The 1985 NCAA Tournament was notable for a number of reasons. It was the first time that men’s basketball field had been expanded to include 64 teams. It was also the last title game to be played without a shot clock.
And it was also a jolting, Joe Frazier-esque left hook to the jaw that was delivered to the basketball establishment by a trio of teams from the new bully on the block: the mighty Big East Conference.
When the Villanova Wildcats defeated the Georgetown Hoyas in the championship game, they converted 79% of their shots overall, including and an unfathomable 90% in the second half. In other words, their offensive execution was about as flawless as Toni Braxton in that white satin dress she wore to the Grammy Awards in 2001.
The eighth-seeded Wildcats, with their 66-64 victory, became, and remain, the lowest-seeded team to ever sit atop the March Madness mountaintop.
The defending champion Hoyas, with Patrick Ewing and Reggie Williams, seemed indestructible, winning 34 out of their 36 previous games. Their only losses during the season were to Big East rivals St. John’s and Syracuse. And those were by the slimmest of margins, a combined three points. They were appearing in the Final Four for the third time in Ewing’s brilliant college career.
“Georgetown is as good a team as has ever been assembled,” Villanova’s head man Rollie Massimino told The Sporting News the night before the Final Four. “And that’s only because of Patrick. He’s the best to ever play college basketball.”
Villanova had suffered ten defeats during the season and appeared to be the decided underdog in the semi-finals. Many people didn’t think they’d advance past Memphis State, who were then members of the Metro Conference, to get a crack at the Georgetown – St John's winner.
But Massimino armed the Wildcats with an impeccable plan of attack. Memphis State’s star forward, the 6-foot-10 All-American Keith Lee, had flirted with foul trouble throughout the tournament. Villanova, from the jump, attacked the paint, where the Tigers seemed to have a certifiable advantage with Lee and their other talented big man, 7-foot sophomore center William Bedford.
On defense, Villanova utilized at least 11 different variations of a zone, packing the paint and daring Memphis to beat them from outside.
Lee fouled out with over ten minutes remaining in the game and Bedford played tentatively after acquiring his fourth foul a mere seven minutes into the second half. Their other star player, Baskerville Holmes, fouled out of the game as well.
Villanova played a patient brand of basketball, but when the gaps opened up due to their ball movement, they pounced. They also converted 20 of their 26 free throw attempts.
“We knew Lee had been in foul trouble during the tournament," said ‘Nova’s 6-foot-9 center Ed Pinckney after the game. “So we tried to take the ball to him as much as we could.”
Memphis State’s stellar point guard Andre Turner, who was known as the “Little General”, played his usual superb and slick floor game, but it wasn’t enough as Villanova advanced to the championship stage with their 52-45 win.
In the other semi-final, the Hoyas defensive wizard, David Wingate, flummoxed St. John’s brilliant sharp-shooter Chris Mullin, college basketball’s Player of the Year, who was teammates with Ewing a few months prior on the 1984 Olympic Team, limiting him to only eight points on eight shots.
St. John’s came into the game as the Big East regular season champs, but the Hoyas’ tenacious defense limited their other star players Willie Glass, Walter Berry and Bill Wennington, to 13, 12 and 12 points respectively. Behind the smooth offensive weaponry of 6-foot-7 sophomore Reggie Williams, who scored 20 points, and Ewing’s 16, Georgetown cruised into the championship game with a suffocating 77-59 victory.
To people who hadn’t watched the Big East on a consistent basis, it seemed the Hoyas would crush Villanova. But to people who payed attention, they knew that the Hoyas struggled in beating the Wildcats during their two previous matchups earlier in the year.
In the championship game, the Wildcats hit 13 out of their first 18 shots under extreme defensive duress. Logical wisdom suggested that it would be impossible for them to maintain that pace. But sometimes, logic gets tossed aside like a busted Warren Buffet-Billions-Bracket after the Duke vs Mercer game. Villanova didn’t simply maintain that blistering pace, they actually bettered it.
The game’s final 20 minutes witnessed as flawless an offensive display as any seen in the history of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats missed only one shot from the field.
Ed Pinckney finished with 16 points and six boards en route to his Most Outstanding Player trophy, Dwayne McClain dropped 17, Harold Jensen hit one pressure-filled jumper after another and point guard Gary McLain ran a near-perfect floor game.
For that one night, over those 40 minutes of basketball, the Villanova Wildcats were as great as any team that ever laced ‘em up. Their performance was, and still is, one of the best displays of offense, teamwork, grit and determination ever witnessed.
Even the great Georgetown coach, John Thompson, had his team stand and applaud when Villanova took the victory stand, telling The Sporting News, “Any time you shoot that percentage, you deserve the praise. You couldn’t get much better.”
And it’s doubtful that any team, ever again, will play much better than that.