PITTSBURGH — There are three reasons why Villanova has created a niche among perennial national contenders and they are the same as the famous three key factors in real estate: Location, location, location. The Wildcats are where they are because of how well they handle themselves beyond the three-point line.
The three-point shot has transformed every level of basketball in the past generation, especially in this millennium, when players have become so adept at shooting threes and coaches have become so confident in using the long shot as a strategy. It allowed Villanova to pull away and blow away Alabama in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday, with the Wildcats making seven of their first 10 three-pointers of a 49-31 second half.
It was no aberration. Villanova had made seven of its first 10 threes at the start of its rout against Radford in the first round on Thursday. It is a philosophy, one that has given coach Jay Wright a key to stay with the big guys in the power conferences.
He recalls his epiphany having arrived in a 2005 Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina. Villanova was overmatched against an opponent that had four future NBA first-round draft choices, especially because the Wildcats were without injured starter Curtis Sumpter. Wright had his choice of starting a 6-10 player or freshman guard Kyle Lowry. The coach chose to go small and hope big.
With a barrage of three-pointers, Villanova kept it close (the game turned on a charge-or-travel decision that went North Carolina’s way) and a new style was born. “I’ve got to admit, in the middle of that game, I was like, ‘This is really cool. We can get these kinds of guys. We might not be able to get these 6-11 guys that Carolina got, but we can get these guys,’ ” he said.
It was symbolic and fitting that it was a three-pointer, from Kris Jenkins, at the buzzer that gave Villanova the 2016 NCAA championship over North Carolina. It is more a practical matter that the Wildcats on Saturday became the first team to have four 32-win seasons in a row.
“It’s the consistency of very good players over four years that stayed in the program and each class got better and better,” Wright said. “You don’t do that without very good players that have passed down their knowledge to the classes behind them.”
One piece of knowledge is particularly important. The program goes by an odd and not terribly logical slogan, “Shoot ’em up and sleep in the streets.” Team members take that to mean “Feel free to shoot threes.”
Donte DiVincenzo did that in the first half against Alabama. With Big East Player of the Year Jalen Brunson on the bench with foul trouble, DiVincenzo had the liberty to look for long-range shots and made 5 of 9, on his way to 18 first-half points. “My job was just to defend and rebound. I felt like I was defending at a high rate,” the redshirt sophomore said. “We were just running things and I found myself hot.”
Mikal Bridges did the same in the second half. All told, Villanova made 17 of 41 three-pointers, contrasted to the Crimson Tide’s 4 of 16.
The downside is that if the shots aren’t falling, the Wildcats are in trouble. “Some nights we’re going to have to sleep in the streets,” Wright said.
It is a chance they are more than happy to take. They won the Big East Tournament. They have won their first two games in the Big Dance. They are safely in the Sweet 16, and they like their location, location, location.