UNC, Villanova at crossroads, need a program-redefining national title

ByDana O'Neil ESPN logo
Monday, April 4, 2016
North Carolina players warm up during a practice session for the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament Friday, April 1, 2016, in Houston.
North Carolina players warm up during a practice session for the NCAA Final Four college basketball tournament Friday, April 1, 2016, in Houston.

HOUSTON -- After the confetti falls from the rafters a mile above the court, after the trophy is presented and the hats and T-shirts are distributed, the new national champions will gather together, loop their arms around each other's shoulders and gaze at the big screen to watch "One Shining Moment."

But for Villanova and North Carolina, this title game isn't about a shining moment.

It's about a defining one.

Related: Special coverage: UNC in the National Championship

That seems obvious. What national championship doesn't validate the winner?

This goes deeper than that. From two diametrically opposed directions, the Wildcats and the Tar Heels have arrived at, if not a crossroads, at least a critical juncture for their programs.

Is Villanova a legitimate national program?

Does North Carolina still wield the same sort of impact it once did?

North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks (4) shoots against Providence during the second half of a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament
Chuck Burton

For one team, this game will answer that.

On Sunday afternoon, former Villanova assistant Patrick Chambers sent a text message to his old boss. Now the head coach at Penn State, he was on Jay Wright's staff when the Wildcats made it to the 2009 Final Four, and this time he wanted to make sure Villanova didn't make the same mistakes it did then.

He remembers the self-inflicted chaos that only added to the bedlam that already exists in the Final Four. People -- friends, boosters, whoever wanted to be, really -- were at the pregame meals and even in team meetings; Wright chatting up Vice President Joe Biden, who was calling to offer congratulations in the middle of a film study.

Unprepared for traffic in Detroit, they'd spend an hour in a bus getting to a practice that lasted just 90 minutes.

"It was a circus," he said. "But we were so happy to be there and that was the problem. It was, 'Wow. We made the Final Four.' We didn't realize that, yeah, we made it, but we weren't done."

The Wildcats proceeded to get their doors blown off by North Carolina, losing 83-69 in the national semifinal.

This week, Wright repeatedly has acknowledged those mistakes, and this team is clearly not merely happy to be here. Wright was so dialed-in during the semifinal against Oklahoma he was cursing officials for missing a call -- when the Wildcats were up 37.

Villanova players including Phil Booth (5) and Kevin Rafferty (52) walks off the court after an NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game against Oklahoma
Kiichiro Sato

The mission is clearer this time, but the ramifications also are bigger.

Since that last Final Four run, the Big East has folded and been reborn, retaining its basketball-centric focus but losing some of its marquee members, including Syracuse and UConn. The conference remains an outsider to the power five and football-driven SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12. Whether a hoops team can compete without the endless streams of revenue that the gridiron teams supply has been a legit question.

Villanova has answered it with a resounding "yes" all season. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 for three consecutive weeks. They have won 34 games and lost just five. Ken Pomeroy has the Wildcats ranked first in his standings and, along with liking them in each of their NCAA tournament games, likes them against the Tar Heels.

They are about as close to the plucky 1985 team as the rumpled mess of Rollie Massimino is to the perfectly pressed Wright.

But the chasm between being respected as a national program and validated as one can be pretty wide. Villanova is winning in a way that no one else does -- or even tries to these days. The roster is not dotted with obvious NBA prospects, not because Wright is opposed to them but because he's opted to value fit over rankings.

With every win in this NCAA tournament and especially the past two -- ousting top-seeded Kansas and setting records in complete humbling of Buddy Hield and Oklahoma -- fewer and fewer people are questioning Wright's methods and Villanova's ability.

A win on Monday night would silence it for good.

"I guess the perception of us if we won it would change some,'' Wright said. "But we don't care and I know I don't care about any of that. We're going to be judged that way, but we're not going to judge ourselves that way."

Asked to explain the difference between his team and North Carolina, Villanova's Daniel Ochefu made the distinction quite clear.

"In college basketball, people don't call it baby blue," he said. "They call it Tar Heel blue."

North Carolina has its own color, its own byway (Tobacco Road), and its own way (the Carolina Way, of course), with a tradition so richly defined it practically seeps through the seams of the players' uniforms.

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The program has won five national titles and is making its 19th Final Four appearance. Only UCLA and Kentucky have won more titles.

But when the Tar Heels cut down the nets at the ACC tournament final three weeks ago, Roy Williams actually had to give his players instructions on how to do it. They hadn't won anything in so long -- no ACC regular-season title since 2012, no conference tourney crown since 2008, no regional final win since 2009.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams holds part of the net after an NCAA college basketball game in the championship of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament against Virginia
Alex Brandon

That last one stung the most. Plenty of schools wouldn't even call a seven-year stretch between Final Fours a drought.

At Carolina, it's an eternity.

"I happened to make the Final Four in '91 in Kansas," Roy Williams said. "There was a guy named Dean Smith at North Carolina. He said, 'This has been a long time. It's been nine years.' We haven't quite been nine years yet."

But what's happened in those seven years is really the issue. While North Carolina has been idling, Duke has won two championships and Kentucky one, the Wildcats adding two runner-up finishes and a national semifinal appearance. Kansas, too, has had its shot in the championship game.

Those three schools have gobbled up the most highly sought-after recruits while Carolina has been mired in a lengthy investigation that goes to its schools very academic foundation.

Then along comes this team, one built against the grain with senior stars instead of freshmen phenoms, yet always the one considered the most talented in the country. The Tar Heels were expected to be here, but realizing the expectation isn't enough.

They need to win it.

"Do we need to win it? To y'all maybe," Tar Heels sophomore Justin Jackson said. "For us, we've made it here and it feels pretty good. There are so many things people say about North Carolina basketball, I can't even keep up with it. First, we're not tough enough. Then we're not going to win games because other teams are going to come at us, but we're here, in the national championship. I don't think we need to win because of what people might be saying about North Carolina basketball. We need to win because we want to win."

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