It’s “Championship Monday” a normally joyous time for college basketball fans across the country. Yet this year it feels like the game is missing a little pizazz. Sorry for being honest. It’s just the truth.
Look, I love college basketball as much as anybody, but to be perfectly blunt: Unless you’re a fan of either Villanova or Michigan it’s hard to get all too excited about this game. One, these two programs are almost too likeable – I mean honestly, unless you hate good, fundamental basketball, teamwork and players who put the team before themselves, how can you dislike Villanova or Michigan? And two, doesn’t it kind of feel like we already know the result is going to be? I’m not saying this is a “David vs. Goliath” type deal or that Michigan has no chance. At the same time, the Wildcats have won their five NCAA Tournament games by an average of 17 points, with each win by at least 12 points. I know Michigan is good, but there’s a reason ‘Nova is the biggest national title game favorite since 2010. I’m not even sure Jim Harbaugh has the guts to pick Michigan to win this game.
Yet despite the lack of buzz, it is still the national championship, and dammit, I’m going to enjoy it if it kills me. And you should too. Which is exactly why I am writing today: Here are seven reasons to tune into the national championship game even if you’re not a Villanova or Michigan fan:
Villanova is damn fun to watch:
I already know what you’re thinking: Torres, of course we know Villanova is fun to watch. It’s obvious, like saying “Some of the hair on Bill Self’s head might not be his.” Did you really need to tell us that? Is it really a reason to get excited?
And in your defense, I totally get it. It is obvious.
But in my defense… umm, have you SEEN Villanova. My goodness are they good.
To put it simply, Villanova is a team that plays the perfect brand of basketball for the modern age, position-less basketball (remember when John Calipari was criticized for popularizing that term?) where everyone on the court is moving all times, and all five players have the ability to pass, shoot, dribble and move. To reiterate the point I made off the top, if you hate watching Villanova basketball, you probably hate puppies, cold beer and driving your neighbors crazy on 4th of July by setting off fireworks as well. Basically, you hate fun.
But the cool thing is, it’s not only that ‘Nova plays this way, but seems to be peaking at the perfect time. Thanks to a slew of injuries early (starter Phil Booth and rotation players Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels all missed time during the season) the Wildcats are just now starting to play their best basketball, which is kind of incredible when you consider that we’re on the final night of the season. And the results back it up. After going “only” 6-3 in February (while adjusting to players re-joining their lineup), the Wildcats have gone 9-0 in March. They’ve won every Big East Tournament and NCAA Tournament game by double-figures.
Look, I’m not going to get into the whole “How does Villanova stack up with other historically great teams” conversation or anything dumb like that, but they are on a historically great run right now. It’s been fun to watch for the last month and there’s no reason to think it won’t be the same tonight.
John Beilein is still one of the most underrated coaches in the sport
College basketball narratives are a funny thing. Remember, when everyone said “Villanova couldn’t win the big one.” Then they went out and won a national championship two years ago? Or how people claim John Calipari doesn’t win enough in March, even though he’s made it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament seven out of nine years at Kentucky, with four Final Four’s, two national championship game appearances and one title?
Again, it’s dumb. But here’s another one: Whenever anyone names the great coaches in college basketball, how many guys get mentioned before we get to John Beilein? There are the obvious ones (Coach K, John Calipari, Bill Self, Jay Wright), the guys who have been historically great but probably aren’t as good as Beilein is right (Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim etc.), and then guys who just flat out aren’t better than Beilein. Yeah, I’m looking at you, Tony Bennett.
To put it bluntly, what Beilein has done the last few years is absolutely incredible and here are some numbers to back it up. This year he won his second straight Big Ten Tournament title, and this is the fourth time in the last six years that his team has advanced to the Sweet 16. For comparison’s sake, that is more trips to the Sweet 16 or beyond than Roy Williams (three), Tom Izzo (three), Tony Bennett (two) or even Jay Wright (just two, although he could win national championships in both those trips) over that same stretch. He also has made a pair of Final Fours, something that Coach K and Tom Izzo can’t claim since 2013.
Point being, that in a world where we talk about “great coaches” and “great tournament coaches” Beilein’s name never gets mentioned. That’s finally starting to change, but tonight could solidify things once and for all. This guy is a stud. And it’s time that we start to appreciate it.
These two schools get “who they are”
Again, I just mentioned college basketball “narratives” off the top, and one of the more interesting ones that’s come out over the last few weeks is this: Is the era of winning a national title with “one and done” players officially over? I don’t believe it – after all, Kentucky was one shot away from advancing to the Final Four last year with De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.
So yeah that narrative is probably a little dumb, but what I like about both of these programs is that they’ve won big doing things “their way.” They don’t care about recruiting rankings or whether a guy is a McDonald’s All-American or not, only whether that kid is the right fit for their specific program. And it’s incredible to watch each program develop over the last few years because of it.
At Villanova, Jay Wright has a grand total of one former McDonald’s All-American on his current roster (junior guard Jalen Brunson), and has openly admitted that he has refused to recruit a couple potential one-and-done kids because he simply didn’t think they would fit well in his program. There’s a famous story where Arizona guard Rawle Alkins wanted Villanova to pursue him, and the school simply declined, believing that he wouldn’t thrive in their system. Furthermore, since Villanova began this incredible run of five-straight 30+ win seasons, they’ve had a grand total of one first round NBA Draft pick on their roster. That’s Josh Hart who was selected with the final pick of the first round last year. Point being, they don’t get the “best” talent, as much as they get the guys who fit what they do.
At Michigan, it’s basically the same. During their trip to Los Angeles for the West Regional final a few weeks ago I asked one of their assistant coaches “What is the No. 1 thing you look for in a recruit.” And without hesitation he said “The first thing is, do they value a Michigan degree.” A lot of people scoffed when I tweeted that out the other day, but what I think his point was, was this: Michigan obviously recruits players with NBA potential (they’ve sent a bunch of guys to the pros the last few years). But they also want kids who will be totally comfortable staying four years if they have to.
Again, I’m not saying that one system is right or one system is wrong. Every coach builds their program in the way that they think is best. And as Kentucky and Duke have proven, you can win with one-and-done kids.
What I do think is cool however is that Michigan and Villanova don’t care about recruiting rankings. Just getting the kids who fit them best.
Neither of these schools is Loyola
Alright guys, so I’ve got to be honest with you for a second. And please, don’t tell anyone. It’s a little secret between you and I. But, weren’t we all getting a little of the whole Loyola/Sister Jean narrative? Just a tiny bit? And maybe it’s OK that the Ramblers aren’t in this year’s title game?
Look, I have no personal vendetta against Loyola, but – as my buddy Nick Coffey pointed out – doesn’t it feel like the whole Sister Jean narrative kind of overshadowed everything else that happened during the Loyola run during the 2018 tournament? As Nick pointed out, when is the last time we had a sports story like Loyola, where the biggest, most-talked about element (Sister Jean) had nothing to do with the actual sport? Again, it’s nothing against Sister Jean personally. If anything, I think this was typical of 2018 where the media takes a really good story, then absolutely beats it to death, to the point that no one can enjoy it anymore (kind of like Trae Young this year honestly).
Now, as annoying as the Loyola/Sister Jean hype got over the last few weeks can you imagine if they’d made the title game? Can you imagine all the hype? All the additional Sister Jean coverage? And can you imagine if Loyola actually won the whole thing? Sister Jean might have ended up with her own reality TV show on E! or something.
Point is, Loyola was a good story, but it was time for them to go home. And it was time for us to focus on something other than the Ramblers.
Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo has the best nickname in college basketball
Actually, by technicality he has two.
The first is “The Michael Jordan of Delaware” and also, over the last few year’s FS1’s Gus Johnson has begun calling him “The Big Ragu.”
I mean honestly, is there any chance in hell you’re rooting against the Michael Jordan of Delaware on Monday night? Me neither.
Mo Wagner is a great story too
Considering that quite a few words have been written on Wagner the last few weeks, I won’t go down a deep wormhole here. But at the same time, Wagner is a pretty cool story of a kid who came to Michigan with no hype and has evolved into a legitimate NBA Draft prospect.
For those who don’t know much, Wagner came to Michigan prior to the 2015-2016 season and had a totally forgettable freshman year where he averaged just three points per game in eight minutes played. Then overnight he turned into a star and blew up as a sophomore – but when he entered the NBA Draft last season, he was basically told “you’re not good enough for the league just yet.” Rather than sulking however Wagner went back to work and became a flat-out stud this season. His 24-point, 15-rebound performance in the national semifinal Saturday was one of the better Final Four performances in recent years.
And in the end, I hope we see more guys like Wagner going forward (even if realistically, I know we won’t). This is a guy who has worked his butt off to get where he is, and rather than rush to the NBA, waited his turn and now its paid dividends. And now, rather than being a likely second round pick last year, he’ll be a legit first rounder this year. How much more money do you think he made in the process?
These are two teams that are easy to root for
Again, this kind of goes back to what I said up top: Even if you don’t like Michigan and Villanova, it’s hard to root against either program. They aren’t controversial (like say Duke or Kansas) and don’t have a hint of controversy surrounding them, like say Arizona would have had they won the national title. These are two programs, led by two good coaches who are easy to root for.
Which will also make Monday night’s game that much more fascinating: It will a good result for college basketball, as some sort of history will be made. Either John Beilein will clinch his first national title after being on the doorstep for years, or Villanova will wrap up a second in three years and Jay Wright will all but clinch his spot as one of the elite coaches in the game, with a spot in the Hall of Fame almost certainly coming down the road in the future.
You don’t have to root for Michigan or Villanova to appreciate what they’ve done this season and this tournament. However, even if you can’t root for either team, there’s one final reason to tune into Monday night’s title game…
It’s the last college basketball game of the season
Even if I haven’t sold you on this game, even if you’re a diehard fan of another school (most likely Kentucky) and you can’t find a single reason to enjoy either of these programs, here is one more potential reason to tune in Monday night: It’s the last college basketball game we’ll have for six months.
A season which began with Kentucky’s open workout back in October (remember that?) and was followed up by thousands of games and all the wild moments that came with them, will finally come to an end tonight.
So enjoy Monday night’s title game. It’s the last college basketball we’ll have for a while.