2018-04-03 09:30:07
On College Basketball: Donte DiVincenzo Is Villanova’s Newest Star. Next Year It’ll Be Someone Else.

09:30, April 03 132 0

SAN ANTONIO — The last time Villanova reached the Final Four, in 2016, the Wildcats had a date in the national semifinals with Oklahoma and its senior superstar Buddy Hield, a 3-point-shooting guard who was college basketball’s player of the year that season.

Drafted to play as Hield for Villanova’s practice scout team was Donte DiVincenzo, a freshman who had appeared in eight games but then fractured his right foot and was redshirted.

On Monday night, after DiVincenzo led Villanova to its 79-62 victory over Michigan in this year’s N.C.A.A. title game, teammates remembered his performance as Hield on the scout team. They credited it with helping them to that year’s historic 95-51 defeat of Oklahoma, in which Hield went just 4-for-12 with 9 points. Villanova went on to beat North Carolina in the 2016 title game on a famous buzzer-beater.

“He kicked our ass,” Josh Hart, now of the Los Angeles Lakers, said of DiVincenzo.

“That made it easier going into that game defending Buddy Hield,” added the redshirt junior Mikal Bridges.

Jalen Brunson, a junior who was this season’s player of the year, said “Buddy Hield Donte” — the version of DiVincenzo who mimicked Hield to help Villanova prepare that year — “was a special person, and someone who might’ve came out tonight.”

But what speaks most succinctly about how Villanova won two titles in three seasons is precisely that DiVincenzo was able to go from imitating an opposing superstar in one title game to being the superstar in the next one. It is a trajectory distinctive to the program, which could reasonably be expected to lead to another title a year or two from now.

Hield never had a game as spectacular as DiVincenzo had on Monday, particularly on a Final Four court.

The statistics — 31 points on 15 shots, five rebounds and three assists — still undersell the extent to which DiVincenzo was his team’s fulcrum Monday night. The team’s sixth man, he was the one who stopped the bleeding after the underdog Michigan surprised the 67,831 spectators in the Alamodome and millions more watching on television who had expected a fairly easy victory by Villanova, the top seed.

Before DiVincenzo scored his first basket, Michigan led 14-8. Villanova’s next 8 points were DiVincenzo’s: a 3-pointer, a 3-point play, a jump shot. DiVincenzo responded to ball screens by hitting long 3s from where he was standing or, once, finding Omari Spellman down low on a brilliant bounce pass.

On defense, during one stretch he forced a driving Zavier Simpson into a miss and then, on the next possession, the 6-foot-5 DiVincenzo straight-up blocked an attempted dunk by Isaiah Livers.

At one point, after back-to-back 3-pointers, DiVincenzo winked at the crowd. He later said he was aiming for Hart.

Had DiVincenzo been in a video game, flames would have been coming off his ball.

It would be easy to characterize him as an overachieving diamond in the rough, another scrappy kid from Villanova’s backyard (he is from Delaware) who thrived in Coach Jay Wright’s system. The story sounds great, but it doesn’t check out. DiVincenzo was a four-star recruit who had offers from Florida, Notre Dame, Syracuse and elsewhere.

The Villanova innovation, rather, is to have a talent like DiVincenzo, as a redshirt sophomore, come off the bench.

“All he wants to do is play,” said DiVincenzo’s mother, Kathy, elated in a straw cowboy hat with a Villanova “V” as she watched him being named the Final Four’s most outstanding player. “He doesn’t care if he starts.”

What makes Villanova the class of college basketball — the first team to win two titles in three seasons since Florida repeated more than a decade ago, the second since Kentucky did it in 1996 and ’98 — is this model of sustainable success, with players who could be the center of attention at other big programs sacrificing to play for the Wildcats.

“Donte could do more,” Assistant Coach George Halcovage said on Sunday, the day before the title game. “He’s a great player. He’s the sixth man. He could be starting on any team in the country.”

Halcovage added, “Understanding being part of something bigger than himself allows him to give us a guy who is a starter off the bench.”

Villanova’s way should challenge our own preconceptions. We think of one-and-done factories (and, let’s face it, we are thinking of Duke and Kentucky) as facing a test that is not only difficult but unique: the need to reload rosters annually as they lose players to the N.B.A. draft.

But Villanova’s experience shows the difference is one of degree, not kind. (It also shows that the popular dichotomy between one-and-done programs and others is an oversimplification.) Players graduate. Players transfer — though fewer than the norm do from Villanova. Players come out early, but not as freshmen. Everyone must reload.

Villanova lost two starters from its title team two seasons ago, and then two more from the team that last season was the N.C.A.A. tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. Just three players — Brunson, Bridges and the redshirt junior Phil Booth — contributed major minutes to both championship teams. Brunson is the only player who started for both.

Where was DiVincenzo during the 2016 championship game? “I was on the bench in a suit,” he said Monday.

Like DiVincenzo, Booth was the sixth man on the 2015-16 team. Like DiVincenzo, he was Villanova’s leading scorer in the championship game. There is a pattern here.

Part of the way Villanova makes this work is careful attention to what Wright called “roster structuring.” Wright and his staff carry a chart around that projects every player’s next three seasons. Players are considered in their final seasons not based on whether their eligibility is about to run out, but based on when they are likely to leave (like Brunson and Bridges, juniors who are both projected as first-round draft picks). The coaches then recruit to the spots they anticipate having holes in.

They “talk about it every day,” Wright said.

But there is still the matter of persuading top players to head for Philadelphia’s suburbs with the knowledge that they may enter this complex chart and be stashed away while a veteran gives Villanova his best basketball. The key here might be a popular motto of Wright’s, which he echoed in a tweet early Tuesday morning: “We play for those who came before us.”

The line is that curious combination of robotic and sentimental that tends to define many things that coaches and players say. The fact is, those sayings the layperson rolls his eyes at are often the ones the coaches and players imbibe with utmost earnestness. These guys really do take it one game at a time; they really do believe there is no “I” in “team.”

And so under Wright, Villanova’s players have come to see themselves as part of a continuum competing under the Villanova banner, stretching back to the past and into the future.

On the court after the game, Kris Jenkins, who made the game-winning shot in 2016 against North Carolina, put his arm around Ryan Arcidiacono, the guy who flipped him the ball, and explained how older generations set the stage for newer ones.

“When we came to this school, he was a sophomore, we were freshmen,” Jenkins said. “We just followed their lead, and they followed the lead of the guys who were in the program before them.”

As the new guys become the old guys, the process replicates itself. “We have so much confidence in the type of person Coach is going to bring into the program,” DiVincenzo said. “When we were younger, those guys had the same type of confidence. And we know what we’re going to get next year.”

The only freshman to play significant minutes for Villanova on Monday was Collin Gillespie. Villanova’s coaches discovered him while watching his future teammate Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree playing in a Catholic league outside Philadelphia.

Despite being a true freshman who averaged a little more than 14 minutes per game, Gillespie has already been inducted into this continuum. He practiced extensively in the summer with Jenkins and Arcidiacono. Hart came by before his rookie season in the N.B.A., as did the Toronto Raptors star Kyle Lowry. He met Randy Foye at the Big East’s freshman orientation in the fall.

“We play for those who came before us,” Gillespie said in the postgame locker room, repeating the motto.

The only Villanova players who actually ran out of eligibility when the game-clock hit 00:00 on Monday night were the three walk-ons: two seniors and a graduate student.

They know they are done at Villanova. They had a message for Gillespie, he said, for next season and beyond. “You play for me now,” they told him.