HOUSTON — At the end of his team's demolition of Oklahoma on Saturday night, even Villanova guard Josh Hart could hardly process what the Wildcats had accomplished.
He turned to teammate Ryan Arcidiacono and said, "We just won a Final Four game by 40. This is crazy. That's something I didn't even think was going to happen."
Villanova continues to surprise even itself with its ability to punch above its weight class. Not only are the Wildcats a victory over North Carolina away from the program's second national title, they're also potentially on the precipice of becoming the first team in nearly three decades to capture a championship without a single future first-round pick on its roster.
Indiana's 1987 national title team is the last to win in that manner, though those Hoosiers were hardly starless. The Dallas Mavericks selected Steve Alford 26th overall that year — the third pick of the second round back then — and Keith Smart and Dean Garrett both also went in the second round the following summer.
The 28 teams that have won championships since 1987 have produced an average of 2.9 first-round picks apiece, with 2004 UConn and 1996 Kentucky tying for the most with six. Of those 28 teams, the only ones to have just a single future first-rounder were UConn in 1999 and 2014, Louisville in 2013 and Arkansas in 1994.
It's entirely possible several players from this year's Villanova team make an NBA roster someday, but neither leading scorer Josh Hart nor promising freshmen Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are currently projected as future first-round picks. Two NBA scouts told Yahoo Sports they don't see a realistic first-round candidate on Villanova's roster, though they cautioned that either Brunson or Bridges could blossom later in their careers.
"It's a very good possibility there's not a single first-round pick on this team, but some of it will be dependent on how the young players develop," one scout said.
Said the other, "Bridges is the only one with the potential but he is a few years away."
How has Villanova managed to disprove the notion that it takes surefire future NBA talent to contend for a national title? It's certainly not entirely by choice. In just the 2015 class alone, the Wildcats landed a McDonald's All-American in Brunson, were a finalist for Syracuse's Malachi Richardson and were in the mix for several other decorated prospects.
"Talent is the first thing we look for," Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy said. "It would be a lie if I said otherwise. But I think we also try to find a fit for our culture. If we bring this guy in, will our current roster enjoy being with this guy? How's he going to respond to coaching? I think a lot of times you can tell that by spending time with their current coaches and getting to know their parents. It's certainly not an exact science, but we do try to look beyond the court."
The season-long improvement of this year's Villanova team is proof the Wildcats have a good mix of talent and character. They've evolved from a good team to one of the nation's best as Brunson and Bridges grew more comfortable at the college level and Hart, Kris Jenkins and Darryl Reynolds adjusted to increased responsibility.
They're moving the ball more unselfishly and displaying superior shot selection than they were early in the season when they hunted threes with reckless abandon. They're defending with more cohesiveness and communication in their aggressive, switching man-to-man scheme. They've also benefited from Daniel Ochefu returning from injury and blossoming into an interior scoring threat who's also able to pass out of double teams.
"All of our guys are putting the team first and playing hard and together every game," Villanova assistant Ashley Howard said. "If our guys were on other teams, they would probably put up better individual numbers, but that's what makes our team special. Our guys are willing to sacrifice to win."
Elite talent can sometimes still trump character and work ethic, however, this year was ripe for a team like Villanova to contend. Not only was college basketball's freshman class not as deep or formidable as other years, the class of 2015's top prospects also didn't cluster at traditional powers.
Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney went to LSU. Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb headed to Cal. Malik Newman chose his dad's alma mater Mississippi State. Stephen Zimmerman stayed home at UNLV. The result was a college basketball season devoid of dominant teams as Villanova and five other programs passed the No. 1 ranking back and forth like a game of hot potato.
It probably also helped Villanova that it had the memory of back-to-back second-round NCAA tournament losses failures to sharpen its focus entering March. Motivated to shed its reputation for early exits, the Wildcats have beaten their five NCAA tournament opponents so far this March by an average of 24.2 points.
"I actually love it that a bunch of blue-collar guys like us are doing this," Reynolds said." It's nice to have a change of pace as opposed to having three or four first-rounders on a team and have them march to a championship. To have guys who put in work over the years and who have gotten so close and failed and come back again, I think it speaks to the character of the program."
In the aftermath of Villanova's jaw-dropping 44-point throttling of Oklahoma on Saturday night, Wright tried to send a message to his team. He told the Wildcats they may not have eight NBA players on their roster but by working together and sacrificing for one another, they had accomplished something only a team of NBA players should have been able to achieve.
"What he was trying to say was when this team has the type of synergy we had on the court yesterday, we can put together results that nobody could expect," Dunleavy said. "Nobody in this room could have expected beating an unbelievable Oklahoma team by 40 points. We would have never made that a goal. We would have never thought that would be possible. But as a product of playing together and playing off each other on both ends, we accomplished something that should take eight NBA players to do."
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