Thursday, March 17, 2005

Party Like It's 1999... The Last NCAA Villanova Wildcats

Take a nostalgic look back at the last Villanova team to go to the Big Dance, in the final NCAA tournament of the 20th century, led by Howard Brown, John Celestand, and Malik Allen...

Before we begin, I inadvertently omitted this section of the New Mexico preview (obviously, it's already very long, but I had already written this stuff so I figured I might as well throw it in):

"The Lobos went through a remarkably similar arc to Villanova, rocking during the mid-to-late 1990s and then drifting out of the tournament in the 21st century, although the Lobos sank considerably lower than 'Nova ever did. In 2000 and 2001, the Lobos were on the bubble and were sent to the NIT; in 2002, they finished two games over .500 and also made the NIT; in 2003, they collapsed, finishing 10-18.

Program History

The Lobos only received two NCAA bids (1968 and 1974) prior to 1991. New Mexico was ranked nationally on a consistent basis in the mid-to-late 1960s and during the 1973, 1974, 1978, and 1988 seasons. That was it. It has had five All-Americans, most notably Michael Cooper in 1978 and Kenny Thomas in 1998.

But probably the best known (if not the best) player the program has produced is the Aussie Luc Longley, immortalized around the world during the Michael Jordan era, due to the Chicago Bulls' spectacular, dramatic opening ceremonies at the United Center. During the Bulls' 1990s heyday, the Bulls' center would emerge from the bench as "The - man - in - the - middle, Luc - LONNNNGG -LEEEE!", as "Sirius" from the Alan Parsons Project pulsated throughout the building. (It remains the most intimidating opening ceremony ever devised.) Longley played at UNM from 1988-91, and finished his career as the Lobos' all-time leader in blocks and rebounds.

But New Mexico started to improve in the 1990s, when it qualified for seven NCAA tournaments - more than Villanova did; the Wildcats qualified in ' 90, '91, '95, '96, '97, and '99. And the Pit drew an even more fearsome reputation when the Lobos won 41 straight there from 1996 to 1998.

New Mexico has a respectable, even if it's just of recent vintage, postseason history: ten NCAA bids and 16 NITs. However, since the vast majority of those games weren't played at the Pit, they have never made a deep run in the NCAA tournament. They have NEVER won more than a single game in any one tournament. During those seven appearances in the 1990s, the team never made it past the second round (again showing an eerie similarity to Villanova.) In the program's history, it's only been to one Sweet 16, in 1974, which is misleading because it only took one win to get there then - it was a 25 team field. It lost four second-round games in a row from 1996-99.

The highest seed UNM ever received was a #3 in 1997, when they lost to Old Dominion two years after Villanova lost to the Monarchs as a #3. (New Mexico lost to them in the second round, though.) The lowest it ever received was a #12 in 1991."

OK, now that's done. Let's look back at the 1998-99 Wildcats:

Although just six years ago, March 1999 was in many ways a simpler time. The World Trade Center towers still strode majestically above the Manhattan skyline. George W. Bush mused in Austin about becoming President, while Al Gore pursued his goal of succeeding his boss, Bill Clinton. Dot-commers were striking it rich in Silicon Valley. Everyone and his brother was becoming a day trader on the burgeoning stock market.

While Osama bin Laden was well known, nobody outside of the national-security community and foreign affairs devotees had ever heard of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The nation was quite fearful of the Y2K bug, which dominated national op-ed columns and Newsweek issues far more than terrorism did. Another term as yet uncoined was "reality television": Simon Cowell and Paris Hilton were unknown. As were the terms "butterfly ballot" and "hanging chad", and only political junkies would have understood what you meant by "red state" and "blue state". And "wardrobe malfunction" would also have been unfamiliar. (As a writer from Late Night with Conan O'Brien" once waxed nostalgic about the innocent late '90s: "We didn't have any P. Diddy, then... All we had was Puff Daddy.")

Which brings us back to Villanova. The final Villanova team of the 20th century won't be remembered as one of the great ones, not at a program of Villanova's stature. It finished with a good record of 21-11, 10-8 Big East, and won one game in New York. It captured no championships and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, as a #8 seed in a close game. It didn't have any players whose names will ever hang from the Pavilion rafters. But for those of us who lived and died with that team, they played hard every night and were often quite entertaining. And they do have two legacies:

one of the most dramatic wins in the history of the program and unquestionably the most dramatic ever at the Wachovia Center, in double overtime against Georgetown;


one of the best wins in the history of the Pavilion, certifying a NCAA tournament bid against #8 St. John's on Senior Day on CBS, followed by a court-storming.

And for those reasons alone, they're worth taking a look back at...

The Team

The program was in the midst of the troubled reign of coach Steve Lappas, and it would be the fourth and final team he would take to the tournament before departing after the 2000-01 season. It wasn't expected to make the tournament in 1998-99, still rebuilding after the success of the 1995-96-97 teams. In 1997-98, the team had sunk to a 12-17 mark (remaining the only time Villanova has missed postseason play since 1993).

The team was led by two seniors, Howard Brown and John Celestand, and a junior, Malik Allen. Brown, an incredibly athletic swingman, was clearly the best player on the team at that point, having had a breakout season as a junior. Allen, a power forward, had struggled as a sophomore with foul trouble. The potential was there, as he ultimately made it to the NBA, but he still needed a lot of polish. Celestand was a shooting point guard, who needed not only to run the point but also provide some scoring punch. Rounding out the starting lineup were junior swingman Brian Lynch and the much-maligned senior center, Rafal Bigus.

Lynch was a gutty, fun player to watch, who frequently dove for balls and spent half his time on the Pavilion's then-parquet floor. He had a strong hot-dog streak in him; in the words of author Mike Bradley, he "dripped some mustard". Bigus, an import from Stargard, Poland, never developed the way either Lappas or the fans had hoped while he was on the Main Line. Bigus wasn't terrible, but he personified awkwardness in the lane and, as one friend of mine put it at the time, a tendency "to get rejected by the rim."

One of the guys off the bench was junior T.J. Caouette, a solidly built, slow, but aggressive role player who always seemed to be colliding with opponents. Another was sophomore Jermaine Medley: an anomaly, a pint-sized guard who could play both backcourt positions and had a knack for coming up with clutch three-pointers. Freshman Brooks Sales didn't play much in the beginning, coming in when Malik was in foul trouble. Rounding out the cast was a collection of role players and subsequent transfers:

Simon Ogunlesi, a Nigerian who wore number zero "O" for "Ogunlesi" - no offensive skills whatsoever, who eventually transferred to Duquesne. When at Duquesne, Ogunlesi got involved in a bank check card scam and eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bank fraud. Ogunlesi would end up with three years' probation.

Bobby Smith, a freshman point guard who was being groomed to take over eventually, and who eventually left the program;

Johnny Holley, an athletic leaper and nice guy from Texas, who unfortunately was plagued with injuries throughout his time on the Main Line.

And the usual collection of unsung walk-ons: Mike Bosl, Chris Grier, and Chris Lee.

After opening the season at the Pavilion against George Mason, Villanova went to Alaska, at the Top of the World Classic, and probably got itself into the NCAAs, in retrospect, by winning that tournament. The 'Cats breezed through it, in fact, beating Nebraska, host Alaska-Fairbanks, and Arkansas (at a time when beating Arkansas was still considered impressive) all by nine or more, and it got people talking. Celestand was named tournament MVP.

The Big Five was still in purgatory at that point, and although nobody knew it at the time, it would be the final year of the half-round-robin Villanova had wrought earlier in the decade. In April 1999, it was announced that the Big East would cut back from 18 to 16 games, and in turn Villanova announced that it would rejoin the full City Series in 1999-2000 for the first time since 1991.

At that time, Palestra games involving Villanova were a rare treat, as the Big Five Classic hadn't yet been created. The only time the 'Cats played there was the once-every-four-year game at Penn and the once-every-four-year game "at" St. Joseph's. So the 61-49 defeat of St. Joseph's at the Palestra on Dec. 1 was a highlight as well, including a spectacular tip dunk from Brown.

The Wildcats then headed to State College for a rare game with Penn State at the brand-new Bryce Jordan Center, which had opened in 1996, and the 'Cats were soundly beaten by the Nittany Lions. (Again, times have changed; Penn State was good then.)

Due to the 18-game schedule, Big East play used to open with a pair of games in early December, and 'Nova was dealt a road game at Seton Hall (a loss) and a Pavilion game against West Virginia (a win).

The marquee nonconference matchup was a game against Massachusetts at the Pavilion. Obviously, this proves that the basketball gods have a sense of humor, as nobody on either team dreamed that Lappas would be coaching the Minutemen, only two-plus years later. The 'Cats won that one, and then cruised over cupcakes Rider and Howard at the Pavilion. Record: 10-2, 1-1 Big East before New Year's. Good shape.

The Wildcats would be embarrassed up at Hartford by eventual national champion Connecticut, yielding 100 points, and came home in time to get whipped by Syracuse at the Center by 22. The Wildcats then caught a badly needed break: massive snow in the Midwest meant that the game at Notre Dame had to be played on a Friday morning with the students on break in the midst of a blizzard. In front of an arena full of empty seats, the Wildcats hammered the Irish 93-62. Nonetheless, the season wasn't looking good when the 'Cats fell at Rutgers by 10, dropping to just 2-4 in Big East play.

Then Lappas made a key decision: he banished Bigus to the bench, switched Allen from the four to the five, and put Sales into the lineup as the new four. Bingo. The 'Cats started to roll and win, a lot and by wide margins. Villanova ran off four consecutive double-digit victories over woeful BC, Notre Dame, and woeful Pittsburgh (again, times have changed :) and walloping West Virginia at Morgantown. The Pitt game was notable chiefly for the botched jewel heist which took place at the Radnor Hotel, where the Panthers were staying; when it was alleged that Pitt players were implicated, they were suspended, leaving already-hapless Pitt with just a skeleton team to face 'Nova.

After a setback at Providence, site of an annual loss, the best game of the season took place: Georgetown at the Center on a Saturday afternoon, Jan. 30. A marathon game ended up in double overtime, and Georgetown had a three point lead with two free throws in the final seconds. Villanova's chances, and a possible tournament bid, hung in the balance. What ensued next was the most exciting ending to a game I have ever witnessed in person:

The Hoyas' Anthony Perry missed both free throws, and the ball was pushed forward to Howard Brown. He sprinted into the corner, and drained a three with 2.6 seconds to go to tie it. The crowd went crazy just for the tie, given that Georgetown could have iced the game easily by making one of two free throws just a few seconds before. Then, Georgetown unwisely tried to force the ball in. It was stolen by Brooks Sales, who tapped it to Medley, who sent a three-ball in from 28 feet, for the victory at the buzzer. 93-90, 'Nova.

The crowd then hit an even GREATER frenzy, more so than any other crowd I've ever experienced. It wasn't a huge crowd (maybe around 11,000), but the Center sounded like it was packed at that moment. For once, for one fleeting moment, the maligned necessity-of-an-alternate-home-floor actually seemed like 'Nova's home floor, and the ghosts of a thousand Palestra games past seemed to have made an unannounced appearance at a key time.

The Wildcats kept the momentum going, winning against Rutgers and then by 15 against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. They fell at nationally ranked St. John's on Valentine's Day, and were routed at Miami. It appeared that the season would come down to Villanova's final three games, all at the Pavilion, fortunately: Providence, Penn, and St. John's. Entering that stretch, Villanova was 18-9 overall, 9-7 Big East- perched precariously on the bubble.

The general consensus was that two victories would assure the 'Cats of a bid. One victory, and it would be a long Selection Sunday; no victories, NIT. Providence came in, and in a hard-fought battle and with a majestic performance by Jamel Thomas, won 90-84 in overtime. This meant that 'Nova was now going to have to defeat St. John's in order to finish over .500 in Big East play, no easy task. The Wildcats also now needed the win over Penn; the Quakers kept it close for a while but eventually succumbed.

So the season was probably down to the St. John's game, on a Sunday afternoon on CBS. And the 'Cats gloriously, magnificently, pulled off the upset of #8 St. John's, leading one commentator to describe the broadcast as '"a two-hour infomercial for Villanova", complete with court-storming. The Wildcats were back in the Big Dance, for the fourth time in five years.

After going 1-1 in the anticlimactic Big East tournament, the 'Cats learned their fate - a first-round meeting with #9 seed Mississippi in Milwaukee. Should they win, they would draw #1 Michigan State. But you never know.

Alas, it wasn't to be. Villanova dropped a 72-70 heartbreaker to an Ole Miss team that always seemed to be just a step ahead of them, with a 5-5 pint-sized guard named Jason Harrison. The Rebels were a lot smaller but also a lot faster. Trailing for most of the game, but staying with striking distance, the Wildcats were down 72-65 with 1:54 to go after two free throws from Harrison, Mississippi's final points. The Wildcats made a late charge, when Caouette nailed a three and Allen converted a layup to pull within 72-70 with 55 seconds to go. The Wildcats almost stole it at the end, as the Wildcats had two shots on their final possession to tie or win it and couldn't get one to fall - one each from Brown and Celestand. Allen finished with 19 points in that game, Brown with 17 points, and Celestand with 12 points and six assists.

In retrospect, it was the end of an era. Although nobody found it significant at the time, Jay Wright was in the wings, building up his program at Hofstra, going 22-10 and reaching the NIT. Bigus, Brown, and Celestand graduated, and none of the other Wildcats would ever play in another NCAA tournament. The three seniors had played in three tournaments, and will be remembered as the tail end of the 1990s Villanova teams. Malik Allen had a very accomplished career on the Main Line, but had only one victory in the NCAA tournament (in 1997, when he was a little-used freshman). Steve Lappas may never coach in another one. A long string of NITs ensued, as we all know.

Ironically, that Villanova team will live on forever in CBS' archives, and not just for the Ole Miss game itself. The famous annual "One Shining Moment" montage at the conclusion of the national title game between Duke and Connecticut, CBS decided to use the Wildcats jogging onto the floor in the beginning of it.

So what happened to those guys?

As for Steve Lappas, we all know what happened to him recently. On Monday, he was dismissed at Massachusetts after four seasons. He ended his tenure with a 50-65 record, three sub-.500 records, and no postseason appearances.

Celestand was surprisingly drafted, with the first pick of the second round by Phil Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers, and he won a NBA title with them as a reserve in 2000. Celestand hooked on with Dallas for two weeks in October of that year but was released. In October 2002, New Jersey signed him to a minimum salary contract, but he was waived three weeks later.

Amidst those brief stints in the NBA, Celestand played all over Europe, for teams in France, Ukraine, two teams in Germany, and two in Italy. As far as I can tell, Celestand is currently playing for a team by the name of BS-ENERGY in a German city, Braunschweig, in the Basketball Bundesliga ("Federal Basketball League", I suppose?) in Germany, where he's averaging 11.1 points a game. Apparently this is his second stint there, as he first arrived in February 2001.

Brown was not drafted, but ended up in the New Jersey Nets' camp as a free agent, where he apparently was one of the last players cut. Today, he plays for C.B. Plasencia, in Spain, where he's the team's leading scorer. He's played for at least one other team in Spain.

Bigus went home to Poland (he'd been in America for a while, because he attended Archbishop Carroll on the Main Line) to play professionally. He's bounced back and forth between Poland and Pennsylvania, probably playing year-round.

After graduating, he landed with the USBL Pennsylvania Valley Dawgs, chiefly notable since it has the former 76er and backboard-shatterer, Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins, as its head coach. He played for them for three seasons. Meanwhile, Biggie shuttled among five pro teams in Poland, including two in his hometown of Stargard. During the 2002-03 season, he ended up in Greece somehow, and he's now on his second Greek team, M.E.N.T. Vasilliakos, in the Greek HEBA League. Apparently, he's developed into a pretty good player, averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds for his Greek team in 2003-04. He is currently listed as "inactive", so he could be anywhere right now.

Lynch actually ended up playing on the same Polish team as Biggie for a while, and he's been everywhere: Israel, Portugal, Greece, Germany, Italy, France, Germany again, and now Belgium. (He actually played at the Pavilion against 'Nova in an exhibition with the NIT Nike All-Stars a couple of years ago.) Lynch currently plays for the elegantly named Euphony Bree in Belgium, where he averages 16 points a game, one of his team's two leading scorers.

Malik, of course, eventually made it to the League, although not at first. He wasn't drafted after he graduated in 2000. He eventually made it to Miami as a free agent, where he played for four years, one as a starter: he has started about half the games of his NBA career. Earlier this season, on Feb. 24, he was traded, along with cash, to Charlotte for Steve Smith.

As for the bench players on the team:

Caouette, Holley, and the walk-ons did not play professionally overseas. Sales now plays for Teramo in Italy, after spending his first two seasons playing for Biella, also in Italy. Medley is currently playing for the Maryland Nighthawks in a revived American Basketball Association - where one of his teammates is former Syracuse player Lawrence Moten. (They play in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.) Medley also had an odyssey, playing in Switzerland, Colombia, and Austria. (These guys really see the world.) In 2004, Medley came a lot closer to home, winding up in Canada in a brand-new upstart league called the "Ontario Professional Basketball Association", playing for the London Orion (what a name). In the OPBA, innovations included dunks counting as three points and no offensive goaltending. However, the league quickly folded, and Medley came back south, trying out for the Nighthawks in July, and was quickly signed.

Thus endeth, until today, the most recent chapter in Villanova's long and storied NCAA history, and the last of the 20th century. Of course, the memories may fade but they never die completely. Villanova has fielded 85 teams and only 25 of them will have played in the NCAA tournament, and another 17 in the NIT. All of those players will be able to say for the rest of their lives that they played for a NCAA tournament team, and most will be able to say that they played IN the tournament. And for the fans, the numbers "1999" will remain on the banner at the Pavilion (or wherever the Wildcats will eventually play) to permanently note that fact for future generations.

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