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North Carolina-Villanova Could Make College Basketball Great Again

The NCAA men's championship game is a throwback to the glory years of March Madness decades ago and a reflection of the sport's ongoing renaissance.
April 4, 2016, 1:48pm
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.

If you tried to pinpoint the moment the NCAA tournament graduated into the realm of American iconography, you would probably land somewhere in the early-to-mid 1980s, when a string of memorable championship games transformed it into a national phenomenon. There was the birth of the Jordan mythos in 1982, and the origin story of the Jimmy V "Never Give Up" meme in 1983; there was zenith of the bludgeoning Georgetown Hoyas in 1984, and then, in 1985, the underdog story to end all underdog stories, the No. 8 seed Villanova Wildcats stunning Georgetown to win the title.

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It's tough to describe those years if you didn't live through them, but here's the best I can do: College basketball, and in particular the championship game, felt like a colossus back then. The great teams were indelible, the great games were inherently memorable, and somewhere along the way to the one-and-done era, college basketball shed a lot of that cultural cache. It all started to blend together. With the exception of that Duke-Butler last second near-miss in 2010 and some faint memories of Mario Chalmers' three to force overtime in 2008, I can't recall much of anything about the NCAA championship games played this decade. None of the others have been blowouts, but none have gone down to the wire, either, and many of them were not especially well-played. And I don't want to call it a lost era, but it felt that way, at times. Or, less dramatically, it felt as if college basketball had so watered down its product that it hadn't really earned the great climax anymore.

Read More: Almost Perfect: Villanova and North Carolina Romp at the Final Four

In many ways, this year has felt like a punch of the reset button. The move to the 30-second shot clock, the rules facilitating more fluid play, the unprecedented level of parity, the rise of charismatic upperclassmen like Buddy Hield—suddenly, college basketball was fun as hell again, a wonderfully flawed product that exuded the kind of charm it hadn't in quite some time. And this is why I'm hopeful that a throwback NCAA championship game, North Carolina-Villanova, will solidify the sense that we are about to launch into yet another golden era.

It's a bit strange how this all worked out, how in a year that felt so rife with absurdist possibility, all the true underdogs were eliminated by the time the Sweet Sixteen came around. And yet, in the end, it might not matter, because it seems clear that the two best teams in the country are now facing each other in the title game. Villanova's vivisection of Oklahoma in the Final Four on Saturday was one of the great shooting performances in tournament history, reminiscent of the Wildcats shooting nearly 79 percent from the floor in 1985 to defeat Georgetown; North Carolina's blowout of Syracuse served notice that the Tar Heels have probably been the most talented team in the country all along this season.

TFW Oklahoma understands the power of the Dark Side. Photo by Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

So we're left with are two veteran teams playing at peak level. We're left with one coach, Villanova's Jay Wright, who has often been dismissed as a lightweight dandy in sharp suit but is now regarded as both one of the most genial and brightest people in the sport; and another coach, North Carolina's Roy Williams, who has also often been overlooked as a guy with more of an ability to attract elite talent than piece it together and who is now on the verge of a third national championship. ("I think I used to coach by fear," Williams admitted during a press conference on Sunday. "Every one of my former players say I'm more mellow.") For Williams, who has been entertainingly cantankerous toward the media this weekend, this could be the last act in his legacy, and elevate him in the Carolina pantheon to at least be worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the saintly Dean Smith. For Wright, this could be the moment that Villanova reclaims in the present a legacy currently defined by a wistful blast of 1980s nostalgia.

"Those guys are really icons on our campus, they really are," Wright said, asked on Saturday night about that 1985 Villanova squad. "That whole team brings that magical underdog feeling, like anything's possible… those guys are so special, I don't want that team to ever lose their magic. I don't think they will. But I'd love our team to do it."

It would obviously not be anywhere near an upset of such proportion if Villanova wins on Monday night. But if it comes down to the wire, if it is a game that's well-played and fluid and encapsulates the sheer fun of a season that felt like a bit of a renaissance, then it could matter almost as much as that 1985 game did. I think college basketball is probably on its way back again, regardless of what happens here. But there is potential here for something beautiful and brilliant, something that could stand on its own as the moment that the NCAA Championship once again became larger than life.