If this season has taught anything, it’s that greatness cannot be anointed or projected or wished for.
It must be earned.
After all the talk throughout the year about the lack of a great team, there turned out to be two. Villanova and North Carolina didn’t reach Monday night’s NCAA title game because their rosters are filled with NBA stars-in-the-making or they got lucky or the moon and stars happened to align over Philadelphia and Chapel Hill. They are the last ones playing because they were two very good teams that transformed themselves into fantastic ones, through hard work and a few equally hard knocks.
Whoever wins Monday night will earn not only a spot on the list of champions, but enduring respect and admiration for having achieved a level of excellence no one expected even six weeks ago.
“You’re seeing a season where there weren’t dominant players, there weren’t dominant teams,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said Sunday. “Then you’re seeing a season where two teams just continued to get better and better and better and better.
“Now at the end, that’s what you’re seeing. The teams that continued to improve throughout the year and are playing the best right now.”
The last few years, there has been one team that stood above the rest for the entire season. Kentucky in 2015. And 2014. And 2012, for that matter. Florida in 2013.
That there was no one close this year was evident with a glance at the Top 25, where the No. 1 teams changed more frequently than Kylie Jenner’s hair color.
North Carolina began the year atop the rankings, but any idea that the Tar Heels might be invincible was erased with a loss to Northern Iowa four games in. A span in which they lost four times in nine games — three of those to ranked teams — only raised more questions.
Villanova became the sixth team to hold the No. 1 ranking after a two-month span in which it won 16 of 17 games. But the Wildcats seemed to be more opportunistic than dominant, not even the best team in the Big East. A loss to Xavier only confirmed those suspicions.
“We were a young team. Those were part of the growing pains,” Villanova forward Darryl Reynolds said. “We had to learn, we had to grow up and overcome certain things. We had to learn a lot to get over ourselves and get out of our own way.”
There is something to be said for taking the harder, bumpier road, however. Those Kentucky and Florida teams that were supposed to be so great? Only one, Kentucky in 2012, won the national title.
And no matter how hard John Calipari tried to spin it last year, it’s not what you do during the season that makes you memorable but what you accomplish at the end.
Since that rough patch in February, North Carolina has won 10 in a row. It’s won all five of its NCAA tournament games by 14 points or more. Marcus Paige has been transcendent while Brice Johnson has forced himself into the conversation about potential first-round picks in the NBA draft.
After a surprise loss to Seton Hall in the finale of the Big East tournament, Villanova has ripped through the NCAA tournament. It beat a very good Miami team and then took down overall No. 1 seed Kansas.It played about as close to a perfect game as you can get against Oklahoma, shooting 71.4% from the field and making Buddy Hield irrelevant.
Its 44-point victory was a Final Four record.
“You don’t see that very often in a Final Four game. Probably never seen it in a Final Four game,” Paige said. “They’ve been playing that well basically the entire tournament.”
Both teams have dominated when it mattered most. Because that is what great teams do.