We are deviating from Razorback-related matters for this week out of selfish imperative.
I took in the NCAA men's basketball Final Four in Houston over the weekend, with wife and boys in tow. A bizarre Saturday night at NRG Stadium — two of the most lopsided margins of victory in the typically nip-and-tuck doubleheader — gave way to the kind of championship game that a maligned sport craved.
Villanova was not the archetype of the underdog, but among the quartet, the Wildcats lacked panache. Syracuse arrived as a ballyhooed 10 seed that rolled through its region for two weeks after pundits doubted the Orange's credentials. Oklahoma came allegedly hungry for its first title and armed with the country's most dynamic player. And North Carolina was ever the blue blood, stacked with NBA-ready talent. "Nova" was just, well, perfectly solid and theoretically uninspiring, built on defense, helmed by a gentlemanly coach, and kind of anonymous.
That's what made the Cats special, in immediate retrospect. Whereas Arkansas has struggled to capture an identity as a program in the post-championship zenith now two full decades bygone, Jay Wright has quietly molded Villanova into the working-class, preparedness-driven program that mirrors its home city. Like Philly itself, the Wildcats of 2016 were something historians could appreciate.
That's why a few of the shockingly throaty contingent supporting the city of Brotherly Love's Catholic institution arrived wearing "Party Like It's 1985" T-shirts. That's why the coach and centerpiece of that venerated champion, Rollie Massimino and Ed Pinckney, respectively, blended in quietly among the star-gazing spectators and alums who backed Carolina on Monday night, notably Michael Jordan himself. That's why Nova came out of the locker room as it had 39 times prior, undaunted by the foe or the gravity of the moment.
UNC would nudge its way to small leads throughout the first half but never escape. The Wildcats watched Okie's Buddy Hield cleanly stroke a three-pointer to open the semifinal scoring, and even knowing the Sooners had demolished them by 23 earlier in the year, they just settled into their motion offense and then sent approximately 19 different players to harass Hield on the perimeter. End result? That trey was the only one the senior guard would hit as the Cats checked him for a season-worst nine points, and the balanced scoring attack was lethal in a 44-point rout that had Sooner fans shuffling out of the joint more flabbergasted than fuming.
To Carolina's credit, the Heels didn't sit back on their namesake. They were aggressive and composed from the outset, but often had the same issues that Oklahoma had, just on a smaller scale. Nova's irrepressible backcourt of Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins slipped off ball screens easily and squared up for clean looks, which they continued to drain with fierce regularity. Daniel Ochefu held his own against UNC's gifted bigs, and Phil Booth came off the Wildcat bench to pour in a career-best 20.
Nova assembled a 10-point lead late, and Carolina responded with poise and passion. It's not often, to be honest, that the anointed favorite matches the effort being thrown at it by a fierce, hardscrabble opponent, but the Heels merit credit for playing like a team that zealously wanted to justify its hype. Marcus Paige's final collegiate shot was a phenomenal, double-clutch 22-footer that knotted the score at 74 with 4.7 seconds remaining and sent the Carolina fans into a commemorative cushion-flinging frenzy.
And wouldn't you know it, the Wildcats simply did not mind.
Arcidiacono whipped up the court and left the ball for Jenkins at very nearly the same spot where Scotty Thurman wrote the Hogs into the annals 22 years earlier. The 6-6 junior grabbed, elevated, launched and leaned forward with all the swagger of a more heralded gunner, and as the buzzer sounded the ball cleanly went through. Streamers fell as Jenkins stood in confident admiration of his physical craft, his name now etched in lore.
What a champion. What a night. And what a jarring reminder that even as we Arkansans lament the moribund state of our own program now, so many of us are fortunate enough to be able to reach back to a time where an angular, smooth 6-6 sophomore from Ruston, La., tossed up a similar rainbow over the hands of Tobacco Road's finest and landed it squarely in the pantheon of the sport's shiniest moments.