The Villanova basketball team is not very big. West Chester State, for example, is bigger, and so is your favorite YMCA team. Villanova is not a strong team. It does not have blinding speed or exceptional shooting. It does score points occasionally, though its star player, Wally Jones, is reluctant to score at all. What Villanova is, nevertheless, is the best basketball team in the East, because what it does is play defense—which is what you are supposed to do when you do not have the ball. Compared with gushing up 100 points a game, however, defense is dull diversion and few teams have their heart in it.
Villanova is a painstaking exception. It does not defeat opponents, it pesters them to death. It upsets their timing, their composure, their passing and their stomachs. It robs them blind. Its nimble thoroughness is inspirational—in the Xavier game, inspired sophomore Bill Melchionni stole six Xavier passes and a cowbell from a front-row Xavier fan he happened past during the heat of play. Villanova fans, meanwhile, are completely won over. They now get excited when the other team has the ball.
The man who accomplished the winning-over by being, not incidentally, a big winner, is Coach Jack Kraft. He says it is all very logical: "The rule book shows that every time you score, the other fellow gets the ball, right? That means he has the ball 50% of the game, right? So you have to stop him from scoring—or score every time you get the ball, which is impossible" Kraft says, furthermore, that it is easier to win by 41-40 than 91-90, that you are "less likely to have a bad defensive game than a bad offensive one." He pointed to a score in a Philadelphia paper: Detroit 114, Notre Dame 104. "If I scored 104 and lost," he said, "I'd take the gas pipe."
Kraft's Villanova teams have won 56 of 74 games in his two seasons-plus and are 16-1 this year. Last week they defensed American University 84-49, then held the nation's highest scoring team, Detroit, to 70 points—27 below Detroit's average—in winning 79-70.
Kraft calls his defense the "ball defense." It is more insidious than most of the zone defenses that have become popular, because the guard on the ball-handler stays with him even when he leaves the guard's zone, and it is more successful because Kraft's players are magnificent scramblers. An opponent who drives to the basket against Villanova always winds up accompanied and tormented by two—or three or four—defenders. It is safer to put your head in an electric fan than to drive on Villanova. The ball-hawking guards, Team Captain Jones, George (Honeybear) Leftwich and Melchionni, the swing man, appear to have four hands apiece.
So as not to be put down as stereotyped, Kraft started a man-to-man defense against Minnesota in the finals of the Holiday Festival tournament in New York in December. Confused, Minnesota called time. When play was resumed, Villanova was back in the ball defense. Minnesota soon called time again. In short order Villanova had a 13-point lead, and went on to win 77-73. Against American University last week Kraft again started with a man-to-man ("there are scouts in the stands, and we don't need to help them any"). But the Villanova man-to-man is not always too adhesive and American U. trailed by only 36-34 at half time. Back to the ball defense. Within five minutes of the second half, American had lost the ball on forced passes or outright thefts five times, used up two time-outs and was 15 points behind. Villanova fans, hep to the change, cheered the return of the big defense ("give 'em the Big D! the Big D!") for three minutes straight.
Villanova fans are hard-pressed to get enough of the Wildcats. They jam the tiny Villanova field house—3,200 capacity—and when the Wildcats play in the Philadelphia Palestra they easily out-draw the four city schools—Penn, St. Joseph's, La Salle and Temple. Sports-writers on the Villanovan, the school weekly, are similarly hard-pressed to maintain their objectivity. One recently wrote how St. Francis' "inept gladiators" were "quaking in the face of the Wildcat defense." He went on to say that the "rotund" referee of that game was also quite blind. Villanovans have become sensitive to their team's national ranking—UCLA and Michigan do not scare them any—and they shout, "We're No. 1!" whenever and wherever they go beyond the Villanova city limits. "They're right," says Kraft, who is less sensitive. "They're the No. 1 fans in the nation."
The rapport among team and town and school has never been greater. Priests (it is a Roman Catholic school) work out with the team. A basketball club has been formed, with special membership cards signed by Coach Kraft. Reserve Center Sam Iorio is on speaking terms with all 197 nursing students, the only girls on campus. Wally Jones was voted Villanovan of the Year—over the senior class president and the vice-president of the student council. Coach Kraft's daughter, Junie, 3, announced that the man she is going to marry is Center Bernie Schaffer, and also picked out team-member husbands for sisters Cheryl, 13, and Janice, 12. Junie waits outside the dressing room after each game and uses any available excuse to strike up a conversation ("See my new shoes?"). "Bernie," says Junie, "is magnifishench."
It has become gauche at Villanova not to wear a Wally Jones beret to the games. Jones started wearing a beret last year, the team followed suit and now one enterprising student has a cut-rate beret outlet in his dormitory room. The team bought Kraft one in Buffalo this year, and he agreed to wear it, against his own good taste, as soon as the Wildcats played a good game. A few days later they beat Toledo and since then have won 12 straight. "People say I'm crazy," says Kraft, his beret cocked rakishly to one side, "but if you think I'm taking it off, you're crazy."
Kraft, 42, had never even applied for a college job until the Villanova opening in 1961. "I didn't think I'd care much for college recruiting, and I knew I didn't care for getting up in public to make a speech," he says. The only change he made in 14 years was to move from Bishop Neumann High to Malvern Prep in 1959 so he could be closer to supper at quitting time. He applied for the Villanova job more or less as an afterthought and was as surprised as anybody else when he got it. His first Villanova team won 12 straight before it lost, and for one home game the school sold 2,000 tickets over capacity (reserved seating has been in effect ever since). "This college coaching is a breeze," he told his wife. "I should have tried it long ago." His teams went to the NCAA tournament in 1962 and to the semifinals of the NIT last year.
Kraft has gray-green eyes, a gray crew cut and a smashed-in nose, the result of a basketball pass he took his eyes off years ago. He now talks well in public, with the aid of clichés, and if he tends to overstate and overdirect in the manner of a high school teacher it is understandable. His popularity is undeniable and so is his ability. He believes in his system—in defense—and when the offense runs away with itself (as it did in scoring 113 points against St. Francis of Pennsylvania to set a Palestra record) he says it is accidental.
This is Kraft's best team, because it has, for the first time, bench strength. He can play eight men. None of them, however, could be called an outstanding big man. Junior Jimmy Washington has made rapid improvement—he had played only one year in high school—and is a fine jumper with excellent timing (he blocked 16 shots against Xavier), but at 6 feet 7 he is better suited for forward. Sophomore Richie Moore, 6 feet 4, is tough and is a capable scorer. Leftwich works well with Jones, as does the sixth man, Melchionni, who is probably the best pure shot on the team. They attack with uniformity: Jones got 21 points, Leftwich 20 and Moore 18 against Detroit. Melchionni came off the bench to score 22 on Xavier and 23 on Dayton. Wally Jones calls him "Cyclops," because, Jones explains, "that boy's got an eye." Melchionni is blond and frail and looks always on the verge of a cry. He is mothered by his teammates. He was late for the bus in Buffalo and Kraft asked Center Al Sallee, a big ex-Marine, where Billy was. "Golly, Coach," Sallee replied, "I didn't know it was my turn to mind him."
The team pride is Wally Jones. Kraft says Jones is "the greatest backcourt player I have ever seen," and Publicist Ken Mugler says Jones is the trial of his life because "he's too unselfish to believe. I tell him, 'Wally, you've got to shoot more, 20 or more a game, so you can be an All-America.' You know what he shoots on the average? About 15. He'd rather pass off to somebody who can't shoot as well."
Jones scored 31 points—16 above his average—against Minnesota in the Holiday Festival and was named most valuable player. The next week against St. Francis of Brooklyn he took only six shots the entire game. "They didn't need me," he explained in his very soft voice. "Wally toys with the opposition. I honestly believe that," says Coach Kraft. "He looks at the clock and the scoreboard and then he decides if he needs to score. One New York writer asked me what Wally Jones does for me. I told him, 'He makes me a winner, that's what he does.' "
Jones, like his former teammate from Philadelphia's Overbrook High, Walt Hazzard of UCLA, is very much the stylist. He wheels through groves of bigger men (he is 6 feet 2, 185 pounds), faking, making phantom passes and calling out secret signals like "Mary, Mary!" and "Sidney! Sidney!" Kraft has to stop him now and then to catch up on the code—"so I can sound intelligent when people ask me what the heck 'Sidney, Sidney,' means." When Jones shoots he seems almost to come apart. He gives it wrist, shoulder, elbow, kneecap, appetizer, salad and a final Bernsteinian sweep of his skinny arm.
Last year Jones played all 29 Villanova games with an injured knee. When the knee was operated on this summer the surgeon said it must have hurt him every minute he played. Jones never complained.
Villanova's only loss this year was at Niagara, when Jones fouled out after playing 16 minutes. Since then he has been more careful. He is a senior now and he wants to go places. Last week he received a letter from buddy Walt Hazzard. "I'll see you in Kansas City," Hazzard wrote. Kansas City is where the NCAA championship will be played in March.