row: “Welcome to the 21st century.”
Well, here we are, 18 years into the 21st century and college basketball has changed (on the court, folks; we’ll save the sordid FBI investigation discussion for the off-season). But instead of the attention and the action happening at the rim with dunk contests, the game has moved outside. The 1983 game was three years before the introduction of the shot clock and four years before the 3-point line. And after three decades of The Three, it has been weaponized.
Say hello to Villanova, your 2018 national champions, and to the way it is in college basketball. Wildcats coach Jay Wright, whose program has gone from blue collar to blue blood while maintaining blue collar grit, says he believes several factors have helped shape how the college game is now played.
“We all watch the NBA,” he said. “We all learn from those guys; they’re the best — players and coaches. And then I think the (college) rules, the two rules, obviously the 3-point line, but the freedom of movement, the emphasis on freedom of movement, lack of physicality is making that the evolution of the game – skill, perimeter shooting. That’s where I think this is going to continue to be a big part of the game. Then in college we all look and see who gets to the Final Four and what they’re doing. And a lot of us emulate that.”
Your Veteran Scribe maintained his recent position of not filling out a bracket in a conservation effort to save trees. Also, YVS makes predictions like our current president makes policy. But before trekking down I-35 to the River Walk City, YVS was fairly certain that Monday night’s championship game would be No. 1 seed Villanova vs. No. 3 seed Michigan.
Based on a one-game sample size, Villanova has more dudes than Michigan. The Wolverines dispatched Loyola with a two-man game – junior center Moe Wagner and sophomore guard/forward Charles Matthews.
Of course, watching Villanova eviscerate Kansas in the second semifinal leaves an indelible feeling that the Wildcats will treat Michigan like Ohio State does in football. When a team scores 95 points with 54 of those coming on 18-of-40 accuracy from 3-point range, the tendency is to assume that team is unbeatable and unstoppable.
Much can change in 48 hours. Michigan tournament opponents have shot 18-of-75 (24 percent) from three-point range. The counterpoint to that statistic is that the Wolverines haven’t faced a team that is ranked 35 or higher in KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency. Mixed in with the fact that Michigan advanced from the upset-laden left side of the bracket and there’s a suspicion that it has benefited from facing inferior competition. The highest seed Michigan has defeated is No. 6 Houston – and we all know the good fortune needed for that outcome.
However, what’s apparent is that Wright has turned into the Steve Kerr or Mike D’Antoni of college basketball. Embrace the 3-pointer, shoot it at a high volume and stack the wins. Everyone who takes the floor for the Wildcats has the green light. Against the Jayhawks, seven different Villanova players made threes in the first half with the five starters having at least two. By game’s end, six players made at least two.
“Obviously we’re very talented offensively,” Villanova junior point guard Jalen Brunson said in a massive understatement.
And there’s bit of wisdom from Kansas freshman Silvio De Sousa, whose Division I experience is 20 games and three months. “It’s hard to guard a team where everybody can shoot.”
Wright has been using a four out, one in offensive philosophy for the last decade. With any system involving competition, it takes time to perfect and each season brings a different mix of players. This season has become a perfect storm. Villanova is 11th in KenPom in percentage of points scored from behind the arc. Five players have made more than 55 threes; Michigan has three.
The pressure points will be how Michigan sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson handles his match up with Brunson and whose three-shooting bigs battle each other. Simpson didn’t handle the Big Stage in the semifinal and in the first half Michigan coach John Beilein dispatched two other point guards in relief.
Wagner was Moe Buckets and Moe Boards; he became just the third player (joining Hakeem Olajuwon and Larry Bird) to score at least 20 points with at least 15 rebounds. The 6-11 native of Berlin, Germany also had three 3-pointers and his ability to pick-and-pop or take advantage of mismatches makes him a versatile offensive threat.
As YVS sees it, Villanova will dispatch two versatile offensive threats with power-sized dimensions. Omari Spellman, a 6-9, 245-pound redshirt freshman along with Eric Paschall, a 6-9, 250-pound junior can both do what Wagner can do. Paschall torched KU for 24 points on 10-of-11 shooting including 4-of-5 from three. He’s making 47.4 percent of his threes (9-of-19) in five NCAA games. Spellman, averaging 8.4 rebounds, is 12-of-28 from three. Wright calls having bigs who can make threes “invaluable.”
“This is Golden State Warriors here,” Michigan coach John Beilein said Sunday when asked about Spellman and Paschall. “This is Draymond Green type of thing where your guys can shoot it, they can pass it, they can do everything. It’s how we like to play as well, and it’s a great concept. It’s one I’m very familiar with. It doesn’t mean we can stop it.”
YVS would agree with that assessment.