Villanova Wildcats

Led by Rollie Massimino, Villanova fondly remembers 1985 championship

Led by Rollie Massimino, Villanova fondly remembers 1985 championship

Rollie Massimino took the stage surrounded by a band, students, and scores of blue-and-white balloons and delivered a speech as fiery as one of his Villanova halftime pep talks.

Thirty-one years after Massimino brought an improbable national championship to Villanova, the 80-year-old coaching lifer exhorted protege Jay Wright to win a second title.

"We're going to win tonight! We're going to win tonight!" he commanded as the crowd in Houston roared. "You have family here that is part of your own personal family, but you're part of the Villanova family. That's why we're going to win! Just remember, that part of me is we and Villanova's guys are all in it together. When Jay wins that championship, with all his great players, we're going to root, root, root for Villanova!"

The Wildcats delivered that night in 2016 for Daddy Mass and won the national championship. Six months later, Massimino returned to campus for a championship celebration and danced a little jig as he took the court. Wright, the cool, calm leader of the Wildcats, choked up when he surprised Massimino with a championship ring. The setting was perfect on a night when the 2016 banner joined the one for Massimino's `85 team in the rafters.

With Massimino in hospice care, a long battle with cancer about over, Wright traveled to Florida to say goodbye.

"We just thought if anybody was going to beat cancer and never die, you just thought it was going to be coach Mass," Wright said Wednesday. "We watched him really struggle at the end, so it's nice that he went peacefully and with his family. But it's a big void in this Villanova basketball family because his presence was just so powerful. It impacted current players, current coaches, all his players, the players that came before him, coaches before him. He was just larger than life."

The patriarch of the Villanova family is now gone. Massimino died Wednesday at his home, with his wife of 59 years and some of those closest to him at his side.

Massimino, who was still the coach at Keiser University, was 82. He won more than 800 games in his coaching career, the most notable of those wins coming when Villanova played "The Perfect Game" and stunned Georgetown for the 1985 NCAA title.

"Coach Mass' job was to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed," 1985 Wildcat Gary McLain said.

Massimino, a finalist for enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame this year, was a fixture behind the Villanova bench during its runs to the Final Four in 2009 and 2016. Wright was hired by Massimino to serve as an assistant at Villanova in 1987 and the two held the same jobs later at UNLV. When Wright was hired to coach the Wildcats, he patched the relationship between Massimino and Villanova that stemmed from an acrimonious split in 1992.

"I think he was really comfortable and knew that we all wanted him around, and he wanted to be here," Wright said. "He always wanted to be at Villanova."

Massimino, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011, also coached at Stony Brook, UNLV and Cleveland State. He spent the last 11 years at Keiser, where he started the program and turned it into an NAIA power.

But he's forever linked to Villanova and that April 1, 1985 night when the eighth-seeded Wildcats topped mighty Georgetown for the title. They remain the lowest-seeded program to win an NCAA title.

Villanova won games against Dayton, top-seeded Michigan, No. 5 Maryland, No. 2 North Carolina, and No. 2 Memphis State before defeating Georgetown in an all-Big East final 66-64.

The Wildcats sank 22 of 28 attempts, including nine of 10 in the second half. They made 22 of 27 free throws, with 11 coming in the final two minutes. Like the Miracle on Ice, the Miracle Mets or Buster Douglas, the `85 Wildcats remain forever frozen near the top of the short list of great sports upsets.

Massimino always laughed when he said he never watched a tape of the `85 title game.

"I'm afraid we're still going to lose," he said.

That game with the Tar Heels was the one where Massimino gave what those linked to that `85 team still call "the pasta speech" at halftime.

"He looked at all of us and threw his coat down," Chuck Everson, who played on that team, said Wednesday. "He said, `If I knew it was going to come down to this, I'd rather have a bowl of pasta with clam sauce and a lot of cheese on it.' Everybody was looking at him like, `What the heck does this have to do about playing?' What he was saying was just go out and have some fun. Do something you like. Play. Everybody's eyes exploded."

Massimino would never again find that so-called one shining moment. His critics said that success ruined him, something Jim Valvano -- who led NC State to an improbable championship in 1983 -- had warned Massimino about. Massimino and Villanova were held responsible for the crumbling of Philadelphia's hallowed Big 5 and the Wildcats never got past the regional final again before he left in 1992 after 19 seasons at Villanova.

He kept his promise to his players that they would always be a part of his family. Massimino and his wife, Mary Jane, let grown men sleep on air mattresses scattered all over their home while dining on his favorites -- tons of pasta, tons of eggplant, all the while toasting the past and the future.

Until this summer when the Pavilion was closed for renovations, a 50-foot mural inside the entrance to Villanova's home court highlighted the Wildcats' greatest basketball glory. There were pictures of Massimino and photos of the 1985 title team wildly celebrating in a parade, hoisting the trophy over their heads as crowds jammed the streets of downtown Philadelphia.

Weakened by cancer, Massimino made an appearance this summer at Villanova's "Summer Jam," a chance for past and present Wildcats to celebrate under one roof. Everson and fellow `85 Wildcats Brian Harrington and Harold Pressley saw Massimino this week in hospice to tell their coach they loved him.

"The last thing he said to me was, `I love you,'" Everson said. "That's a rarity with a coach and a player relationship. That doesn't happen. He taught us that it was OK to be that way, to show your feelings like that. It was OK to do all that stuff."

Pressley laughed as he recalled a bucket list trip he made just weeks ago with Massimino to Atlantic City, New Jersey.

"I never gamble! Let's go gambling," Pressley recalled Massimino telling him. "We lost a couple of hundred dollars each. He said, `How do people do this?' I told him, Coach, let it go. It was something we had to do."

Massimino is survived by his wife, five children and 17 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.

"He's going to live in all the players he coached, all the coaches that coached with him," Wright said. "We are all products of him."

As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

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AP Images

As key players head to NBA, where does Villanova go from here?

The decisions made by Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman to remain in the NBA draft should ultimately be a good thing for the Villanova basketball program. DiVincenzo and Spellman join college teammates Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson in the 2018 draft class and there's a chance all four of them are selected in the first round. 

Having four players drafted in the first round will do wonders for Villanova on the recruiting trail. The caliber of high school players that Jay Wright recruits want to play in the NBA. Wright could point to the four first-rounders the program produced this year in addition to former players like Kyle Lowry, Dante Cunningham, Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono currently playing in the NBA.

While Wright's program will reap the benefits of producing NBA talent in the long run, there is no disputing the fact that DiVincenzo and Spellman deciding to leave is a significant blow to the program in the immediate future. DiVincenzo and Spellman would have been Villanova's two best players next season. Two guys capable of leading the Wildcats to a third national championship in four years. 

But their departures bring about a new reality for Wright — his four best players from last year's team are gone and he has only two proven players returning to lead his team into the 2018-19 season. 

The proven returners
Seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall combined to start 69 games last season and each played a critical role in winning the program's third national title. Next year will be Booth's fifth in the Villanova program and Paschall's fourth. These are proven performers and, more importantly, reliable leaders for what will largely be an inexperienced team. Booth will be one of the best guards in the Big East next season. Paschall is one of the most explosive athletes in the conference and his improved perimeter shooting last season was a key factor in Villanova winning the national championship.

Other key returners
This group will be the most important variable in Villanova's success next season. Collin Gillespie heads into his sophomore season poised for a big year. He made significant contributions off the bench as a freshman, overcoming an early season wrist injury that sidelined him for the better part of six weeks. A healthy and confident Gillespie will be a huge part of the Villanova backcourt. 

Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree rounded out Villanova's seven-man rotation last season. Like Gillespie, he enters his sophomore season with a wealth of big-game experience. Cosby-Roundtree proved his worth last season as a high-motor big man specializing in defensive energy, rebounding and running the floor. He'll now be asked to contribute on a more consistent level offensively.

Jermaine Samuels will play a critical role. Another rising sophomore, Samuels was making strides as a freshman before a broken hand sidelined him for an extended stretch during the beginning of conference play. He was never able to re-establish himself in the rotation once he returned. Samuels has all the physical tools to be a high-level Big East wing player in the mold of Hart and DiVincenzo. Keep an eye on Samuels.

Then there's big man Dylan Painter, who redshirted last season. Painter showed promise towards the end of his freshman season in 2017. The hope is that a year spent working on his strength and athleticism will pay dividends. The redshirt formula has been a big part of Villanova's success. Painter could become the latest example of that. 

The new arrivals
Wright welcomes in his highest-rated recruiting class in a decade. The headliner is five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who originally committed to Arizona but then de-committed in the midst of the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting. Wright is confident that Quinerly will be cleared of any wrongdoing and will be eligible next season. Quinerly should make an instant impact, the next in a long line of terrific Villanova lead guards.

Cole Swider should also see significant playing time as a freshman. Swider is listed as a forward but is more than capable of doing damage from the perimeter thanks to his elite-level shooting ability. Swider is a natural scorer and should be a perfect fit for Villanova's three-point heavy offense. Brandon Slater is the third member of Villanova's freshman class, an athletic wing who will have ample opportunity to play his way into the rotation.

Villanova will also bring in at least one graduate transfer for next season. Joe Cremo has already committed to Villanova after starring at Albany the last two seasons. He averaged just under 18 points last year and shot nearly 46 percent from three-point range. The question is whether Cremo's production will carry over to the Big East level. Wright is hopeful that it will. Look for Cremo to be a key addition to the Villanova backcourt. 

Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

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USA Today Images

Donte DiVincenzo latest Villanova player to declare for NBA draft

Another Villanova star is moving on ... maybe.

Donte DiVincenzo has declared for the NBA draft but will not hire an agent, meaning he can test the draft waters but will maintain his college eligibility should he chose to return to school. 

The redshirt sophomore was voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player after scoring a career-high 31 points in Villanova' national title win over Michigan. 

“Donte has consistently improved in his time at Villanova through dedication and a commitment to our core values,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “His play this season has created a unique opportunity for him to receive feedback from NBA teams in the draft process. We support Donte fully and our staff will work together with him and his family to help him assess the next step in his basketball career.”

DiVincenzo averaged 13.4 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 48.1 percent from the field. His numbers jumped to 15 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists 54.7 percent shooting during the NCAA Tournament.

He must decide by May 30 if he will enter the draft or return to school.

DiVincenzo is the latest Wildcat to declare for the draft, as the mass exodus of stars continues for Villanova.

Mikael Bridges and Jalen Brunson have declared and hired agents, marking the end of their collegiate careers, while redshirt freshman Omari Spellman will also test the waters.

On the bright side, Phil Booth and Eric Paschall announced they will both return for next season.