Much of my COVID-19 replacement sports-viewing has concentrated on vintage soccer films via YouTube (those Dutch teams of the ’70s were really something). But I did indulge earlier this month in a replay of the 1985 NCAA Championship between Villanova and Georgetown, on the CBS Sports Network. I think it’s accurate to say that between 1974 and 2004 (the period of my most fervid college basketball mania), this is the only final I failed to watch live — and only because I was backpacking through Europe at the time, behind the Iron Curtain. When I finally got a hold of an International Herald Tribune in Dubrovnik (the former Yugoslavia), I thought maybe Tito’s media censors were messing with me. In all the years since, I’ve seen highlights but never the entire game tape. Some thoughts:
• By now everyone knows that Villanova won this game (66-64) by shooting an extraordinary 22 of 28 from the floor: 78.6 percent. That’s plenty mindboggling (they went 22 of 27 or 81.5 percent from the line). All the John Thompson teams from this era were renowned for their swarming defense. They were as advertised here, forcing the Wildcats into 17 turnovers! (And 28 field goal attempts in a 40-minute basketball game is not a lot, folks.) Nova just made everything. It was nearly the case that on each possession in this game, Rollie Massimino’s team either scored the ball or threw it away. I’ve never seen an offensive performance quite like it.
• This was the last game of the “No Shot Clock” era; the NCAA went to a 35-second clock the next season. Villanova never went to a four corners against Georgetown but the Wildcats were extremely deliberate on offense (in part because they were throwing it away or having it stolen with such frequency — on account of the defensive pressure). At one point in the second half, CBS flashed a stat on the screen showing “Time of Possession”, the sort of thing you’d see today during a soccer match. I don’t remember this stat from the 1970s or ‘80s, at all. But it was damned relevant here. Villanova basically possessed the ball twice as long as Georgetown did.
• The Cats essentially played this entire game with 5 guys. Massimino started a guard named Dwight Wilbur, who went the first 5 minutes, came out and never returned. (I thought maybe he’d been hurt, but he says otherwise.) Mark Plansky played 1 minute (there were three Plansky brothers from Wakefield, Mass.; I later covered state tournament games involving the younger two). The immortal Chuck Everson played 3 minutes — long enough to get punched in the face by Reggie Williams as the first half ended. This wasn’t some hidden rabbit punch. Everyone saw it, including the TV cameras. No call.
• Georgetown was 35-2 going into this game. Their leading scorer: Patrick Ewing at 14.6 ppg. Can you think of a team this dominant whose leading scorer didn’t average even 15 ppg? Weird team. Ewing was Ewing. But they played two skinny 6’7” guys at forward, Williams and Bill Martin. Michael Jackson was a smooth, scoring point guard and David Wingate a lockdown 6’5” defender (who actually shot the ball real well in the final, 8 of 14). Obviously, they won with defense. But still.
• Brett Musberger and Billy Packer called this game. In the second half, they mentioned Jim Boeheim, whose Syracuse team was one of two to beat Georgetown all season. (St. John’s was the other. The Redmen, as they were called then, were led by 4 future pros: Walter Berry, Chris Mullen, Bill Wennington and Mark Jackson. They went 31-4 before going down to Georgetown in the national semifinal — that’s another game I’d love to see sometime.) Syracuse had earned a regular-season split with Villanova, as well; the Cats had gone a pedestrian 19-10/9-7 on the year. But Boeheim saw something. He told Musberger and Packer as much, ahead of the Final Four: “St. John’s can’t beat Georgetown. But Villanova can.”
So many memories came rushing back watching this game because, again, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching Big East basketball throughout the early 1980s:
• Dwayne McClain (from Holy Name Academy in Worcester) had the worst release of any D1 player I’ve ever seen. Painful to watch, even 35 years later. And yet, until the final few minutes of the NCAA final, he didn’t miss a free throw in the entire tournament.
• Massimino, better known as Daddy Mass in those days, had a particular way of standing on the sideline during play: in a perpetual state of agitation, pointing and yelling, freezing in place for a moment (as if he’d had a stroke) then continuing with this highly eccentric performance. It warmed my heart to see him again, in his prime.
• Georgetown only played 8 guys. The fellow who got the most run off the bench? Versatile guard Horace Broadnax, rockin’ the classic mid-’80s porn stache for the final.
• It was nice to see such a big game played in an actual basketball setting, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, as opposed to some ridiculously converted dome. The last Final Four played in a proper setting: 1996, at Reunion Arena in Dallas.
A lot of folks contend that Harold Jensen, the guy who took all of Dwight Wilbur’s minutes, won this game for Nova. He did go 5 for 5 from the field and 4 of 5 from the line (with 6 turnovers) in 34 minutes. But each of his teammates put up lines like that. Point Guard Gary McClain was perfect from the field and the line. Easy Ed Pinckney was the difference-maker, for my money. He had arrived at college alongside Ewing. No one played him better or smarter over the course of four years. He saved the best for last: 16 points on 5 for 7 shooting (6 of 7 from the line) with 6 boards, 5 assists and just 3 fouls.
Finally, a lot of folks contend that John Thompson got terribly outcoached in this game, but I don’t see it. He stopped pressing in the second half (the Hoyas typically pressed the entire game), but I could see why: His opponent was getting better shots in transition, compared to those they generated in the half-court. He went man-to-man a couple times — McClain got dunks. At the other end, Villanova stayed in a zone and dared the Hoyas to shoot over them: Georgetown shot 55 percent from the floor — and lost! They’d averaged 51 percent that season. But here’s the killer stat, fleshed out by watching all 40 minutes: Georgetown took 53 shots compared to Nova’s 28. Against anything but the most flawless shooting performance in NCAA final history, stats like that get your team the W.