SUPERNOVA VILLANOVA WAS IN A BLACK HOLE, BUT COACH STEVE LAPPAS AND THE STELLAR KERRY KITTLES HAVE THE WILDCATS SHINING AGAIN

January 08, 1996

The 1984-85 Villanova Wildcats were the white-bread warriors of
college basketball, sharpshooting overachievers who became that
season's great success story by beating powerful, Patrick
Ewing-led Georgetown 66-64 in a memorable NCAA final that took
place, fittingly, on April Fool's Day. The Wildcats' rumpled
coach, Rollie Massimino, was right out of central casting, a
happy paisan who coaxed miracles out of his troops on the court
and served pasta to them off it. Rollie and Villanova was a love
affair that seemed as if it would go on forever, like Dean and
North Carolina or Bobby and Indiana.

It didn't. Only once in the next seven years did the Wildcats
make it deep into the postseason (they advanced to the Southeast
Regional final in 1988), and twice they finished below .500.
Then, after the '91-92 season, Massimino packed his bags for Las
Vegas, where he would add a new dimension to the phrase "fish
out of water." Villanova, meanwhile, turned to a Massimino
protege, Steve Lappas,--a guy whose first college job had been
as an assistant on that '85 championship team--to rebuild its
fortunes.

Consider the Wildcats rebuilt. Lappas started slowly, with an
8-19 record in 1992-93, but followed that with 20- and 25-win
seasons that included an NIT championship in '94. This season,
after nonconference wins over Hofstra and Delaware last week,
Villanova was 10-1 and ranked eighth in the country. It seems to
have set out on a character-building, prepare-for-April course
with impressive victories over such established teams as North
Carolina (77-75) and Purdue (67-50) and slog-through-the-mud
gut-wrenchers on the road over such lesser lights as Miami
(70-68) and New Orleans (80-72). "We haven't made anything look
easy," says Wildcat All-America senior guard Kerry Kittles, "but
I promise it's not because we're overconfident. We just haven't
clicked on all cylinders yet, and it's only made us realize how
much work we have to do."

Nobody had more work to do than Lappas when he accepted the job
at Villanova on April 14, 1992. The talent pool was shallow as a
result of Massimino's flagging recruiting efforts, and the
Wildcats were suffering from poor public relations in
Philadelphia. For most of his 19-year career at Villanova,
Massimino had relied on a steady stream of good if not great
players from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, while
stubbornly refusing to recruit any but the top local schoolboy
players in Philly, whom he never got anyway. Philadelphians were
also furious with Massimino when, in the late '80s, Villanova,
claiming that its membership in the Big East caused scheduling
conflicts, reduced its participation in Philly's traditional Big
Five competition against LaSalle, Penn, St. Joseph's and Temple.
How much Massimino had to do with the Wildcats' decision is
still hard to determine, but he took all the heat, and the once
beloved Daddy Mass was now Public Enemy No. 1 in a town that is
tough even on its favorites. When UNLV president Robert Maxson
called on Massimino to repair the scandal-beset program left
behind by the deposed Jerry Tarkanian, the burned-out Massimino
said, "Whew!" and the City of Brotherly Love said, "Good
riddance."

Watching Massimino's slide was tough on Lappas, who left
Villanova in 1988 to take his first head coaching job, at
Manhattan. In four years Lappas turned the Jaspers from
basketball cadavers into a 25-win team that made it to the third
round of the '92 NIT. He was a natural for Villanova, having
both youth (he was 38 when he was offered the job) and ties to
the school ("I made all the videos because I was hugging Rollie
after we beat Georgetown," says Lappas). Sources say that
Massimino discouraged Lappas from taking the job, believing,
through some sort of tortured logic, that it would be an act of
disloyalty, and the two rarely speak. (Massimino, who is angry
about an '87 article detailing cocaine use by Gary McLain, one
of the players on the '85 championship team, refuses to talk to
SI.) Lappas finds the subject of his fractured relationship with
Massimino painful and won't say much about it. But he is sincere
when he talks about the debt he owes to Massimino. "I've never
forgotten what I learned from Rollie, which is basically
everything," says Lappas. "I wouldn't be sitting in this chair
were it not for him."

Lappas didn't spend much time sitting after he got the Villanova
job. The day after he was hired, he got on a plane to New
Orleans to try to convince Kittles, who had signed with
Villanova six months before with the expectation of playing for
Massimino, not to jump ship. Even in their heyday, the Wildcats
rarely attracted top players from outside the Northeast, and
Kittles, though not ranked among the top 50 players coming out
of high school that year, was a key ingredient for Lappas, who
felt that Kittles was a better player than he was ranked. "I
didn't have anything against Coach Lappas," says Kittles, "I
just didn't know who he was."

Lappas worked Kerry's parents hard--it helped that Villanova is a
Catholic school and that Kerry's mother, Mary, had once thought
about becoming a nun and his father, Acosta, had considered the
seminary. Lappas encouraged Kerry to try Villanova for a year
and then transfer if he didn't like it. "Hey, I'm not taking you
to jail," Lappas said to Kittles. "I'm taking you to a pretty
good school." Reluctantly, Kittles said he would come.

Lappas then flew to Buffalo to firm up the commitment of another
key Massimino recruit, swingman Eric Eberz. "I never thought
about changing my mind," says Eberz, "but it was real nice of
him to make the effort."

Lappas and the two freshmen would struggle through a painful
1992-93 campaign that included a 3-16 record in the Big East and
an 0-2 record in what had become an abbreviated Big Five series.
No one in Philly was calling for Massimino's return, but neither
was William Penn's statue atop city hall in jeopardy of being
replaced by one of Lappas.

But Lappas worked tirelessly at both recruiting and
fence-mending, schmoozing and cajoling and worming Villanova's
way back into the good graces of Philadelphia. He showed up at
all the clinics, did all the luncheons, said all the right
things about the Big Five rivalry, making sure that, as he puts
it, "the distance between our campus and City Line Avenue [the
border for the city of Philadelphia] would be the three miles it
is instead of the three hundred miles it had become."

It wasn't easy. Villanova had always been the outsider at home,
a suburban school on the ritzy Main Line. Lappas's pursuit of
Alvin Williams, a local point guard from Germantown Academy,
demonstrates just how difficult his task was. When Lappas was on
the Villanova bench for the national championship game against
Georgetown, the 10-year-old Williams was at home in Philadelphia
rooting fervently for the Hoyas. "I had no idea Villanova was
even in Philly," says Williams, "and it wouldn't have mattered
if I did." But Lappas was resolute. "Every time I turned around
at summer league games, he was there," says Williams--and in
November 1992, Williams became the first Philadelphia player
since 1973 to accept a scholarship to Villanova. Now he's the
Wildcats' starting point guard, averaging 10.9 points and 5.6
assists through Sunday.

Lappas had a tougher time later that season persuading another
Philadelphian, 6'11" Jason Lawson, to stay home. Lappas's
recruiting pitch emphasized how well Lawson would team up inside
with Rasheed Wallace, the No. 1 Philly schoolboy plum who had
verbally committed to the Wildcats. But just as Lawson was ready
to say yes, Wallace said no, opting instead to sign a letter of
intent with North Carolina. That made Lawson rethink his
decision. Only some frantic salesmanship by Lappas, particularly
after one I'm-going-to-Virginia phone call from Lawson at one in
the morning, kept him at home.

Still, Villanova wouldn't be anywhere without its out-of-town
seniors, Kittles and Eberz. The latter is one of the country's
best shooters, a player who, as Temple coach John Chaney puts
it, "just finds some vast land and waits for someone to find
him." His .415 shooting from three-point range frees up Kittles
and discourages double-teaming down low on the Wildcats'
musclemen, Lawson and power forward Chuck Kornegay.

Kittles, meanwhile, has turned into a classic all-purpose guard,
a long-distance shooter and slasher on offense, a tenacious
man-to-man specialist and all-court roamer in Lappas's
run-and-jump press on defense. An 84-inch wingspan and a frame
with just 3% body fat make Kittles one of the longest and most
imposing 6'5" players in the country. Since he and fellow Big
East star Ray Allen of Connecticut, could be among the top five
picks in the 1996 NBA draft, these inevitable comparisons might
as well be made: While Allen's classic jump shot and smooth,
economical moves suggest Michael Jordan, Kittles's rougher
pounce-and-glide style evokes Scottie Pippen. (There--does that
put enough pressure on them?)

Off the court, Kittles gradually found himself drawn to the
activities at the Catholic church on campus, St. Thomas of
Villanova, where he now serves as a eucharistic minister during
Sunday services once a month. "There was always a religious
feeling around my house," says Kittles, a former altar boy, "and
I guess I was just drawn to the church." (At his homecoming game
in New Orleans, the most prominent Kittles fan was his aunt,
Carmen, a nun, who made her way along the Wildcat bench shaking
hands before the game.)

Kittles felt pressure to leave Villanova after last season when
he admits to having been "consumed" by thoughts of declaring for
the NBA draft. But after much soul-searching he realized that he
wanted to get his degree in management, that he enjoyed being
around his teammates and that the Wildcats had unfinished
business, having flamed out of last year's NCAA tournament with
an 89-81 first-round loss to Old Dominion in triple overtime.

Could the same thing happen to Villanova this year? Absolutely,
because the Wildcats do have some weak spots. Though Kittles has
become more vocal this year, he and Eberz, the obvious leaders,
are by nature quiet types, and Williams, the point guard, admits
that he's not always sure when to take charge. And now both
Lawson and Kornegay are playing while wearing invisible
handcuffs as the result of a melee late in the first half of a
70-63 win over Bradley on Nov. 29. Under the NCAA's stringent
new rules designed to curb fighting, if either player becomes
involved in another fracas, he will be suspended for the rest of
the season. Then, too, Kittles has not yet played like the Big
East Player of the Year he was a season ago, particularly from
the perimeter--he is shooting only 42%, considerably below last
season's 52%. Still, whenever Villanova has needed something
extra, Kittles has supplied it: 13 rebounds in a 77-65 win over
Santa Clara in Maui; 28 points, 10 rebounds and four steals in
an 83-68 win over St. John's; an acrobatic catch and
buzzer-beating layup against Miami; 30 points and several clutch
shots in his return-of-the-native game in New Orleans. If
Villanova is to make it far into the postseason, everyone knows
the minister will have to be out front, sending a message to the
masses.

At the beginning of last season Villanova invited back its
championship team for a 10-year reunion that was both a
celebration of the past and a call to the future. Massimino
opted not to attend, but all of the other 1985 heroes were
there, along with most of the key players on this year's team.
"This is a different generation of players, so I don't dwell on
the past," says Lappas. "But the subject does come up from time
to time. I think it's important they realize that there is a
foundation here for winning it all." Says Eberz, "We didn't
follow that '85 team, but we all know this is a place where
magic happened once. And it can happen again."

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Among Kittles's multiple talents is an ability to burst to the fore on the break. [Kerry Kittles and others] COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON Massimino rode high in '85. Now his protege, Lappas, is getting his teeth into trying to attain the same goal. [Rollie Massimino and others] COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above--Steve Lappas and others] COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Lawson must play with force--while showing restraint. [Jason Lawson and opponent]

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