Have we seen this all before? Is it de'ja vu?
The Villanova people say they haven't thought about it much, if at all. And to be fair, why should they? It happened two years ago, and two years can be a lifetime in college sports. Two years ago's wide-eyed senior might be today's jaded pro. In Europe even. It happens. Two years ago Villanova belonged to John Pinone, a vast, tough, unyielding player who sometimes looked like a refrigerator on a skateboard. Sure, Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain and Gary McLain were on that team. But they were sophomores then -- the spokes, not the hub.
But now that these Wildcats are in the national final, I'm going to suggest a comparison here. You can laugh if you want, but Villanova is beginning to remind me of a team we got to know pretty well on its way to Albuquerque. A team led by three seniors who didn't really come on strong until two out in the bottom of the ninth in their collective college careers. A team coached by a man of Italian descent who can talk and hug with the best of them. A team that went into the NCAA tournament with 10 losses and came out the same way. A team that won close and won ugly, but kept on winning until there weren't any games left.
I'm talking about N.C. State.
The Wolfpack. Does it ring a bell?
"N.C. State?" Dwight Wilbur rolled the thought over tentatively after Villanova had beaten Memphis State today, 52-45. "N.C. State, huh?"
You could see him making the mental calculations, his eyes staring upward, brows knit, the way kids look when they're trying to solve a math problem without reaching for the calculator. Then Wilbur started to smile, and his eyes got as round as marbles. "N.C. State. Aaayyyy, yeah! I definitely have to say so." He started rattling off the comparisons: "We're also a senior-based team, just like they were. Our seniors have played unbelievably well in the tournament; I'd have to attribute us being in the finals to the three of them getting us there. We've had a lot of close games, just like they did. I hadn't really thought about it, but . . . yeah. Yeah!"
To refresh your memory, the three seniors who carried that State team on their backs through most of the ACC and NCAA tournaments were all, as we like to say, locals: Sidney Lowe, Thurl Bailey and Dereck Whittenburg. They were the best players and leaders on a team that hadn't done too much during the regular season -- the Wolfpack went into the ACC tournament with a 17-10 record and probably needed at least one victory in the ACC tournament to make the NCAAs -- then, suddenly, couldn't do anything wrong. They won the ACCs, beating Wake Forest, North Carolina and Virginia-the University of Ralph branch in succession. They were sent out west to die in that regional, but even when they looked truly terminal, they refused to lie down. They beat Pepperdine by two, in two overtimes; they beat Nevada-Las Vegas by one; they had a breather against Utah, winning by 19, then beat the University of Ralph one more time, by one, in the regional final. They drew Georgia in the Final Four -- an afterthought game in most people's minds when judged against the Louisville-Houston nightcap, a situation not at all unlike today when Villanova-Memphis State preceded Georgetown and St. John's -- and won by seven. We all remember what happened next.
Phi Slamma Scramma.
This year's Villanova team might not be built along similar lines, because it wins primarily on defense, and doesn't get the scoring from its guards that N.C. State did. But let's look at what Villanova has done to get here: to start the NCAAs it beat Dayton by two, at Dayton; it beat Michigan, the No. 2 team in the country, by four; it beat Maryland, which had beaten it in the season, by five; it beat North Carolina, No. 7 in the country, by 12 after trailing by five at halftime. And now it has beaten Memphis State, a team ranked in the top five all year long. Close, low-scoring games. Villanova has yet to score more than 59 or allow more than 55; on average the Wildcats are yielding 47.2 points per game. Without a clock they are as rough as a five o'clock shadow. They were 19-10 coming in; they are 24-10 now.
"These last five games for us haven't been pretty by any means," said Harold Jensen. "But we've gotten the wins. That's pretty much how they did it, isn't it?"
In a word? Yes.
"I see a definite similarity," said Mitch Buonaguro, an assistant coach.
No matter what happens Monday night, the 1985 national champion will be from the Big East. Today it was actually thrilling to hear fans from Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova unite -- if only momentarily -- to chant "Big East! Big East!" as the Wildcats took over their game. Of course, all reason dictates that the winner will be Georgetown; the Hoyas have beaten Villanova twice already and look to be a team for the ages.
But all 10 of Villanova's losses have come against NCAA tournament teams. Nine have been against teams that have been ranked in the top 20. And five -- to Georgetown and St. John's -- have come against No. 1 or No. 2. Good losses, as tennis players like to say. "They could pull a North Carolina State," Looie Carnesecca said tonight. "Why not? Stranger things have happened."
As the Villanova players dressed after their game, they could look out at this in chalk on a blackboard: "1 More."
Should Villanova win it?
Could Villanova win?
I am reminded of something Jim Valvano said when told N.C. State had absolutely no chance against Houston. He said, "I'll tell you who doesn't have a chance. Kentucky has no chance. Louisville has no chance. Virginia has no chance. They've got no chance because they're not here, they've already lost. We're here. We're still playing. We've gotta have a chance, pal, because there are only two teams playing, and we're one of them."
Somewhere in this city Rollie Massimino is saying "Amen."