Villanova’s 2016 national championship win over North Carolina was phenomenal, but why doesn’t it quite measure up compared to the other classic title games?
I’m not going to yuck your yum.
I loved this Villanova win over North Carolina just as much as you did, and there’s absolutely no question whatsoever that the Kris Jenkins shot – along with the Marcus Paige miracle three to tie the game – belongs among the greatest championship endings in the history of American sports.
But I know what’s coming.
It was a very, very, very, very good game, but over the next several days you’re going to read and hear Greatest Game Ever type of hyperbole and reaction – and it just wasn’t.
Don’t confuse a great finish and a gripping battle with something more, because as amazing as this was, it belongs in a different category of greatness that stands on its own. It wasn’t the historic moment that media outlets – I’m guessing – are going to fall all over themselves to make it out to be.
After an all-time clunker of a Final Four Saturday, everyone was so starved for something that wasn’t miserable that just about anything close would’ve been fine. That the game was spectacular instantly threw it into another stratosphere because it was such a relief and such a joy – and it really was special.
But there wasn’t any hype, with the nation’s attention focused for most of the day – trust me, in the Campus Insiders offices we had eight separate TVs rolling – on the start of the baseball season, Colin Kaepernick maybe going to the Broncos, Scottie Pippen saying his Bulls would sweep these Golden State Warriors, the Wisconsin primaries – everything but the national title.
To be fair, since ESPN didn’t have the game it wasn’t going out of its way to hype it up on any of its family of networks, but that’s also sort of the point.
Yeah, being on TBS mattered.
If you don’t think it did, ask yourself this – would the Super Bowl ever be on TBS? It meant the game didn’t have the same gravitas, and any other pretentious words you want to throw at it. Mix in the overcrowded and awkward announcing trio of Jim Nantz, Bill Raftery and Grant Hill, and the experience wasn’t always up to championship snuff.
And before you start in with this being about a Get Off My Lawn/Back In My Day sort of a whine, yeah, college basketball games really were better several years ago because they were on major networks, and there weren’t as many distractions, and there weren’t as many things for America to do. But what was the most important element missing on Monday night compared to some of the other classics?
North Carolina is made up of a bunch of second round draft picks, and Villanova has a veteran team mainly because it didn’t have enough guys good enough to be one-and-done. That doesn’t take away from the greatness of the 2016 national championship as a game – and this could change over time if some of the players on each side turn into star pros – but in terms of historical significance, it can’t come within 50 miles of 1982 North Carolina vs. Georgetown with Jordan, Worthy, Perkins and Ewing. Throw in the beginning of Michael Jordan – his words – with his game-winning shot, and the historic Fred Brown error on the final possession, and the drama was every bit as strong as Villanova’s buzzer-beater.
1987 Indiana didn’t have a ton of NBA talent, but it had a college legend in Steve Alford, along with the star of all sports superstars at the time, Bobby Knight, beating a Syracuse team with Derrick Coleman, Rony Seikaly and Sherman Douglas. That championship also came off a great Final Four with an epic IU win over UNLV to make the title game even bigger – the Keith Smart shot sealed its greatness.
North Carolina beat Kansas in three overtimes to win the 1957 national title, finsihed by a final great defensive play. The Jayhawks had that Wilt Chamberlain guy.
1989 Michigan had Glen Rice, Loy Vaught, Sean Higgins, Terry Mills, and won with one of the most dramatic finishes ever on Rumeal Robinson’s calm, cool free throws and a Seton Hall heave – that team had NBA talent, too – that just missed.
1997 Arizona – with Mike Bibby and Miles Simon – rolled through three No. 1 seeds, including Kentucky, in one of the most underappreciated overtime national titles of all-time.
The players in all those games were just better, and that’s the difference.
And now for the sacrilegious part of this so soon after the fun – the Villanova-North Carolina ending probably wasn’t even the best in college basketball national championship history.
In a different sort of way, 1993 Michigan and the Chris Webber timeout was every bit as epic as the Jenkins shot – and maybe even more so because that was Chris Freaking Webber and The Fab Five losing to North Carolina.
Throw the talent and high draft picks on both sides into the equation, and the Memphis meltdown in the 2008 national title loss to Kansas was more significant. Derrick Rose gacked away a chance to put the game away on the free throw line, and as good as the Jenkins’ shot was on Monday night, it wasn’t as huge as the Mario Chalmers three to send the game into overtime.
If Jenkins missed, the game goes into OT and life goes on. Kansas was down 63-60 when Chalmers hit his three with two seconds left to force overtime – miss it, and Memphis is the national champion. It wasn’t a walk-off, but it was a bigger clutch shot.
And then there’s the Gold Standard for all national title games – 1983 NC State over Houston. It checked all the boxes with the epic Phi Slamma Jamma mystique of the Cougars coming off one of the greatest Final Four games of all-time – a dunk-a-thon shootout with Louisville – going against the upstart Wolfpack.
Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler alone made it something amazing from a historical perspective, while NC State had NBA types in Thurl Bailey, Sidney Lowe, and Lorenzo Charles, who came up with one of the most ironic finishes ever with the dunk over Olajuwon to beat the ultimate interior player and intimidating presence.
Throw in the tactical nature of the game with Drexler getting into foul trouble early, Jim Valvano having his team foul time and again to force a bad free-throw shooting team to try making ANYTHING, and with the finish, and it helped cement the NCAA Tournament as a really big deal. 1979 Magic and Michigan State over Bird and Indiana State made the national title matter – even if it was a lousy game – 1983 NC State over Houston raised it up, and 1985 Villanova over Georgetown took it to a whole other level.
2016 Villanova over North Carolina? Great, yes. Comparable to some of the games that shaped the sport by some of the greatest players in basketball history? Not really.
Again, it’s not about putting a damper on your fun. It’s not about trying to ruin one of the greatest moments in all of our sports lives. It’s about enjoying it for what it really was – one of the best national championships of all-time.
It wasn’t anything bigger than that.