PHILADELPHIA -- There is something terribly appropriate about the fact that one of the key players in the Big East this season looks just a little bit like he is playing on ice skates each time he catches the basketball.
In fact, it is even more appropriate that Tom Greis was the major reason why Villanova beat Georgetown here on Monday night in the Spectrum on a floor on which ice skates rather than sneakers would have been the proper footwear.
Greis is Villanova's 7-foot-2, 236-pound sophomore center. One year ago, as a heralded freshman, he weighed more like 268 and he averaged 3.9 points per game and about six minutes per trip up the court. "He had all the moves," Coach Rollie Massimino said. "The problem was he made them in slow motion."
When last season ended, Massimino sat Greis down for a talk. It had been a traumatic winter for everyone at Villanova. A 15-16 record two years removed from the national championship was bad enough, but in March everyone was rocked when Gary McLain, the point guard on that 1985 team, told Sports Illustrated (in return for several thousand dollars) that he had used cocaine frequently at Villanova, had played high in the national semifinals against Memphis State and had gone to the White House high, too.
Massimino has always prided himself on his closeness to his players; on their graduation rate; on the fact that people always come away from Villanova talking about what nice kids the Wildcats are. McLain, mouthy and cocky, had been one of those kids. When he turned on Massimino and the program, the coach they call "Daddy Mass" was crushed.
But maybe, just maybe, the debacle of 1987 was the kind of rap on the head the Villanova program needed. Massimino became a megastar in Philadelphia after the Miracle of Lexington. He couldn't turn down speaking engagements or appearances; that just isn't his nature. The Wildcats won 23 games in 1986 largely because Harold Pressley had the kind of season that usually lands a player in the Hall of Fame.
But '87 was always a struggle, capped by the McLain story. Which brings us back to Greis. Massimino never doubted Greis' ability to play. But he knew that he couldn't play if he didn't improve his quickness -- a lot.
"When I called him in to talk, I buried him," Massimino said. "I told him if he didn't get his weight under 240 by Oct. 15, I wouldn't even let him come out for the team. What's great about Tom is that he's the kind of kid who you can really get on and he knows why you're doing it. He responds."
Greis responded -- with a little help from his friends. "I don't mind when someone gets on me," he said. "I know it's usually for a reason. But in preseason, when we were lifting and doing our morning workouts, the coaches assigned Doug West to work with me and there were times when I thought he was going to kill me."
It was assistant coach Jay Wright who assigned West to Greis. On a team with only one senior starter -- Mark Plansky -- West, a 6-6 junior, has emerged as a leader this season after two up-and-down years himself. He understood how important Greis would be if Villanova were going to do better than the seventh-place league finish predicted by the experts, and he went after Greis.
"Tom was a project," West said, sounding very coach-like. "He likes to slack off sometimes, and I had to stay on him even though there were times he didn't like it. There were times when I got a little tired of pushing him, but I knew how important he would be to this team."
The work has paid off. Greis lost 15 pounds before school started and 15 more before Oct. 15, not wanting to face Massimino's wrath. He still isn't graceful, but he is much quicker, he can catch the ball in the post and, with his height, when he shoots his little hook shot or turnaround jumper, he is almost unstoppable.
Monday, in a game that became a bad joke in the second half because of water leaking onto the Spectrum court from the ice below (the temperature was a record 65 degrees during the day) Greis was one of two players on the floor who took five shots or more to hit at least half of them, shooting eight for 10 to finish with 21 points. He also made two free throws late in the game when it looked as if his team would blow a huge lead for the second straight game. He blocked nine shots, helping to force Georgetown to the perimeter. Make the Hoyas play half court basketball and shoot jump shots and you beat them -- even on a night when they take 36 shots more than you.
"It's pretty obvious how important Tom has been," West said. "Last year, we won 15 games the whole season. This year, we've already won 15. He's been the difference."
Greis is so easy going that the notion that he is somehow a key player seems to surprise him. "We've got a lot of guys who can score," he said. "If the ball hadn't been going in for me, someone else would have gotten it done."
Nice to say, but probably not true. In a season that makes no sense in the Big East, getting the ball to Greis has become the most sensible thing the Wildcats can do. They are 7-3 in league play in a year when many thought they would be lucky to win five conference games.
But this is a league this season in which it isn't surprising when up is down and down is up. Right now, Greis is on the way up. "His potential is like a 70-story building," Massimino said. "Right now, he's on the 15th floor." And the elevator hasn't stalled yet.