Every coach has a shtick. Massimino's was family. Come to Villanova to play basketball, and you'll be part of a family. We'll eat pasta dinners together and talk about life. We'll win because you'll love one another like brothers. If it was a sales pitch, it was nonetheless heartfelt. The youngest child of an immigrant shoemaker who had a sixth-grade education, Massimino would have five children, and they would give him 16 grandchildren. "Even on the road Rollie never wanted to be alone," says Mitch Buonaguro, his top assistant in '85.
It was also a pitch that recruits—and their parents—were buying. "His family atmosphere was absolutely key," says Harold Pressley, who in 1982 as a senior at St. Bernard High in Uncasville, Conn., was an All-America. "He came in, lounged around with my mother, seemed real comfortable. It worked. It was believable. And it was real."
The '85 team came together in one huge chunk and then in the small pieces that followed. In the summer of 1979 Howard Garfinkel's Five-Star Basketball Camp in the Pocono Mountains was attended by a stunning roster of future Hall of Fame players, including Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Ewing, Chris Mullin and Karl Malone, all of whom would enter college in the fall of '81. Among the other recruits at the camp were McLain, a Long Island native living with his high school coach in southeastern Massachusetts; McClain, a willowy 6'6" forward from Worcester, Mass.; and Pinckney, a solid big man from Adlai Stevenson High in the Bronx who was underrecruited. The three of them became friends, and when Buonaguro induced McLain to commit to Villanova, McLain put the heat on McClain to join him, and McClain in turn applied pressure on Pinckney. "It was nothing complicated," says McClain. "We connected. We all wanted the Big East, and we knew with a point guard, a small forward and a big man, maybe we could do something."
As freshmen and sophomores, the big three played on good teams that were beaten in the Sweet 16, in 1982 by Michael Jordan's North Carolina team and in '83 by Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma. "Eighty-three was the best team we ever had," says Massimino. A year later the Wildcats went 19-12 and lost to Illinois in the second round.
The seniors reported to preseason conditioning in the fall of 1984 'with 67 wins on their r�sum�, yet no trophies in the case. "But they had experience," says Steve Pinone, a sophomore reserve on the '85 team who later became an assistant coach under Massimino and Lappas. "They had been to two Sweet 16s and fought tons of Big East battles." Pinckney, McClain, McLain and the junior Pressley had been joined in the starting lineup by junior shooting guard Dwight Wilbur from Paterson, N.J. Jensen would back up Wilbur, while the hulking Everson and Mark Plansky, a 6'7" freshman sapling from the Boston area, would get frontline minutes off the bench. They struggled throughout the regular season. "I still don't know why," says Pinckney. "The chemistry—that senior year, it just wasn't happening."
A soft early schedule and some nice wins got the Wildcats to 13-3 heading into a January nonleague game at Maryland's Cole Field House. The game was NBC's featured Sunday-afternoon telecast with the fabled announcing team of Dick Enberg and Al McGuire, and the Terps beat Villanova 77-74. Plansky, seven months removed from his high school graduation, found himself subbing for Pressley and guarding Maryland All-America forward Len Bias. "As soon as I came into the game Lenny drops to the low block and starts screaming, 'Mismatch! Mismatch! Give me the rock!' " says Plansky. "I've got a tape of the game. After Lenny gets about his fifth basket over me, Al McGuire says, on TV, 'Mr. and Mrs. Plansky, it's not your son's fault. He's just guarding a superstar.' " Bias finished with 30 points, and that defeat sent Villanova into a regular-season-ending tailspin that included six losses in its last 11 games.
These were heavy days in the Big East, and among Villanova's nine regular-season defeats were two each to Georgetown (both close, a fact that would be widely overlooked in Lexington) and St. John's, teams that volleyed the No. 1 ranking all season. The most humbling was the regular-season finale. With his team trailing Pittsburgh 40-23 at the half in Pitt's Fitzgerald Field House, Massimino told his starters at halftime, "You've got two minutes to show me something, or you're coming out." He gave them three before yanking them for good. Shock troops played the last 17 minutes. Pitt won 85-62. Villanova slunk home to Philadelphia with an 18-9 record, right on the NCAA bubble.
What happened next is a mystery of camaraderie that none of the Villanova '85 family can fully explain, even through the prism of time. "I've thought about this a lot through the years," says Pinckney. "During our run, there wasn't a lot of talking on the court. Guys just suddenly knew what other guys were going to do before they did it. The chemistry in those two weeks was incredible, and I still don't know what triggered it. Maybe going through so many wars over the years, three seniors getting so comfortable with each other. There was just so much...trust."
On the first Thursday in March the Wildcats beat Pittsburgh 69-61 in the first round of the Big East tournament, a win that ensured them an NCAA bid. After losing to St. John's in the Big East semifinals, Villanova was made the No. 8 seed in the Southeast region. It was the first year of the 64-team field and the last year in which the tournament was played without a shot clock. (A number of Division I conferences, including the Big East, had used a 45-second shot clock "experimentally" during the regular season, but the clock was shut down in the tournament.) The lack of a clock played to Massimino's strength, and he used tempo like a billy club, mixing up the 55 defensive sets in the Villanova scheme (Massimino still has them at home in a playbook—"multiples," he called them) and working each offensive possession as if a missed shot would lead to incarceration. Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight with wins over Dayton (51-49), No. 1 seed Michigan (59-55) and Maryland (46-43). Ultimately the Wildcats would average 55.2 points in the tournament, the lowest for a champion since Oklahoma A&M's 46.3 in 1946.
The toughest of those games was the first one. With the NCAA still permitting teams to play in their home arenas during the tournament, Villanova was shipped out to play in Dayton. A taut battle of wills left Dayton in possession with the game tied 49-49 with less than two minutes to play. The Flyers held for the last shot, but Pressley stole a pass, and Villanova spread the floor in a four corners. With 70 seconds to go, Jensen dribbled from near midcourt to the top of the key, encountered no resistance and continued all the way to the basket for a layup that gave Villanova the lead and, eventually, the win. " Pressley doesn't make that steal, Jensen doesn't get to the goal, there's no Miracle of '85," says Lappas.