I’ll admit it, last night I was nervous. Maybe even a little scared.
No, not when Michigan had pulled ahead by seven nine minutes into the game. Not before that when Mikal Bridges’ brick had Villanova 0-4 from behind the arc to start the game. Not even earlier still when Moritz Wagner had rattled off nine points in the first five minutes of the game.
I was (ok I’ll say it) scared as I drove home from work last night, more than four hours before tip-off. Villanova is by far my favorite sports team, but several of the teams I root for have been in big games before. Super Bowls, World Series, even Nova in the National Championship just two years prior. But what scared me was a feeling I had never experienced prior to any big sporting event I have ever cared about in my entire life.
I was supremely confident that Villanova was about to win a National Championship.
Everything I know about sports told me this was not the way to approach a game of this magnitude. Somewhere the basketball gods were surely making plans to avenge my hubris with a tweaked ankle or foul trouble or some other crushing way to lose a game. And yet, I remained confident that Villanova would win this game, and what’s more, win it big.
Now that’s not to say that things didn’t get intense during the game. On several occasions members of my family had to remind me that this was just a game and that I may need to calm down a bit. But I couldn’t help myself. Despite leading by double figures for most of the second half, I was still fighting an internal struggle between my confidence that the Villanova Wildcats would win and my sports fan code of conduct telling me to knock it off.
That internal (and often external) intensity throughout the game is what made watching this Championship so similar to Villanova’s last title in 2016. And at the same time, it’s what made it so different. And it wasn’t just the two national titles, Villanova has been making us feel all the feelings for the past four years.
Villanova’s 2015 team was supposed to be the one to finally break through. Led by a senior class that had experienced the lone losing season on the Main Line by a Jay Wright team, this group had built themselves into Championship contenders. Armed with a #1 seed and a path through the tournament that was close to home, this was the team that would take the Wildcats back to the Final Four.
Then NC State happened. I was in Pittsburgh for that game. It was a feeling of helplessness, like nothing we could do would help this team that we cared for and loved so much. With my wife sobbing on my shoulder, my friend and I looked at each other and without words expressed true sadness that our team’s season was over. We weren’t mad or angry, we were just devastated. How could this have happened? Why can’t everyone else see that this team is the real deal and not a first weekend flop out?
We would have to deal with that empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs for several months before that disappointment could turn back into optimism. But the good news was there would be a lot to be optimistic about.
The Underdog Champions
In 2016, Wildcat fans wanted desperately for the rest of the college basketball world to see this team for what it really was. They were finishing up a second straight season of 30+ wins and they played offense and defense like a single unit with some kind of hive mind that could communicate adjustments and plays in the blink of an eye. They deserved to be considered one of the best teams in the country because they were playing like it.
And yet, they were doubted at every turn. Everyone seemed to pick against them from the Sweet Sixteen on as they came up against what seemed to be better and better opponents. Villanova admittedly played their best basketball in that tournament, but it was what the fan base knew they were capable of.
Heading into the National Championship game against college basketball royalty, I would not have considered myself “supremely confident”. As tip-off approached in that game, I had belief. I believed that Villanova could win. I believed that Villanova was the better team. I even believed that Jay Wright was a better coach than the Hall of Famer he was up against. But I knew in my heart of hearts that things could go either way.
That’s exactly how the game played out. A back and forth thriller that, no matter what anyone tells me, was the greatest Championship game and finish I’ve ever seen in any sporting event. It was a whirlwind of emotions that caused my blood pressure to spike with every shot. There was screaming, gasping, cheering, and crying. Villanova got its title and the respect that goes with it. The fans got the validation they had been yearning for since 1985.
The Transition Year
The next season, Villanova still faced some questions. How would they fair without a true big man? Could they get by without their leader in Arcidiacono? These were fair questions, but for the first time in a long time, Villanova was getting the benefit of the doubt from the national media.
The Wildcats proved them to be right, running through the regular season and earning the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. But despite being the defending National Champions, I still only had belief. I wasn’t yet confident that this team could repeat. Turns out, there was a reason for that.
When Villanova lost in the second round, it hurt. But not like the NC State loss. Having a National Title the previous year sure helped, but it was more than that. There was always the underlying knowledge that the Wildcats were being held back from their full potential by forces they couldn’t control. Whether it be losing Phil Booth for the season with a knee injury or the shady red-shirt forced upon Omari Spellman by the NCAA, the season had always felt like it could have been more.
That’s what kept the fan base from feeling confident in another deep run, but it’s also what they were able to lean on to get them over the loss. Besides, next year was going to be great.
Dominance and Confidence
You can’t just replace All Americans like Josh Hart or legends like Kris Jenkins, but Jay Wright’s teams have shown an amazing “next man up” mentality that all the players buy into. They never tried to fill the shoes of the big time players that left the program every year. Instead, they shaped something new around the players that were on the court. The same Villanova principles that stood at the core of each of these teams took on new forms with each season, and molded to the strengths of each group.
In 2018, that strength was a dominant offense that could score in every way imaginable. Sure there were setbacks, injuries, and off nights. Some of the media would point to these out of context to find a reason that there could be some doubt in Villanova’s game. But that’s the difference in this year’s team: you had to stretch to find a reason to doubt.
By mid-season it was evident that this team, when healthy, could beat anyone in the country. And it wasn’t just that they could, they did. Attitude wasn’t just a mantra for the team anymore, it was something that the entire fan base could apply to how they approached each game.
Personally, I had finally gone beyond just believing in this team. I knew they would win. It’s a scary feeling, because its a much higher perch to fall from if things don’t go your way. And in a sport where you win or go home, anything is possible. This is how Georgetown felt in 1985. This is probably how UNC felt in 2016. The warning signs to “check yourself before you wreck yourself” are out there for fans who choose to go this route.
But I don’t care. Not many fan bases get to be a part of a run like this, and even fewer are able to feel this sure of their team and have them come through. I’m willing to stand out on the edge look down at the rest of college basketball, and smile. I know I could fall, I know there’s no guarantees. But the risk is what makes the reward that much greater. We’re experiencing something that few get the chance to and I don’t want to miss a moment of it.
So I invite you to join me out here on the edge Nova Nation. Let’s soak in everything that comes with this amazing run that Jay Wright and the Villanova Wildcats have invited us to be a part of. It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions that has its highs and lows, but I’m ready to throw my hands in the air and shout at the top of my lungs. It can’t go on forever, but I’m confident it won’t stop anytime soon.