For the first time since 1985, the Villanova Wildcats have reached the NCAA National Championship. On Monday night, April 4, Jay Wright will face off with Roy Williams at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas with a chance to hoist the NABC Championship trophy. For the first time in a long time, Philadelphia has something to cheer about.
It doesn’t matter if you’re from the city or the suburbs, a local university that is rivals with the Wildcats or just associate with the teams that we hate to love, Monday night is an important night.
It’s a night to remind us that we are still here. Despite the worst record in the NBA, a rebuilding process at Citizens Bank Park, a playoff-cuff Flyers team, and a cluster of question marks defining the Eagles, Villanova has lit up the Philadelphia skyline with hope for the first time since the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.
Since the opening game against UNC Asheville two weeks ago, Wright’s Wildcats have skated through the Southern region. There first close game of the tournament came during the Elite Eight against a favored Kansas team that was pegged by many to contend for a National Championship. Thanks to the veteran leadership and clutch-factor of Villanova senior captain Ryan Arcidiacano, a Bethlehem, Pa. native, the Wildcats mounted a late comeback and defeated the Jayhawks, securing their spot in the Final Four.
Saturday night was unexpected. Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooners came into Houston as a team that no one wanted to meet. Hield, an AP All American and Naismith trophy candidate, was putting on the best NCAA postseason performance since Stephen Curry led Davidson’s magical run in 2008. Despite being a two-point favorite according to Vegas, the majority counted Villanova out due to their historical struggles to get over the hump in the March.
But this Villanova team is different. This Villanova team wasn’t going to roll over like so many times before. The combination of Arcidiacano, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Daniel Ochefu, and Mikal Bridges rose to the occasion and did what no Philadelphia team has done in years.
Jenkins led the way with 18 points and eight rebounds, while Bridges and Hart shut down Hield on the defensive end, leading Villanova to the most lopsided victory in Final Four history, 95-51. Now, the Wildcats will face off with UNC on Monday night for a chance at their first National Championship since 1985.
The Wildcats will likely come in as an underdog, and the country will likely put most of the money on the Tar Heels, but for Philadelphia sports fans like myself, it doesn’t matter. We have a reason to emotionally invest in the national championship game,and a legitimate shot to bring a trophy to the City of Brotherly Love.
After suffering through all the woes of Philadelphia sports over the past seven or eight years, it’s a satisfying feeling to see Villanova in this position. Even if you aren’t a Villanova fan, it’s hard to not root for this team. Their style of play represents the ideals we like to believe Philadelphia sports and its fans hold: a die hard attitude, never say never mentality, and the willingness to put everything on the line for their teammates and city. When Bridges dove for a loose ball steal with just seconds remaining in the Cats comeback victory against Kansas, it was hard not to smile.
Plays like the one by Bridges are what Philadelphia fans remember. Like Claude Giroux laying out Sidney Crosby in a big Flyers versus Penguins game, or Michael Vick erasing a 28-point deficit with a come from behind victory over the Giants despite a strained quad. When an athlete gives his all while representing a Philadelphia team, we give them are all in support.
This upcoming Monday, Villanova will need the support. The Tar Heels are well coached, more athletic, and quite possibly have more skill. Roy Williams will have his team of NBA draft prospects primed to perfection and ready for all the challenges that the Wildcats will throw their way.
But the Cats can win. Countless times this season, Villanova has proved the country wrong, and there is no reason we should expect different on Monday night. The Wildcats don’t rely on their skill or individual performances, but rather on their team-first mentality and game plan. After one of the best shooting performances in tournament history on Saturday, Villanova will need to replicate their dominant play one more time if they want a shot at the national title.
Even if things don’t go Villanova’s way on Monday night, the Wildcats have made there mark. Today’s NCAA is dominated by five-star, one and done recruits like the rosters of Kentucky, UNC, and Kansas. But Villanova has proved through veteran leadership and team-oriented basketball, that you can outmatch superior skill.
It doesn’t matter that Villanova isn’t a center city team, or that half of the people rooting for the Cats on Monday probably aren’t from the city. This is a chance for Philadelphia to get back on the map of sports relevancy. It’s been too long since we’ve had a champion, and the Wildcats may just be the team to light the fire back under one of the best sports cities in the country.
AJ Arcaini is a fourth-year student majoring in communication studies with a minor in journalism. They can be reached at AA788494@wcupa.edu