SAN ANTONIO – Culture, when applied to a college program, has become a cliche. But cliches are cliches because they’re true.
The word is applicable for programs that win more often than they lose – especially winning national championships. Alabama coach Nick Saban has established a culture in Tuscaloosa (even if the phrase “culture in Tuscaloosa” is an oxymoron.)
Villanova is the cultural center of college basketball. The Wildcats have set a four-season record by wining 136 games and are one of eight schools in the history of the game to win two national championships in three seasons. A No. 1 seed – but not the overall No. 1 seed – Villanova was considered by many the team to beat, especially when they reached the Final Four.
And with Monday night’s 79-62 defeat of third-seeded Michigan, the Wildcats completed a six-game Blitzkrieg of the 2018 NCAA Tournament. They won six games by 17.6 points. Even trailing by seven nine minutes into the game, Villanova asserted its will thanks to a player who would be starting for any of the other 315 Division I teams.
Donte DiVencenzo, a 6-5 third-year sophomore who also goes by the nickname “The Big Ragu,” came off the bench three minutes into the game. He scored 31, the most ever by a reserve player in the championship game and earned Most Outstanding Player honors.
In 2016, he was red-shirting after breaking a bone in his foot. He was in a suit on the bench when Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer beat North Carolina for the national title.
“The ball got to Kris and I had so much confidence in that shot that I was standing up before it even released,” DiVencenzo said Monday night.
Junior Jalen Brunson, the consensus national player of the year, was a freshman backing up senior captain Ryan Arcidiacono, who schooled Brunson in The Villanova Way and then passed the torch. DiVencenzo is now part of the assembly line. Coach Jay Wright has established his program to where he brings in talented players who will wind up in the NBA, but don’t wreck the continuity by going the one-and-done route.
“So many young men are in a hurry to get out of the best years of their life,” said Michigan’s John Beilein, whose name remains at the top of the list of best coaches to have not won a national championship. “I think Jay recruits the right kid who values a night like tonight.”
Ironically, Michigan was done in by someone who scored the most points for a winning team since the Wolverines’ Glenn Rice tallied 31 in 1989 – the last time Michigan won on Monday night. And DiVencenzo surpassed Louisville’s Luke Hancock, who came off the bench to score 22 to beat the Wolverines in 2013. And what will stick in the craw of the maize-and-blue fans is that Hancock’s performance and Louisville’s title no longer exists in NCAA record books but neither does it count as a title for Michigan.
During the East Regional games in Boston, CBS analyst Jim Spanarkel often described DiVencenzo as “deceptively athletic.” That’s what happens when you’re a white player…but one who can jump. The red-headed guard could have the three-minute One Shining Moment devoted to the plays he made.
He entered the game less than three minutes after the opening tip and after Villanova had missed its first four 3-pointers – Kansas fans watching no doubt wondered “what the eff” – DiVencenzo finally splashed a triple at 12:41 and on the next possession took advantage of a mismatch on Zavier Simpson for a three-point play.
That was merely the prelude. Villanova removed all doubt in the first 10 minutes of the second half with the Big Ragu displaying a number of satisfying flavors.
• He rebounded a miss, out-jumping 7-1 Jon Teske, then led a break to the other end where he dropped a dime on Mikal Bridges for a three. “He’s a killer,” Bridges said of his teammate. “He came out there and was aggressively defensively and offensively. He carried us tonight.”
• Michigan’s Charles Matthews got free on a drive and a would-be dunk but DiVencenzo went vertical, both arms outstretched, to deny the Wolverines’ most dynamic player at the rack. In the first half, DiVencenzo had missed a layup but raced to the other end to block Simpson’s layup.
• With junior point guard Jalen Brunson sitting with four fouls with 10 minutes to play, the Wolverines trailed by 13 and still had hope. DiVencenzo crushed those hopes. First, an eye blink behind the back dribble earned him two free throws (he made one). Then he drove and scored on Simpson (again). And after a Matthews dunk at 9:38 pulled the Wolverines within 56-44, “Michael Jordan” drained back-to-back 3-pointers, both times getting free off the dribble.
After that second triple connected, he didn’t do a Jordan shrug but the right side of his mouth curled into a grin that translated into, “I’m feeling it and this is fun.”
Anytime you get into a rhythm like that, where you can pull up from anywhere and just knock them down it’s tough to stop,” Michigan senior Muhamad-Ali Abdur Rahkman said. “You’re always on your heels defensively because you never know what he’s going to do — either shoot, pull up and shoot the 3 or drive to the basket.”
Villanova, a No. 1 seed but not the overall No. 1 seed (that was Virginia, which became the first to lose to a No. 16 seed), came here as the favorite and did little to dispel that by torching Kansas in Saturday’s semifinal. They were favored again against the Wolverines, who hadn’t faced a team seeded higher than sixth in reaching the title game.
When junior Moritz Wagner converted a sweet pick and roll with a layup, the Wolverines had a 21-14 lead nine minutes into the game. But Moe Buckets became No Buckets as he didn’t score again until a dunk with 9:36 remaining.
Villanova didn’t play as flawlessly as it did against Kansas but it was plenty good. The Wildcats shot 47.4 percent from the field, had a 38-27 edge in rebounding plus a 35-7 edge in bench points. DiVincenzo, appropriately, had the ball at the end, dribbling out the final seconds and heaving the ball toward the Alamodome roof before being mobbed by teammates.
And that “M.J.” nickname? Credit that to Jay Wright, who now joins Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski as the only active coaches with multiple national titles, with being a bit of a smart ass.
Wright: “He said I said it to him facetiously in his freshman year when he was acting like a superstar and I said to him, ‘You act like you’re the Michael Jordan of Delaware.’ I don’t remember saying that. But he said that. And then other people started saying it. So, then I thought that the players started repeating it. So, I thought they called him that. So, I started saying it. That became his name.”
Call him by his name: Donte DiVencenzo. And considering how Villanova is now The Program in college basketball, he might have more moments like this in the future. Much like his coach. After losing seasons in his first three seasons at Hofstra, Wright’s future in coaching looked bleak. And seven seasons ago, Villanova went 13-19 three seasons after reaching the Final Four.
“When we got to the 2009 Final Four and we lost the first game, I thought that was my shot, I was happy,” he said Monday night. “I was fine. Then, when we won the title and I thought alright, I’m happy and now I just want to make sure the guys graduate and the team stays competitive. This (winning a second championship) is out of my comprehension.”
But it’s what can happen when a winning culture – no, that’s not a cliche – is established.