The debate pops up whenever recent Villanova basketball alumni get together, assuming some of those players were on the school’s 2016 NCAA title team and others were on the 2018 NCAA title team.
Which team was better?
The debate has reached the stage where sides are actually chosen up, a mythical game played in the minds of its participants. Who gets this all going first, who starts the talking?
“It’s definitely a guy from the 2016 team, especially Kris Jenkins and Daniel Ochefu, or Josh Hart," said Phil Booth, one of three players to have seen playing time in both NCAA title games. “They like to bring it up.”
That’s interesting, the ’16ers taking the offensive, since the outside consensus, and statistical analysis, is that the 2018 Wildcats were the more dominant team, winning all their NCAA tournament games by double digits, with five players from that team in the NBA just two years later.
So that’s it, ‘18 team was better? Not so fast at all. Let’s dig into this a little. When the subject came up in the offseason, Jay Wright made it clear he does not dive into this debate — no way to pick a favorite child — and, according to Booth, the assistant coaches stay out of it, too. This is left to the guys who played.
“I think everyone has a word to say," Booth said over the phone earlier this week. “When it starts up, everyone has something to say.”
The ‘18 team had the national player of the year, Jalen Brunson. (Add 20 bonus points.) Spearheaded by Hart’s defensive job, the ‘16 team shut down that season’s national player of the year, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, in the NCAA semifinals. (15 bonus points.)
In ‘16, Jenkins hit the greatest shot in Final Four history. (A million bonus points.) But Donte DiVincenzo scored 31 off the bench to be named the ‘18 Final Four most outstanding player. (Lots more bonus points.)
Which team had the better bench? The ‘16 team probably didn’t get past overall tournament top seed Kansas without future lottery pick Mikal Bridges and his big-time defense, or get past North Carolina in the epic final without Booth and his 20 points. But the ‘18 bench had DiVincenzo, who went in the first round of the NBA draft that same year.
Big men? Omari Spellman could hit threes and defend the rim in ‘18. But you could argue Ochefu was the overall Villanova MVP over the ‘16 NCAA run, able to guard inside and out. Spellman had 40 rebounds in the six ‘18 NCAA games. Ochefu had 35 in the ‘16 games.
What’s funny talking to Booth is how he says “us” about ‘18 and “them” about 16 even though he played for us and them, and had far more points of his own in the ‘16 title game. When the sides are chosen up, he knows he’s usually put with the ‘16 guys, since the sides even up more that way. Ochefu, Hart, Jenkins, Booth, Ryan Arcidiacono vs. Brunson, Bridges, DiVincenzo, Spellman and Eric Paschall.
“Josh argues that 2016 gets me," Booth said. “Just throw me on 2016. I don’t really have a choice.”
It has to be that way since Spellman, Paschall and DiVincenzo didn’t play in ‘16, and Brunson and Bridges clearly had much bigger roles in ‘18. Brunson was the only player to start in both finals, but he wasn’t out there at the end in ‘16. (The Sporting News named Brunson player of the decade.)
Talking about his own allegiances, Booth does point out his bigger overall role in 2018. A starter by then, once back from a regular-season injury. He had 10 points and 6 assists against Kansas in the 2018 semifinal game.
Of his argument, Booth noted Villanova’s point differential in the 2018 post-season — “we just straight-out blew everybody out.”
Rob Dauster, locally based, a legit expert, picked his top NCAA hoop teams of the decade for NBCSports.com and chose Villanova 2018 No. 1, noting this team had the best points-per-possession of any NCAA team since 2002.
So you can’t say Dauster was anti-Villanova when he chose ‘16 for honorable mention, not in the top ten, even though they were one of the ten teams to win a title. Since Villanova wasn’t a top seed that year, that’s not quite a slight. The ‘18 team had the better outside shooters, with three starters plus DiVincenzo making over 40 percent of their threes, while nobody on the ‘16 team made 40 percent. The ‘18-ers also defended the three-point line better, statistically. And had more eventual first-round picks.
Still, we’ll argue that if ‘16 and ‘18 played ten times, ‘16 would win three or four. (And we know some Villanova insiders who urge anyone not to sell Hart and his guys short.) While the ‘18 team was first in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency as calculated by KenPom.com, the ‘16 team was third on offense and fifth on defense. You could envision a ‘16 Bridges coming off the bench to guard ‘18 DiVincenzo. A duel for the ages between ‘16 Arcidiacono and ‘18 Brunson. Maybe Hart and Paschall getting after each other inside and out, or Hart demanding to cover DiVincenzo when he gets going.
Hart, now with the New Orleans Pelicans, hosts an entertaining podcast and earlier this year he had his Villanova coach on as a guest. The topic came up. Hart told how sides would be chosen up. (Sure enough, Booth with the 2016-ers.)
“If those were the teams, we would whup their a—," Hart said on the podcast.
That’s kind of how the arguments go, Booth said this week.
“They’ll just say, we’re tough," Booth, now playing for the Washington Wizards’ G League team, said of the 2016 leaders. “They don’t [talk about] skill and talent.”
They also argue that they saw tougher opponents in 2016, and there they’ve got a point.
“That Kansas team was [weak]," Hart said on his podcast, referring to ‘18 Kansas, not ‘16 Kansas.
Current players catch the debate as witnesses in the summer.
“They were just going at it," said Villanova freshman Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, talking before the season. “They’re better ... they’re better.”
Only three players played in both title games. Most combined minutes for those two games: Bridges 51, Brunson 50, Booth 48. Combined championship-game points for those three players: Booth 22, Bridges 21, Brunson 13. (Which means DiVincenzo was high scorer cumulatively for both games despite only playing in one.)
A suggestion: Whenever they’re all retired, so current game shape isn’t a factor, turn this mythical game into a real one, even years down the road. Even then, the Wells Fargo Center would probably sell out.
“That would be a crazy event," Booth said. “You know what, that would be crazy.”