Villanova Wildcats

Massimino showed Big 5 coaches the impact that can be made on players

Massimino showed Big 5 coaches the impact that can be made on players

The Palestra was nearly empty. It was an October scrimmage pitting an NAIA team vs. an Ivy League team. And the opposing coach was over 80 years old.

But much to Penn head coach Steve Donahue's amazement and delight, that opposing coach — Rollie Massimino — was still doing Rollie things.

He was up on his feet, yelling at his Keiser University players, having fun, even playfully punching a Penn player in the arm at one point after he hit a few three-pointers right in front of him during the exhibition game last October between Keiser and the host Quakers.

"He really had great passion and enthusiasm," Donahue said. "To be 82 and coaching like he did last year, I marvel at that. Coaching has changed so dramatically. Guys do it for different reasons. It was pretty apparent Rollie did it for the relationships with the young people and helping them get better. I think that's who Rollie was."

Rollie Massimino, the legendary Villanova head coach and basketball lifer who went on to run the UNLV, Cleveland State and Keiser programs, died Wednesday after battling cancer and other health problem for years.

And while his death hit the Villanova family hard — particularly his protege Jay Wright, who gave an emotional interview about what Massimino meant to him — it also struck a chord with the rest of the Big 5 coaches who came to know him well and appreciated what he meant for basketball in the city.

"He was an icon in Philadelphia college coaching," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "We all felt a tie to him. He was good to everybody. Once he knew what you were doing and what you were asking, he was gonna put his whole heart and soul into it.

"It didn't matter if you were a Villanova guy or you weren't. You were a basketball guy and that's all that mattered to him."

Like everyone, Dunphy has vivid memories of Massimino guiding Villanova on their stunning run to the 1985 national championship. An assistant at American University at the time (in a few months, he'd begin a 30-plus-year coaching run in the Big 5 at La Salle), he marveled at what he saw, calling it "wonderful to watch" and saying the 'Cats play "pretty much the perfect game."

Then a graduate assistant at the University of North Texas, La Salle head coach John Giannini watched in awe from his dorm lounge, saying that "I don't think college basketball fans anywhere will ever forget that."

And Donahue, who graduated from Ursinus a year earlier, remembers what the '85 championship meant for the Philadelphia — as well as the next generation of the city's coaches.

"The city needed a champion," the Penn head coach said. "It wasn't just Villanova. At the time, I was really proud that Villanova was our team. In '85, I just remember thinking this was just an incredible achievement and the city getting behind it was really remarkable.

"And I just think he made guys like myself and other people really start looking at coaching and how much you can have an impact on kids."

For young coaches like Donahue, Massimino was the perfect person to try emulate. He wasn't flashy and didn't necessarily look the part, but he focused on the important things like building relationships, having players over to his house for bowls of spaghetti, and generally treating a program like a family.

"Rollie was who he was," Donohue said. "And there was something really refreshing in that — that you could achieve greatness in coaching being yourself."

"He was a throwback, no question," Dunphy added. "He was a coach's coach."

Dunphy first met Massimino in the early 1970s when Massimino was an assistant at Penn for a season under Chuck Daly. Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli came to know him well not long after when his wife, Judy, was an assistant coach at Villanova, and Massimino showed him what kind of person he is.

"He reached out to us when our daughter Elizabeth had a serious surgery at the age of 3, and throughout my career at Saint Joseph's," Martelli said. "He has been a presence both on the sidelines at Villanova and in the Philadelphia basketball world."

That relationship continued for four decades with Massimino making a stop at Martelli's camp in Avalon, N.J., this past August, taking a photo with Martelli that the St. Joe's coach said he'll "treasure for the rest of my life." Martelli and the rest of the Big 5 coaches also honored him with a special ceremony during their Coaches vs. Cancer gala in April 2016.

"That was great," Dunphy said. "He was struggling at that point physically but he'd never let you know, never entered his thought process. He was always gonna fight it."

Perhaps the best part was that Rollie was still himself in his final years, a fierce competitor on the court and a warm friend off of it. He was still the guy who once shared a wonderful dinner with Giannini during the European Championships in Sicily, bonding over Italian food and their shared Italian heritage. And he was still the guy, too, that met Donahue for the first time by approaching him at a restaurant in Havertown and pretending to give him a hard time at the request of a former player who knew them both.

"Rollie was like that — he would play the practical joke, he would have fun," Donahue said. "He was just someone who loved to be around people. Even in the last couple years of his life, he still wanted to be around people. He wanted to coach. Every day was fun for him and exciting. That's why I think he coached, literally, until the day he died."

Coaching as long as he did certainly came with sacrifices, of course. Giannini remembers a time when Massimino called him to set up an exhibition vs. La Salle while getting a blood transfusion.

"I just thought about the level of toughness it takes to be working when you're getting that kind of treatment," the La Salle coach said. "I also thought about the kind of love of basketball it takes. I think it's inspirational that, as recently as the last few months, he was still doing what he loves."

That's just one reason why Massimino will be so missed — around the country certainly but especially in the Philadelphia area's tight-knit basketball community.

"One word that's overused is the word legend," Giannini said. "But someone who changes hundreds of lives and someone who succeeds at the highest level and someone who makes history I think qualifies as a legend. Coach Massimino is definitely a legend."

"He loved coaching and he loved working with kids," Dunphy added. "And he loved the relationships with the players. It didn't matter if it was Villanova or UNLV or Cleveland State or Keiser University. Him coaching was what life was all about. And I don't know if I've ever seen anybody fight this disease as hard as he did."

Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

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Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

VILLANOVA, Pa. — There were many reasons why Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And many more for why it's one of just two top seeds still standing.

The Wildcats do a lot of things well. They have depth, they can shoot from three, they defend, they are well-coached and they play hard. But perhaps their greatest attribute isn’t physical or psychological.

It’s experience. 

Of 'Nova’s core six, five were on the national championship team two seasons ago. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth played key roles on that squad. Donte DiVincenzo (injured) and Eric Paschall (transfer) were on the team but did not play. Having players that talented and that seasoned can’t be quantified. Not to mention a coaching staff still in tact from that title team. 

Between that run in 2015-16 and playing one of the toughest schedules in the country in a battle-tested Big East conference, there is nothing this group has not seen.

“Obviously the playing experience is most important but having coaches who have been in it," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said Monday. "Having guys like Donte, Eric, who were sitting out, be a part of that '16 run — that’s important, too. They learned a lot, they picked up a lot. To be able to share that experience with the young guys, I think that helps this team a lot.”

DiVincenzo agreed with his coach's sentiment.

“We’ve seen the biggest stage," the redshirt sophomore guard said. "Although myself and Eric were not playing, we were there and witnessed it and we know what it takes not only to win it but to get there.”

Next up for Villanova is the Sweet 16 and fifth-seeded West Virginia on Friday night in Boston. The Mountaineers begin guarding you in the parking lot. It is a 90-foot torture test of relentless pressure, end to end. A brutal matchup for any team.

But rest assured, Villanova will be prepared and won’t be overwhelmed. 

“No matter what the stage is, we don’t care," Bridges said. "You can put us anywhere, we’re going to play the same game. We tell the young guys, 'Don’t think of it as the Sweet 16, think of it as the next game.'"

It may be more than just the next game.

But the moment won’t be too big for this bunch that’s seen it all.

How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama

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How Sweet it is — 'Nova crushes Alabama


PITTSBURGH — Mikal Bridges hit five 3s, scored 23 points and helped No. 1 seed Villanova put the field on notice that it's the team to beat with an 81-58 win over ninth-seeded Alabama on Saturday.

The Wildcats (32-4) are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since they won the 2016 national championship. Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth -- and yes, The Big Ragu -- look every bit the favorite to make it two in three years.

Villanova plays Friday in Boston against the Marshall-West Virginia winner.

The sport is still buzzing from top-seeded Virginia's 20-point loss to 16th-seeded UMBC on Friday night.

Alabama (20-16) failed to make it two No. 1s KO'd in less than 24 hours.

After a tense first half in a round that has given the program fits, the Wildcats hit their first six 3s in the second and put on a thrashing up there among the most dominant under coach Jay Wright.

Bridges, who averaged 17.9 points and played his way into a likely NBA draft lottery pick, scored 1 point and missed all five shots in the first half. He found his groove once the second half tipped. Bridges scored the first 5 points of the half and then finished a thunderous alley-oop on a pass from Booth that made it 41-27 and sent the Wildcats wildly waving their arms in celebration headed into a timeout.

Bridges hit his first three 3s in succession to cap an 18-1 run and a Sweet 16 berth was in sight.

Brunson added a 3 to make it 56-31 and the rest of the half was simply a countdown to Boston. Villanova made 17 of 41 3s.

The Wildcats lost in the first weekend as a 1 or 2 seed in 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017.

Villanova got a brief scare that it might add `18 to the list against Alabama.

The Wildcats live-and-die by the 3-pointer -- they say, "shoot em' up and sleep in the streets" -- and when it's on, look out. The Wildcats are as dangerous as any team in the nation.

When it's off, well, that's how they're so upset-prone in March. They missed eight of their first 11 3s in the first half and Alabama briefly grabbed the lead.

Donte DiVincenzo steadied Villanova with three straight 3s that brought a gasp from the crowd and gave the Wildcats a 22-15 lead. He threw in a fastbreak layup off his own steal and hit his fifth 3 of the half to make it 32-27.

DiVincenzo -- the redheaded guard nicknamed "The Big Ragu" -- scored all 18 of his points in the half. Villanova attempted 20 3s (made seven) out of 27 shots.