Thirty seasons after title clash, Villanova, Georgetown atop Big East
“I was at Terry Gurnett's house, the soccer coach at the University of Rochester,” said Wright, who was then a 23-year old who had just finished his first season as an assistant for the Yellowjackets. “I was at the semifinal game, and I was the assistant intramural director, so I couldn't stay for the championship game because I had to do intramurals on Monday.
“You know, I'm a Philly kid, watching that, going crazy,” says Wright, a native of Churchill, Penn. “That probably put Villanova on the map.”
That part is debatable; the Wildcats, after all, had played for the national title in 1971, losing to UCLA, and had been in the Elite Eight in 1982, falling to North Carolina. It was, indisputably, however, the high point of a decade of Big East dominance. Georgetown lost the title game to those same Tar Heels in ‘82 before winning the championship in 1984; St. John’s also reached the Final Four in ‘85, the only time a league has ever had three teams get that far in the same season; Providence and Syracuse made it to the Final Four in 1987, with the Orangemen losing to Indiana at the buzzer; and Seton Hall lost the ’89 final to Michigan in overtime, joining the Hoyas and Orangemen as one-point losers on Monday Night in the '80s.
The ’85 final was also the pinnacle of a rivalry that endures 30 years later. Many things have changed since then both in college basketball – which added a shot clock the next season and a three-point line the year after that – and, especially, the Big East, which was perhaps hit harder than any other school in the conference realignment dance that radically changed the landscape of college sports.
What had been an eight-team, basketball-only league comprised mainly of small Catholic schools in the Northeast throughout the '80s, had, by 2013, become a football-driven behemoth that included 16 teams, including some as far removed from the original prototype as South Florida, Cincinnati and Louisville, before splintering in the summer of '13. Gone were longtime conference mainstays Syracuse, Connecticut and Pittsburgh. In their place were 10 teams, united by their passions for basketball and their absence of big-time football.
Five of those schools – Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova – were part of the original Big East as far back as 1980. Perhaps appropriately, the Wildcats won the league’s regular season title in the first season of the new Big East last year while Providence won the conference tournament, held as always at Madison Square Garden. This year, Villanova and Georgetown were picked to finish first and second, respectively, by the league’s coaches.
While this season’s battles will be important, they won’t be nearly as historically significant as the ’85 championship game. John Thompson III, Georgetown's coach and son of the John Thompson who guided those Patrick Ewing-led Hoyas, at first feigned ignorance when asked about that title tilt.
“Which game was that?” he asked sarcastically before attempting to set the record straight. “[Villanova and Georgetown] had played several very close games, if you go back and look at the history. People talk about the biggest upset in the history of basketball—nuh-uh.”
Thompson is right. Georgetown beat Villanova 52-50 in Philadelphia that January and then by the almost identical score of 57-50 the next month in D.C. Thus by the time they met in Lexington, Ky., on April Fool’s Day, the Wildcats had little reason to fear the Hoyas. And as Thompson pointed out, it wasn’t just those two matchups that allowed those teams to know each other so well.
“Especially in that era, when everybody stayed in school for four years,” Thompson said. “So Patrick's playing against [Ed] Pinckney for four years. That's a lot of experience, going at each other. So, great game, national championship: the good guys lost.”
It took a remarkable 79 percent shooting effort, including an unheard of 90 percent in the second half, for the eighth-seeded Wildcats to stun the No. 1-ranked Hoyas. Now, almost 30 years later, the game is as happy a memory for Villanova as it is a difficult one for Georgetown. For both schools, however, it continues to resonate.
“Do I think about that game? No,” Thompson said. “But our guys, as well as Jay's guys, understand the tradition. They understand it's a special game. So is it that game specifically? No. But is it that game, coupled with 50 other games down through time? Absolutely.”
Still, much of that history is lost on the current players. Georgetown senior center Joshua Smith said that he’s gathered much of his information about the old conference by watching ESPN’s documentary, Requiem For The Big East, which debuted last March. “Just learning how the Big East was first created—all the battles you see now, and learning about Georgetown’s history . . . it’s great. It’s such a storied conference.”
For Hoyas senior guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, the Big East preseason player of the year, the rivalry “excites us [and] motivates us.” But it isn’t what happened in 1985 that does those things for Smith-Rivera as much as the fact that his team hasn’t beaten Villanova since his freshman year.
Wright, too, noted that his players’ memories of basketball history don’t go back more than a few years.
“It's funny. There's a generation [where] it's monumental to them. But to these guys? They know the old guys that come back. Like the '85 team? They come back all the time and root for [the current team] like they're celebrities. Our guys? They see Harold Jensen all the time. They have no idea how big those shots were that he hit [in the title game].
“When were you born, Arci?”, Wright turned and asked his junior point guard, Ryan Arcidiacono, sitting next to him at the Villanova podium. “'94!”, came the quick reply, along with general groans from the various reporters who could remember just how old they were in 1994.
The Hoyas and Wildcats don’t play until Jan. 19 in D.C. (the rematch is Feb. 7 in Philadelphia), but the ’85 game will be a part of the season even before it officially begins. Villanova will honor its championship squad when 80-year-old Rollie Massimino, who coached Villanova to that title, brings his NAIA Northwood University team to campus for an exhibition game on Tuesday.
Those regular season showdowns could decide the Big East championship. Villanova returns four starters from a 29-5 team that lost in the Round of 32 to Connecticut, now in the AAC, en route to the national championship. Georgetown, meanwhile, missed the tournament a year ago but has Smith-Rivera on the outside and Smith inside to form what could be one of the league’s top combos.
With the Wildcats and Hoyas primed for success this season, it feels as if the Big East universe is finally back in alignment.
“I know there's a lot of people from that '85 era—my wife graduated '83—and they're all saying, 'Yeah, that's how it's supposed to be,” Wright said.
“They're one, we're two, who's three?” Thompson asked. A reporter said it was St. John's, the third member of that trio to make the 1985 Final Four. He chuckled. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”