HOUSTON — It appears the mold has cooled and the national news factory has plunked down another story title for this 24-hour cycle: Villanova is the lovable Cinderella.
Boy, I don’t know if that’ll fly back home, huh?
No matter. Here, the foremen have measured it and scanned the prototype and proclaimed: Yep. It’ll fit. North Carolina is the Goliath program with the ongoing fake classes scandal and the NCAA forever mulling options and the legendary coach with the face and voice of Deputy Dawg who claims he knew nothing and geez, hasn't it won enough titles? Yes, the North Carolina titles are the Yankees and Cowboys rolled into one and nobody but the front-runners with sky blue gear want it to win.
So, that must mean Villanova is the … well, consider a question Josh Hart fielded Sunday, asked by a reporter from SEC country. The guy asked how Hart felt about being a possible fan favorite because, you know, the Wildcats are “the scrappy underdog.” He does play for a team that’s gone 34-5 but, hey, forget it. Hart’s response:
“Um. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that," he said. "But I wouldn’t mind it. I hope every neutral fan here will be a Villanova fan tomorrow.”
Yeah, probably not something he hears much back in greater Philadelphia where certainly the entire city is rooting on the Wildcats. Right? … Hello?
Forgive the folks here. They know nothing about Philadelphia’s parochial border wars and the fact that roughly 96 percent of Temple and Saint Joseph’s grads in the city — that’s the actual city of Philadelphia, not Radnor Township — would squeal with vindictive glee seeing a North Carolina beatdown of the Wildcats commensurate to the one they applied on Saturday night to Oklahoma (see story).
There’s this other reason that story mold is cracked: The Wildcats might play defense like mutts. But they are not mutts.
Do they have the freakish length and athleticism of North Carolina? No. They certainly have no one inside with the combination of size and spring and liquid skills of Brice Johnson.
But Hart is going to be drafted this year. Kris Jenkins was a four-star recruit offered by big-name programs. Daniel Ochefu and Mikal Bridges are going to get looks from the NBA. This isn’t George Mason playing for the national championship.
And, finally, there’s this: The Wildcats aren’t a feel-good team when you’re playing them. Especially when you have the ball. They are attack dogs of the likes we haven’t seen from a team defensive standpoint since maybe the great UNLV teams of 1990 and 1991 playing Tark the Shark’s Amoeba.
They can win by 44 points because they play are playing historically elite defense as a collective at the collegiate level. The slipper really doesn’t fit.
“You have to be dialed on every play,” Hart said Sunday in advance of that national championship game. “You can’t take a break at all, even if you’re on the weak side. You can be the farthest man from the ball and be one crossover from being help.
“It’s not easy to do. That’s the thing about not a lot of teams doing it.”
Jalen Brunson will stick around after Hart is gone and extend the trend. His father played for John Chaney. He is an easy sell on the defensive end for the program’s architect, Jay Wright.
“It’s really hard to play defense for Coach Wright," Brunson said. "You have to really buy into the system. We try to play perfect even though we know that’s impossible.
“As long as we play together and step up for each other and know we have each other’s back. If we make a mistake, we hold each other accountable and get right back to it. There’s no arguing as long as you play together.”
It’s not only not easy for a player physically, it’s also not easy for a college coach to implement. He is handed every year another crop of high school stars whose prime motivation is no longer winning high school games but the pursuit of stats and video and individual confirmation.
Everything Wright has done to this point of this season is in direct conflict with that mindset (see story). He did the same in 2009 with less talent. Playing great help defense means you could be burned for someone else’s mistake. And he has pounded and shaped and sanded this creation into what every coach wants but few can witness and hold aloft to relish — a selfless whole.
Today’s culture fights Wright without even trying. He doesn’t think it’s even about AAU ball, per se.
“It’s our whole society,” Wright said after Sunday’s practice. “Our society is get what you can get. Get yours. Brand yourself. How many Twitter followers do I have?
“There’s nothing wrong with it, I’m just saying.”
Here, I interrupted Wright to argue. There is something wrong with it, isn’t there? But Wright is a positive guy, so he finds a way to use the trend rather than wrestle it.
“It’s easier to coach guys," Wright said. "Just follow them on Twitter. You know everything they’re doing, everything they’re thinking.
“To get those guys to come in and say, ‘If my teammate gets burned defensively, I’m helping him. And it might be a foul on me. And I might be sitting out. I’m gonna give that up.’
“That’s hard to do, on any team in any sport. That’s what these guys are doing.”
I asked Hart if he agreed or disagreed with my premise that the rise of AAU ball, in replacement of high school ball as the greater influence on teenage playing style, has been a factor in making players self-centered? After all, the reason AAU exists is to showcase talents so that someday those teens can make a living at the game they love. The gold-brick road talks to them. So, stats matter.
Team defense gives no tangible takeaway, nothing on the stat sheet to credit an individual, no video to show of one guy shutting down one other guy.
“I don’t want to belittle anyone in AAU,” Hart said. “But a lot of times that’s what it’s about — the individual. When I played with Team Takeover (Hart’s AAU group), it was about the team. But a lot of times in AAU, guys get caught up with: How do I look on offense? This guy’s ranked in the top 10 in the country. I’m gonna show them I can shut him down.
“It’s tough for guys to have that mentality to translate into college. And they still have that mentality in college when it can definitely hurt you.
“That’s one thing great that Coach Wright does. He recruits guys who are about the team, not any one individual.”
So, if that’s what Cinderella has become — merely a team that plays like a team in the era of the individual — then go ahead and call the Villanova Wildcats that. Maybe in times like these, such an achievement deserves a fairytale ending.