In the battle between the nation’s best (Villanova) and hottest (Michigan) teams, it was the latter that started Monday’s NCAA men’s national championship game right on script. The Wolverines led by 7 about a quarter into the game, and it looked like Michigan was tracking for a title-game upset that would rank alongside Syracuse over Kansas in 2003, UConn over Duke in 1999 and Arizona over Kentucky in 1997.1
Soon, though, reality set in, and the superior Wildcats asserted themselves. With its 79-62 victory over Michigan, Villanova ended any debate about who was No. 1 this season — and instead opened up the discussion about where coach Jay Wright’s team should rank among NCAA champions from history.
When things were going well for Michigan, the Wolverines were perfectly playing to their strengths — and shutting down Villanova’s. Led by the versatile 6-foot-10 forward Moe Wagner, Michigan had the big advantage over Nova in Ken Pomeroy’s effective height metric (which measures frontcourt size), and it flexed that muscle early on. Michigan outrebounded Villanova 7-4 in the game’s first seven minutes, while Wagner scored 9 quick points in the same span. At the same time, Michigan’s staunch 3-point defense — which held opponents to the sixth-lowest rate of attempts from beyond the arc during the season — gave Villanova few clean looks from deep. Uncharacteristically, the Wildcats missed eight of their first nine shots from the outside.
But after the textbook start, the wheels fell off for Michigan. Midway through the first half, Nova embarked on a 16-5 run that saw them take the lead for good. The rest of the game was a clinic for Villanova; the final stats for the title game bore little resemblance to the numbers that generated Michigan’s early lead. Nova ended up outrebounding the bigger Wolverines 38-27 and knocked down 10 of 27 3-pointers. (In the end, it was Michigan — another team heavily reliant on the three — that went cold from deep, missing 20 of 23 attempts from long range.)
It helped Nova that sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo saved the game of his life for the championship. Despite starting the game out on the bench, DiVincenzo poured in 31 points, including 15 from 3-pointers alone. Every time Michigan appeared to be on the verge of mounting a comeback, DiVincenzo came up with a big shot to quell the rally. Monday’s performance, on the heels of a mega-efficient 15-point outing in the national semifinals, earned DiVincenzo well-deserved most outstanding player honors for the tournament.
Now the only real question that remains is where Villanova ranks in history. By winning two championships in three years, the Wildcats have already earned some measure of immortality: Before Villanova, just three teams in the 64-team bracket era — since 1985 — have won twice in three seasons. (The others were Duke in 1991/92, Kentucky in 1996/98 and Florida in 2006/07.) But this season’s team is also in elite company by deeper metrics than simple ring-counting. According to KenPom.com’s power ratings, Villanova ended the season as the second-best NCAA men’s champion since 2002, trailing only Kansas in 2008. The Wildcats also rank eighth among champs in the 64-team era according to our Elo ratings,2 which estimate a team’s quality at a given point in time, and their impressive title run should elevate them on anybody’s list of all-time champs.
How to judge a champion’s tournament performance? One way is to look at how much more it outscored opponents than we’d expect based on those opponents’ Elo ratings. During the 2018 tourney, Villanova trounced opponents by an average of 17.7 points per game — never winning by fewer than 12 and covering the Vegas spread in all six games — against a set of foes that we’d expect the average champ3 to beat by just 9.8 per game. That difference of 7.9 points per contest ranks fifth among men’s champs since 1985:
Which champion had the most impressive tourney run?
Best NCAA tournament points per game margin vs. expected (based on Elo ratings) for men’s champions, 1985-2018
Of course, as impressive as Villanova was this season, Elo still thinks more highly of the team’s championship run two years ago. So it’s not completely open-and-shut where this season’s Wildcats even rank relative to themselves in terms of recent champs. But after the way Nova dismantled Michigan and Kansas in San Antonio, it’s run out of yardsticks from 2018 with which to compare anyway. The only opponents left to vanquish at this point are the ghosts of the past.
UPDATE (April 3, 2018, 1 p.m.): This post has been updated to reflect the latest data from KenPom.com, which shows Villanova as the second-best NCAA men’s champion since 2002. (Villanova’s new +33.76 rating moved them ahead of Duke’s +33.29 mark from 2010.)