The surprising stories behind Villanova and Michigan's paths to the NCAA championship game
SAN ANTONIO –– Is there a better way to finish such an uproarious season? Is this a swell last chapter, or what? A Villanova team that has shot its way through the NCAA tournament with all five victories by 12 or more points, and a Michigan team that has not lost since Feb. 6.
Hot vs. hotter. Only, which is which?
|MARCH MADNESS SHOP|
Introducing some of the key faces.
The former Williams College Eph.
The former Kentucky Wildcat.
The former Fordham Ram.
The former member of the Alba Berlin team.
The academic redshirt.
Two guys early in their careers in western New York, chasing the same recruits.
A lot of different paths have led to the compelling last chapter in the Alamodome Monday night. Let’s follow a few.
It is March 22, 2014 . . .
Williams is battling Wisconsin-Whitewater for the Division III national championship in Salem, Va. Wisconsin-Whitewater scores on a conventional three-point play with one second left to win 75-73. The Ephs’ last chance is a desperation 3-pointer by the freshman who has 17 points. Duncan Robinson. He misses. The 2,681 in attendance go home.
Four years later, Duncan Robinson is back in another national championship game in San Antonio. He’ll play for Michigan in front of 70,000 people.
“I understand it doesn’t happen to a lot of people,” he said of the journey from Division III to this high ground. Actually, to no one before. It is remarkable, the symmetry from title game to title game, in two different basketball universes.
“I hope there isn’t too much symmetry, with the loss,” Robinson said. “I’ve done a poor job of explaining how I feel with it all, but it’s incredible, the journey that I’ve taken and the people I’ve been able to share it with.
“You go through something like this, a championship run, you’re kind of forged together for, hopefully, life. Those guys are still some of my closest friends, as I know that these guys on this team will be as well.”
It is the spring of 2016 . . .
Eric Paschall is not playing. He had been good enough at Fordham to be Atlantic 10 rookie of the year. But the Rams’ coach is fired, and he went looking for a new challenge: Villanova.
But that meant sitting out a season, so he is watching from the sidelines when Kris Jenkins buries the 3-pointer to give the Wildcats the national championship in Houston. What a year to be in street clothes, distant from it all. “It’s always tough to watch. You want to be on the court, but I was happy to support,” he said. “I had great teammates that just always talked to me. I had great coaches that always worked with me and kept in contact and always made sure I was fine.”
Two years later, he has just torched Kansas in the Final Four, hitting 10 of 11 shots. And this Villanova championship game, he’ll be doing more than watching.
It is March of 2016 . . .
Kentucky has been bounced out of the second round by Indiana. One of the freshman guards had given the Wildcats some good play in the SEC tournament – “That’s the best version of him,” John Calipari said then — but plays only one minute in the Indiana game.
Charles Matthews ends up another one-and-done Kentucky freshman. Only in this case, done means leaving Lexington for a better fit. He opts for Michigan.
Two years later, he is the Wolverines' leading scorer in the NCAA tournament.
It is the fall of 2016 . . .
Omari Spellman has come to Villanova as a prized recruit, but his high school career had been that of a vagabond, from one place to the next. The byzantine trail and credit transfer messiness — nothing wrong with his grades — convince the NCAA to demand an academic redshirt season. “I was in coach’s office and I bawled my eyes out for 15 minutes,” he said earlier this season of the moment he heard the news from Jay Wright.
“It was hard for me just because I never had to sit out,” he said Sunday. “I never had to go a whole year without playing basketball. If I wanted to, I never had to go more than two days. It was extremely humbling, but I look at it more now as a blessing. I grew up a lot in a year.”
But a confusing academic record doesn't mean lack of ability. Far from it. He doesn't play one minute in 2016-17, but still makes the Big East all-academic team. “That meant the world to me,” he said. “When you hear `academic redshirt,’ a lot of people stigmatize you as unintelligent. That really did a lot for my confidence and proved to people that I am an intelligent human being.”
Saturday night, he had a double-double against Kansas. Monday, he’ll go eyeball to eyeball with Michigan’s Moe Wagner.
Speaking of Wagner. It is October of 2014 . . .
Wolverines coach John Beilein is on a plane to Germany. Someone had sent him an email about a big kid with potential there named Moritz Wagner. He watched a bit of video on the player, realized nobody was onto this hidden gem yet, and headed for Berlin, aiming to get over and back in two days, since preseason was underway (“I think he prepared practice on the flight,” Wagner said Sunday). Beilein grew up on an apple farm. He understands timing is important for the best harvest of the fruit.
“In disguise, by the way,” he said of his travel attire. “I wore no Michigan gear, because I didn’t want anybody seeing me because word travels fast. Then other people would come recruit him. But lo and behold, when I came back — obviously I was flying out of Detroit — a group saw me and it got out there on Twitter somewhere that I was overseas. So you can run, but you can’t hide.”
About his visit to the Wagner family flat. “I asked for a big German dinner and a beer. I got both of them.”
Wagner said he was thrilled to see Beilein, recognizing his face from the 2013 national championship game, since Wagner had always watched the tournament on TV, his goal of playing college basketball 5,000 miles away growing with each telecast. But there were never any thoughts about Monday night.
“People always say, `This is a dream of mine,” Wagner said Sunday. “This is such a big thing that you can’t plan. You can’t say, `I’m going to be in the national championship game one day.’ There’s so many odds that have to go your way. You don’t even think about being in that position, because you don’t want to be disappointed.”
Three-plus years later, Wagner’s 24 points and 15 rebounds carried Michigan past Loyola Saturday night. If the Wolverines are to stop Villanova, he’ll have to be the center of the wall.
It is 1984 ...
Jay Wright is at his first job, as an assistant at Rochester. “Division III assistant is about as low as you can be in the college basketball business,” he said Sunday. John Beilein is a head coach just down the road at Division II Le Moyne in Syracuse.
“We would recruit guys all year, and then John would wait until the end of the year because he had a scholarship and we didn’t,” Wright said. “You’d be on a guy, and you’d just hope you wouldn’t see John in the gym . . . But he was always the nicest guy.”
More than three decades later, Wright is the dashing coach trying for his second national championship in three years. “At the end of the game tomorrow, he’ll still look like George Clooney and I will look like Columbo by Peter Falk,” Beilein said Sunday.
Beilein is 65 years old, and still trying for his first. He came close in 2013, when the Wolverines lost the title game 82-76 to Louisville, who officially vacated that championship. But Beilein wants no part of the idea that Michigan should somehow assume the spot.
“We didn’t win that one. It was fair and square. They didn’t have six guys on the court. They didn’t have Rick’s (Pitino) brother-in-law reffing, or anything like that. We lost the game, they won it. I’m going to leave it like that, and that’s the way it should be. . . We’ll not say we’re national champs.”
It is April, 2018, and it has come to this . . .
Villanova, with the look of a champion. Michigan, with the confidence of a team that has forgotten how to lose. But Sunday was no time to think much about how far they've come.
Not for Wagner. “I’m not giving myself that time. I’m going to do that when it’s all over. Now I’m in the moment of trying to win another basketball game . . . We didn’t come here to lose.”
Nor Robinson. “I’m sure I’ll look back on this and have that moment.”
Nor Matthews: “I’m pretty sure I’m going to do that Tuesday.”
Nor Wright. “Sometime you’re on a bus ride over and you look at the assistants and you’re like, `Can you believe we’re here?’ I really haven’t got my mind around the whole thing yet.
“I think I’ll try to get some type of understanding of what’s going on here the last three years when it’s over.”
They all have some reflecting, here at the end of the road. But first, there's Monday night.