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In the nick of time, college basketball has its behemoth

Omari Spellman and Villanova appeared to leave Kansas frozen.
Omari Spellman and Villanova appeared to leave Kansas frozen. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)
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SAN ANTONIO — The frightening thing about Villanova isn’t that the Wildcats can make 18 three-pointers on the biggest stage and force proud ol’ Kansas to substitute disappointment with awe after a Final Four blowout. It’s plenty terrifying, but here’s what should really make blood curdle: That shooting trick, nearly impossible to replicate, is merely a superfluous exhibition that gets the attention of the casual observer.

Considering the Wildcats red hot is actually restrictive praise for them.

They’re so much more, and they know it, and they’re determined to show it.

The Wildcats don’t need to stay this hot, or even close to it, to beat Michigan and win the national title Monday night. They just need to pull out something else from the most diverse and enviable repertoire in men’s college basketball. They can win with shooting. They can win with defense, rebounding and toughness. They can win by turning to the nation’s best player, point guard Jalen Brunson; or by telling their humble future NBA draft lottery pick, Mikal Bridges, to take over; or by their preferred method: distributing the ball without bias to all six of their top players, all of whom are capable of scoring 25 on any given night.

It took until the final weeks of the season, but the dominant team the sport lacked this season has emerged. The Wolverines must play their best, devise a clever game plan and receive some luck to prevent Villanova from capturing its second championship in three years. The Wildcats’ greatest competition might be swelling expectations; they opened as 6.5-point favorites over Michigan, which makes them the largest NCAA title game heavyweight since Duke was favored by seven over Butler in 2010.

Takeaways from the Final Four as Villanova, Michigan advance to title game

Right now, Coach Jay Wright has the team with the healthiest culture in a sport full of programs with identity issues, and the Wildcats are also the most enjoyable team to watch. Many consider them the Golden State Warriors of the NCAA, which is a stretch if you’re talking talent but quite accurate when you consider their combination of shooting and defensive ability. They are far from invincible, and they have four losses this season to prove it. But they’re playing their best basketball now and shrugging while everyone else showers them with admiration.

“That’s as good a team as we’ve played against that I can remember,” Kansas Coach Bill Self said after his team’s 95-79 loss Saturday night.

Said Kansas center Udoka Azubuike: “It was unreal. I had never seen that before. It lowered our confidence a little bit, and they were just shooting and making everything, it seemed.”

It wasn’t just that Villanova tied the Final Four record of 13 three-pointers — before halftime. The Wildcats’ defense forced Kansas to play at an uncomfortably fast pace. On both ends, they dictated everything that happened.

Unlike previous Villanova squads, this one can play with five shooters on the floor and still have good size, with a starting frontcourt that goes 6-7, 6-9 and 6-9. It used to be that the Wildcats would have to play four smallish guards and a center. Now they’re a matchup nightmare without having to employ cat-and-mouse strategies. You won’t find another perimeter-oriented squad that can match Villanova’s physical style, either. It’s a system, a discipline and a mentality that Wright has perfected since turning to it exclusively about 12 years ago.

More than most, the Wildcats know who they are. This stage illuminates their trust in one another and their faith in their system.

“It’s our best offensive team,” Wright said. “We’ve had some good ones. This is definitely our best. Our challenge has been that we were so good offensively earlier in the year that we got lazy defensively. So it was hard to get to this point where we are.”

Before it dominated Kansas in the semifinals, Villanova experienced a tournament run that required varying styles of play. It shot just 33.3 percent overall and made 4 of 24 three-pointers against Texas Tech in the Elite Eight but still won a gritty defensive affair, 71-59. It labored for a while against West Virginia’s pressure defense but made 13 three-pointers in a Sweet 16 victory. There is no easy-to-decipher template to beat the Wildcats, not now that they have Omari Spellman owning the boards and making long jumpers from the center position.

It helps to pray that they have an off night shooting, but they live for those moments.

“If we weren’t making shots, I feel like we would have grinded that game out, maybe win by one or two possessions,” said Brunson, who had 18 points and six assists against Kansas.

Villanova seems more fascinated with realizing its potential than simply winning another national title.

“I think this is definitely a product, but not the finished product,” Brunson said. “We use the line every day: Let’s see where we can be by the end of the year, be the best team we can be by the end of the year. That’s all we’ve worked for, to be the best team we can be.”

It just might turn out that being the best team in the nation is different from being the best team they can be. A championship trophy is the goal, but Villanova doesn’t want to settle. It wants to win and max out. Making 18 of 40 three-pointers was exhilarating. Still, Villanova wants more. Leading Kansas 22-4 was stunning, and it led to this “wow” quote from Self about Villanova’s might: “I thought if we could get it to single figures at halftime, maybe we could have a chance. And we didn’t. We’ve been down to good teams on the road by at least 15 or more. But we haven’t been down to Villanova by 15.”

Still, Villanova wants more.

Villanova has grown from being a great offensive team that coasts at times to a locked-in, multifaceted machine intent on winning it all again. There’s a chance that Michigan could play a great game Monday night and still lose. Wild things have been known to happen on Championship Monday, and the Wolverines are on a 14-game winning streak, and they deserve to be here despite not facing a top-five seed on their road to the title game. But even after leaving room for anything to happen, it still feels like Villanova is smothering the concept of “anything.” The Wildcats seem to have a gear that even their 2016 title squad didn’t possess.

“This is a special group,” junior guard Phil Booth said. “We want to make the most of it. We have 40 minutes to give all we got. We don’t want to save anything. We don’t have time for that.”

Villanova didn’t exhaust all of its resources in beating Kansas. It was an extended look at how good the Wildcats can be, but they are certain they have more to give. It’s an amazing concept to consider. Petrifying, too.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.

More from the Final Four:

Villanova vs. Kansas: Wildcats advance with 95-79 win

Michigan vs. Loyola Chicago: Wagner carries Wolverines to victory

After semifinal classics, what will the women’s national championship do for an encore?

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