Deceit is the name of the game for Villanova's defense, the foundation that has put the Wildcats in Monday night's national championship game against Georgetown.
At the Southeast Regional, after Villanova had upset second-ranked Michigan, guard Antoine Joubert praised the effects of the Wildcats' "box and one" in thwarting his Wolverines. Just one problem: Villanova never used a box and one.
Few have misread Villanova's matchup zone, or the Wildcats' 28 other defensive permutations, as badly as Joubert. But it's no wonder that opponents misread the defenses that Coach Rollie Massimino, the architect of the matchup, says this team is playing better than any of his previous 11 at Villanova. "It's not surprising other teams get confused," he said. "We get confused ourselves."
Of Georgetown, point guard Gary McLain said today: "I'm sure we'll be trying to deceive them and make them a little tentative on offense."
McLain, from Hempstead, N.Y., recalled his reaction to Massimino's defensive system: "Total shock, to come in and find out all these things and have to learn them."
To understand Massimino's defense, it is probably best to know that Massimino comes from the school of man-to-man coverage, and the Wildcats work on man-to-man defense 90 percent of their practice time. Many coaches attack the matchup zone with man-to-man offense.
"Years ago, if I told a team we would be playing something other than man-to-man, they would have had me committed," Massimino said. "But times have changed. You can't play guys heads up the entire game. They're too astute."
The evolution of the matchup came from summertime conversations with such man-to-man proponents as Tates Locke and Bob Knight. In simple terms, Knight plays man to man with a lot of zone principles; Massimino uses a zone with a lot of man-to-man principles.
Villanova's goal is simple: keep the ball away from specific players, or get them taking shots with which they are uncomfortable. In the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats held such key players as Dave Colbert, Dayton's 6-foot-8 center, to two field goals; Michigan center Roy Tarpley to two field goals in the second half, and Maryland forward Len Bias under double figures for the first time in 53 games.
But, in Georgetown, Villanova is facing a team that has normally accurate outside shooting in addition to the strong inside presence of center Patrick Ewing.
Georgetown did not shoot well in either its 52-50 overtime victory in Philadelphia or its 57-50 victory at Capital Centre. The Hoyas shot 43 percent at the Spectrum; in the second game, they shot 39 percent, including a collective seven for 29 by outside shooters Reggie Williams (one for six), David Wingate (two for nine), Michael Jackson (two for six) and Horace Broadnax (two for eight).
Monday night's game promises to be one that devotees of defense will appreciate. Yet, lacking a defensive player such as Ewing, Villanova's defensive ability is much more subtle.
Today, asked to describe the one thing that impresses him most about each team's defense, Villanova forward Dwayne McClain replied: "The way we mix up our defenses. Their aggressiveness."
Or, as Massimino said, "The kids know the slides (footwork) so well, it's so beautiful to watch."