Villanova's title keeps hope alive for underdogs

HOUSTON -- At halftime of Villanova's 77-74 win over North Carolina in the national championship game at NRG Stadium on Monday night, Michael Jordan walked through a corridor toward the North Carolina locker room. Media, fans and bulky-armed security personnel hovered as Jordan chatted with Mark Emmert, the NCAA's president.

A median divided the pack in the tunnel. Mortals to the left. Jordan and his crew to the right.

When the greatest player in the game's history helped the Tar Heels win their second national title in 1982, North Carolina began its stint in college basketball's roped-off VIP room. An exclusive section of the game reserved for teams that constructed concrete brands they preserved with elite talent during decades of dominance.

Entering Monday's game, Kentucky, Duke, Connecticut and North Carolina had won 12 of the previous 20 national championships in Division I basketball.

So, the Wildcats won a national title for their alumni, former coach Rollie Massimino, the Big East, Jay Wright and their fans. But they also won a championship for every team in the nosebleeds that has watched the powerhouses control the game for years.

College basketball's 68-team, single-elimination tournament comprises one of few arrangements in major sports that still offers the have-nots a fair chance to become kings. The game rarely surrenders the crown, however, to any team outside the blockade of blue bloods.

Even the teams that sneaked into the club in the past 20 years -- Syracuse, Louisville, Florida, Kansas, Michigan State, etc. -- do not qualify as true underdogs.

But North Carolina represents the 1 percent.

Villanova reps a group that lacks the sexy national name and rent-a-player talent to reboot every season.

That's why Kris Jenkins' game-winning 3-pointer with fractions of a second on the clock stood for hope. Hope that college basketball's season-long promises of parity and opportunity for all will persist. Hope that we may never again see the monarchy that UCLA manufactured under John Wooden. Hope that the governing clique of the game will still make room for any team that's willing to blast through the wall.

Because Ryan Arcidiacono, Phil Booth, Josh Hart, Daniel Ochefu and Jenkins -- the anchors of what could be the first team to win a national title without any first-round picks in its starting lineup since Indiana in 1987 -- came to the fiesta in street clothes, pushed the bouncer aside and crashed the festivities.

This is not a Nova squad that feels like a Cinderella, though. The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 for a stretch of this season. They entered Monday's game ranked atop Ken Pomeroy's ratings. And still, the bettors figured the dominant North Carolina of 2015-16 would do what the Tar Heels often do on this critical stage: win.

The hot Nova team that shattered offensive records throughout the NCAA tournament connected on 58.3 percent of its field goal attempts against North Carolina to complete the most effective scoring barrage in the expanded era of college basketball.

Nova toppled one of the game's titans. Not with a game-winning shot but with a strong unit that ignored the circumstances, the odds and the history that always seemed to favor North Carolina.

After the game, fans from North Carolina and Villanova collided in the aisles of the north end zone at NRG Stadium.

Tar Heels fans moved to the left and searched for exits and hugs.

Villanova's fans pushed right to get closer to the court, celebrate, cheer and take selfies with their favorite team behind them.

North Carolina's supporters watched and wished they could join the party -- one even Jordan and the other former UNC stars could not enter.