Thursday, April 01, 2010

25th Anniversary of Villanova over Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament Championship Game - Lexington, Kentucky

To the Wildcat faithful-

Today is the anniversary of the most important day in the history of not just Villanova basketball, but arguably Villanova University as a whole.  A quarter of a century ago, today, the Wildcats stunned the nation by upsetting Georgetown, 66-64...  Villanova was a #8 seed, the lowest seed to ever win the title under the current format, adopted in 1985 - its inaugural year.

It was stunning to observers at the time, but even more so in the light of history.  No other seed that low has done it in the 25 subsequent tournaments, including this one, in which the two lowest seeds remaining are a pair of #5s, in Butler and Michigan State.

With us in the Final Four last season, I had written the following piece for last season's April Fool's Day.  I think that as we emerge from the wreckage of this year's so promising, and then profoundly disappointing ending, I think that it might be a good idea to revisit the greatest moment in the Villanova Wildcats program, before or since...  I've revised and updated it for this season...

Last season, to put myself in the proper perspective for April Fool's Day, 2009, I re-watched the outstanding HBO documentary, The Perfect Upset, to immerse myself in the atmosphere of the stunning Villanova

Simply put, The Perfect Upset is outstanding. I highly recommend it, for anyone who wants to dive deeply not only into the game itself, but Villanova's entire NCAA tournament run, as well as the social atmosphere and upheavals that were convulsing American life and society in the 1980s.

I had previously seen it, but of course, it has particular resonance in light of the highly unexpected Final Four run by the 2009 Wildcats... here are some observations, on the game that took place two dozen years ago...

Villanova - as a #8 seed - winning the NCAA tournament in 1985, is probably the second-greatest upset in the history of North American sports.

(The only one that I believe is clearly greater, was the U.S. hockey team capturing the gold medal against the Soviet Union in 1980.) Nor does that primarily stem from my being a Villanova alumnus and fan. For sports enthusiasts of any partisan stripe, Villanova/Georgetown is a magnificent story, enormously entertaining, filled with unique, memorable, flamboyant characters, richly textured, with a thrilling plot and spectacular ending. It's so great that no fiction writer could ever have contrived it.

No other team seeded that low has ever come close to repeating the feat. Granted, Villanova is not the lowest seed to advance to the Final Four - George Mason in 2006, and LSU two decades earlier - both made it as #11 seeds. But neither won a game in the Final Four. And even if they had, they would not have to face an opponent as formidable as the 1985 Georgetown Hoyas.

Perhaps the most astonishing element of the story of the 1985 Villanova Wildcats, is the fact that the entire story is true and genuine. One interviewee in The Perfect Upset notes that "you can't script the stuff," and he's absolutely right. (His line parallels the slogan Fox Sports used once for its October baseball coverage - "You Can't Script October".)

All of the following classic dramatic elements were present:
victory over Georgetown, 24 years ago, today... It is but one of the greatest ironies that it took place on April Fool's Day....
  • The metaphor of David vs. Goliath;
  • Clear villains in John Thompson and the Hoyas;
  • Clear heroes in Rollie Massimino and the Wildcats;
  • Not one, but two ailing Villanova fixtures - the first being Jake Nevin (who features prominently in The Perfect Upset) and also Alexander Severance, the founding father of Villanova basketball, who died during the Final Four but before the championship game (surprisingly, his passing is not mentioned during The Perfect Upset)...
  • A small, private, academically prominent school winning the national championship;
  • The first time that school had ever won the national championship;
  • An astoundingly high level of play in the game itself - shooting 78.6% from the floor (22/28 overall), including 9/10 in the second half;
  • the end of an era - it was the last tournament without a shot clock;
  • the beginning of an era - it was the first year of the 64-team field.
That's only a partial list... Had Hollywood come up with a script for a basketball film, that incorporated all of the above elements, it clearly would have been rejected, as too unrealistic and sentimental - the audience would be unable to suspend its disbelief for a story like Villanova's.

But truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the story really did take place according to the legend. It's all true...

If you haven't seen the outstanding1986 film Hoosiers (or if you haven't seen it recently), you really should go see it. Although its story stems from the true tale of a high school team in 1950s Indiana, the parallels between its plot and the saga of the Villanova Wildcats of 1985 are unmistakable. (I speculate that the script had probably already been written before the 1985 tournament, but it's possible that elements of it might have slipped in.) When telling the story of the 1985 Wildcats to those who are not familiar with it, it's often illustrative to liken it to Hoosiers..   (spoiler alert: don't keep reading, if you haven't seen it...)

Worth noting: The climax of Hoosiers, when the Hickory team coached by Gene Hackman upsets the powerhouse in the Indiana state title game, and in which he dramtically illustrates that the court's dimensions are the same size as back in Hickory, was filmed at the home venue of Butler University - which, as we all know, is located in Indianapolis, the site of this year's Final Four.  25 years after Villanova's upset, and 24 years after the release of Hoosiers.  Amazing...

Another aspect to keep in mind, is the distortion of retrospection. We all know the happy ending, about the eventual Villanova victory. In order to truly appreciate the stunning nature, though, we have to put ourselves in the frame of mind of those players, coaches, reporters, broadcasters, fans, etc., who were watching the events as they unfolded. It has to be remembered how improbable it was that Villanova had even reached the Final Four, let alone winning the entire tournament. Moreover, it had been highly improbable, that the Wildcats even reached the Sweet 16, having to play #9 Dayton on its home floor, and then top seed Michigan in the second round.

And as great as this year's team has been - and even if it does capture Villanova's second national crown - it can never match 1985. This year's team is a #3 seed, that had the further advantage of playing two rounds at home. And while North Carolina and either UConn/Michigan State are fine teams, they are not the juggernauts that the 1985 Hoyas were.

Villanova's 1985 championship is too difficult of an act to follow.

In the 24 tournaments since then (including this one), no lower seed has won the championship, or reached the title game. In 2006, as I (along with virtually all of America) rooted for George Mason to further shock the world by winning the national championship, I recognized that there would be one downside to the miracle - it would partially eclipse Villanova's feat. George Mason was an even bigger underdog, from a far less prominent conference, with a lower seed.

But of course, I was pulling for them, because it would have been a great feat on behalf of all the little schools in America, those who don't have the good fortune to play in power conferences or in great facilities or frequently on television. It would have underscored Villanova's triumph, not replaced it.

Although the 1985 team's accomplishment was certainly fully recognized at the time, the legend has only grown in the last two dozen years. As the big public schools, concentrated in the power conferences, continue to gobble up national titles, Final Four appearances, (and most alarmingly) an even greater share of NCAA tournament invitations, the achievement of the 1985 Wildcats has only glimmered that much brighter. Every year that goes by, without the miraculous event being repeated, simply adds to its luster.

So those are my thoughts on this April Fool's Day...

In the meantime...
You can also take a look at the other Villanova blogs included in Various Viewpoints on the right sidebar, for their takes...

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Go Wildcats!


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