The calendar has turned to March and that only means one thing for college basketball fans: time for the Madness. In case anyone forgets, Jon Rothstein will tweet it about 14,500 times after every exciting finish.
As we head towards conference championship season, the only team from the Philadelphia area projected in the field of 68 is the Villanova Wildcats. They’ll be going for the school’s fourth national title. Before the brackets are announced, let’s take a look at the first title run in 1985.
This was the first tournament to feature 64 teams in the Madness, along with the first time three teams from the same conference made the Final Four. It was also the last time we’ve seen four teams that didn’t represent major football conferences (what has been consolidated into the Power 5 currently) in the last weekend of the season.
Unlike the two title seasons under Jay Wright, the 1984-85 Villanova Wildcats team never achieved a #1 ranking during the regular season. They managed to get to #4 in early January after a 9-1 start, including beating #5 Syracuse at the Palestra. Things got tougher as they lost to St. John’s and Georgetown in consecutive games.
Villanova finished 9-7 in the Big East, finishing fourth in the conference, ended with an 85-62 loss at Pittsburgh. The Cats got revenge on the Panthers in the Big East quarterfinals before dropping an 89-74 semifinal to St. John’s.
Villanova Wildcats Cinderella Run
The tournament committee did Rollie Massimino and his team a favor by putting them on the other side of the bracket as the Big East’s powerhouses. The Cats drew the 8 seed in the Southeast Division (yeah, it was that long ago) and would start against the Dayton Flyers. Of course, they weren’t the only Big 5 team in the tournament. Temple would also get an 8 seed, in the East region, while Penn got the 15 seed in the Midwest.
After knocking off Dayton 51-49, the weekend game at South Bend was against Michigan, the top seed and #2 ranked team in the country. The Cats won 59-55 and advanced to the Sweet 16 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Villanova Wildcats faced Maryland, the 5 seed, a team that they lost to during the regular season at College Park. 1985 was an odd second weekend of the tournament. They weren’t the lowest seed in the Southeast to make the Sweet 16 – that was Auburn as an 11 seed. That year featured THREE double-digit teams, including Big East rival Boston College (11) and Kentucky (12).
Nova exacted revenge on the Terps with a 46-43 win (this was the second-to-last season with no three-point line in the game) and faced 2 seed, North Carolina. Surely the bluebloods from Tobacco Road could stop this Cinderella story. Nope. That was Villanova’s biggest win of the tournament, vanquishing the Tar Heels 56-44.
1985 Final Four
Three Big East teams made it to the Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky. Villanova was lucky enough to face the only team that wasn’t in Memphis State. The teams went to halftime tied at 23 but the Wildcats got the better of the Tigers in the second half, winning 52-45.
The semifinal on Saturday night was the warm-up act for one of the most anticipated match-ups in tournament history. St. John’s met Georgetown again. The teams split the regular-season games before the Hoyas won the Big East final at MSG. This was the biggest margin of victory between the rivals that year as the defending national champs won 77-59 to face Villanova on April Fools’ Day.
1985 National Championship
Every now and then a network airs the CBS broadcast of the 1985 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. The game is a study in contrasting styles and a masterpiece of efficient play. Georgetown entered the game overwhelming favorites against a team they beat twice in the regular season. Vegas had the line at 9.5 in favor of the Hoyas. Patrick Ewing was an unstoppable force at center.
Two things stood out in the game. One was Harold Pressley playing most of the game after starter Dwight Wilbur suffered an injury. The other is how well the Wildcats shot the ball. They went 22-28 from the floor, for a shooting percentage of 78.6. However, they also attempted 27 free throws, making 22 as well, compared to Georgetown going just 6 for 8 from the line.
The game was at times streetfight ugly but high art of basketball. Massimino dueled with John Thompson, a small Italian ball of nerves with wild hair against America’s most prominent African-American coach, tall and collected with a towel over his shoulder.
1985 Villanova Wildcats Win It All
There were no singular plays that dazzled the fans at Rupp Arena. The visual legacy may be time running out as senior Dwayne McClain pinned the ball against his chest and the hardwood.
The Cinderella Cats got their happy ending. The Big East got a second straight champion and a famous volume in the sport’s lore. Fans in the Delaware Valley could argue for decades how that 85 teams would’ve fared against the likes of Johnny Rogers, Tom Gola, and other Big 5 teams from bygone eras.
Massimino became the small school on the Main Line’s iconic coach until the designer-suit model cut down the nets in 2016 and 2018. That may have ended the argument over the greatest Big 5 team ever (Nova beat 5 teams that were ranked in the top 5 on their way to the 2016 crown, including three straight #1s).
However, could McClain, Ed Pickney, and that team lock down the very athletic group of Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson, et al, like they did that amazing Georgetown side in April 1985?
Featured image credit: John Swart & Gary Landers – AP