Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 7, 2016

A Basketball School Wins The Basketball Title

When the final shot of the men’s NCAA Division I basketball championship game left Kris Jenkins’s hands Monday night, the game clock showed six-tenths of a second remaining. Even as the ball arced above the futilely outstretched arm of North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks, the final fractions of a moment ticked away. On the sideline Villanova head coach Jay Wright uttered a single word, “bang.” Wright’s eyes and those of the nearly 75,000 fans at Houston’s NRG Stadium along with millions more at home followed the shot, even as the klaxon horn sounded signaling the end of regulation.

On the game’s penultimate play UNC’s Marcus Paige had lofted an off-balance three-pointer at the opposite end of the court that rattled through the hoop to tie the score at 74-74, capping a furious rally by the favored Tarheels that wiped out a ten point Villanova lead over the game’s final five minutes. For 4.7 seconds Paige was the hero of the hour, sending the title game to overtime and keeping alive North Carolina head coach Roy Williams’s hopes for a third national title. A UNC win would have moved Williams into a tie for fourth on the list of NCAA titles won during a coaching career, surpassing Dean Smith, the North Carolina legend.

Sometimes though, 4.7 seconds is more than enough time to alter an outcome, to bend sports history in a different direction. The Villanova five came down the court running a set play they had practiced repeatedly during the season, a play designed for the frantic final seconds of a close game.

Jenkins was the inbound passer on the play, named Nova in the team’s playbook. Senior guard and team captain Ryan Arcidiacono took the toss from Jenkins and raced up the left side toward midcourt. There teammate Daniel Ochefu had set a pick to help free Arcidiacono from his defender. The Villanova captain broke to his right past Ochefu. At that point as Nova is drawn up, Arcidiacono can choose from three options. If he has time and a lane, he can keep the ball and drive to the basket. If that avenue is blocked, he can look to the far wing, where Phil Booth, who had already netted 20 points, should have worked himself free behind the pick of another teammate.

The final option is to pass the ball back to Jenkins, trailing the play up the court. As Arcidiacono cut across the court and reached the moment of decision Monday night, behind him an open Jenkins was screaming “Arch! Arch!” In response Villanova’s captain opted to pass the ball rather than keep it and try for his own moment of personal glory. So it was that Jenkins was the player who took the final shot. Ball in the air, over the defender’s desperate reach. “Bang” from the coach, and the blare of the horn. Then swish and the Villanova Wildcats were NCAA champions for the second time in school history.

When the team from the Catholic university in the Philadelphia suburbs won its first title in 1985, it was the first year in which the tournament featured a 64 team field. That edition of March Madness was a triumph for Big East basketball, with defending champion Georgetown and St. John’s joining Villanova to constitute three-quarters of the Final Four. As a number eight seed the Wildcats were the least likely of the four finalists, having defeated their region’s top two seeds, Michigan and North Carolina on the way to the finals in Lexington, Kentucky. There Rollie Massimino’s squad dispatched Memphis State 52-45 in the semifinal, then stunned the top-ranked Hoyas 66-64 in the championship game.

Now the Big Dance begins with 68 teams, but that is a minor alteration compared to the other ways that college sports have changed in the intervening three decades. Football is king now. A major football program produces revenue that can fund a school’s entire athletic department; thus the needs of that dominant program dictate everything from conference membership to how many lesser sports teams are given official status. The Power 5 conferences, those with gridiron squads that play in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision and vie for a spot in the College Football Playoff, are awash in the income from ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and lucrative television contracts. Those revenues in turn boost basketball programs and widen the gap between everybody else and the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC.

For years the old Big East tried to keep up with the increasing domination of football, adding new members and at one point growing to an unwieldy sixteen teams. But at most of the Catholic universities that had been the core of the original conference when it formed in 1979 football was a club sport. Of the original seven members only Boston College had a significant football tradition, and BC departed for the ACC in 2005. Finally in late 2012 the so-called Catholic Seven split off, eventually negotiating the rights to retain the Big East name and hold their annual basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden. With the addition of Butler, Creighton and Xavier, the new Big East is now a ten team conference in which basketball is the major sport.

Despite their rich hardcourt history, the question has always been whether teams from the new Big East could compete with the Power 5 squads come tourney time. Since its formation the conference has averaged five tournament invitations; but until this year all, including some high seeds, were eliminated early on. But for the Wildcats that happened this year as well, with the other four Big East invitees exiting during the tournament’s first weekend. Villanova was one of just two teams from outside the Power 5 conferences to advance to the Sweet Sixteen (Gonzaga was the other).

As Jenkins’s three-pointer dropped into the net Monday night and the roars rolled down from the stands, the Villanova squad had proven that it can be done. The new champions overcame the most difficult draw. With no upsets in their portion of the bracket the Wildcats faced the highest possible seed in each of their first four games. Along the way they defeated overall number one Kansas. In the national semifinals they faced another two seed in the Oklahoma Sooners, a team that had thrashed the Wildcats by 23 points in December. Saturday Villanova set a tournament record for the most lopsided semifinal victory, nearly doubling up Oklahoma 95-51.

Then Monday night, after watching a Power 5 team come roaring back, the young men from the basketball conference proved that 4.7 seconds was plenty of time to prove that they were the best. Perhaps next year a basketball team from a football conference will again prevail.  But at the end of this year’s tournament, for Villanova and the Big East, it was victory with a bang.

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