Villanova and North Carolina: from the gateway to the castle door

The Villanova Wildcats and North Carolina Tar Heels have met several times in recent NCAA tournament history, “recent” being defined by the start of tournament seeding in 1979:

That collection of results might not elicit an exclamation or a stunned reaction. However, there’s an eye-catching fact which can be extracted from that list of meetings and outcomes between the two schools:

In every NCAA tournament meeting in the Sweet 16 or later, the winner of a Villanova-North Carolina game has gone on to win the national championship.

In 1982, North Carolina’s Elite Eight win in Raleigh catapulted Dean Smith to his first national title:

The Wildcats gained revenge on the Tar Heels by pulling off one of several upsets in the course of their unforgettable 1985 championship run. Rollie Massimino’s team ambushed Dean in an Elite Eight game in Birmingham:

Two full decades passed — and the torch was passed from Dean to Roy Williams at UNC — by the time these teams next met in the latter stages of the NCAA tournament. In 2005, Villanova nearly upset the Tar Heels in Syracuse. A missed traveling call on Carolina enabled Ol’ Roy’s roster to escape Jay Wright’s team with a narrow win. A week and a half later, the Tar Heels were national champions:

Then came 2009, when Wright and Williams met in the Final Four for the first time. North Carolina easily took care of Villanova in the national semifinals in Detroit. Two nights later, the Tar Heels lifted a trophy yet again:

These schools are soaked in college basketball tradition. Villanova comes from Philadelphia and carries the flag for the city game, the Big Five, and the many great programs which reside in the City of Brotherly Love.

One of the men who will call Monday night’s title game, Bill Raftery, did not make an NCAA tournament in Philadelphia, but he played at a Big Five school. Raftery attended La Salle several years after the Explorers won the national championship in 1954 and finished as the runner-up to Bill Russell’s San Francisco Dons in 1955. La Salle is the only Big Five school other than Villanova to win a national title. All five schools — Penn, Saint Joseph’s, and Temple round out the list — have made at least one Final Four.

Villanova is playing for itself on Monday night. It is also playing for Wright, in search of a first national title as a coach. It is also playing for its city.

The Wildcats are also playing for the Big East — not just because they’re a member of the conference, but because they’re a mainstay of the conference, one of the Catholic 7 schools which remained in place while other schools fled to The American or the ACC. All those strands of tradition and history will accompany the Wildcats to the NRG Stadium floor on Monday night. It’s one which vein of the story of college basketball.

North Carolina’s story is well documented. The Tar Heels — with a win — won’t make their problems go away. They won’t wipe away the realities created by the misdeeds and wayward actions of numerous actors within and around their campus over the past few decades. What they CAN do, however, is win a championship.

Vacated or not, it would be the third time Roy Williams lifts a championship trophy, putting him in rare company among college basketball coaches.

A Carolina crown would also be the school’s sixth, lifting the Tar Heels into third place on the all-time list behind UCLA (11 titles) and Kentucky (8).

North Carolina isn’t playing for the city game or a conference which has been downsized. The Tar Heels, beyond playing for themselves and their coach, are playing for the expanded ACC, which has become in basketball what the SEC is in football — the league which generates and collects more income than the other leagues. The ACC in basketball is also the answer to the SEC in football in this respect: It is a cultural center for fans and alumni. SEC schools value football with a passion that is unmatched in America. ACC basketball fans come the closest to valuing the realm of roundball. Kansas, Kentucky and Indiana fans are similarly devoted, but in terms of a whole conference, the ACC’s culture breathes and embraces basketball more than any other in the land.

The Tar Heels are playing for that unique strand of college basketball’s larger mosaic.

These programs have stood at the gateway for each other in previous NCAA tournaments. UNC had to go through Villanova for three separate national titles. The Wildcats had to take down the Tar Heels before arriving at the 1985 Final Four in Rupp Arena and securing their immortal place in college basketball history.

Now, after years of being at the gateway, both teams have won five NCAA tournament games over the course of three weekends. They’re both on Monday night, standing at the castle door. They represent two different but very rich and cherished parts of a diverse and wondrous sport.

The quality of the matchup is considerable. The history and contextual weight surrounding Villanova-North Carolina are worthy of the matchup itself.

On so many levels beyond basketball itself, this is a clash worthy of the national championship stage. Let’s hope the game is worthy of the honey-soaked words being written here.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |