Today in Philly Sports History: Nova Wins Championship, 1985

Today in Philly Sports History: Nova Wins Championship, 1985

Fun as it was to root for underdog stories like Cornell, Northern Iowa and St. Mary's (well...maybe not St. Mary's) in this year's NCAA tournament, few among us believed that they had what it took to make it all the way to the finals, and during the Sweet Sixteen, we were fairly well vindicated. Because this happens basically every year--a low-seeded team wins the first couple rounds, they start playing the "nobody believes in us" card, and a handful of prognosticators talk themselves into believing that they actually have a shot at the title. Then they play one good team too many, and the dream is over. It's the same story every time.

Except on April 1st, 1985. Villanova had been an eighth-seed for the '85 tournament, with 10 losses and just a 9-7 overall conference record, inspiring confidence in few that they could make a Final Four run. But they won their first round match against Dayton, and then upset #1-seeded Michigan, and started to build a little forward momentum. Maryland fell next, followed by North Carolina, and then in their Final Four matchup, down went Memphis State. Suddenly, the Wildcats found themselves head to head with the returning champion Georgetown Hoyas, led by Naismith Player of the Year Patirck Ewing, with a chance to win it all.

Naturally, few imagined the Cats would have a chance against the dominant defense of Georgetown, especially after they blew out the high-powered St. John's in their Final Four match and were starting to inspire talk of an NCAA dynasty. But Villanova's patience on offense--aided by the absence of a 24-second shot clock, the last such tourney to be played that way--helped them control the game's pace, and allowed them to dismantle the Hoyas defense to the tune of an astounding (and NCAA-record) 79% field goal percentage. Led by center Ed Pinckney's 16 points and six rebounds, the Cats held strong, and pulled off the 66-64 stunner to become the lowest-seeded NCAA team to ever win the national title--a record that remains to this day.

Pinckney was named tournament MVP, and would end up getting taken with the tenth pick in the '85 draft by the Phoenix Suns. Five other players from that Nova team--Dwayne McClain, Gary McLain, Harold Pressley, Chuck Everson and Harold Jensen--would also end up getting drafted, but only Pinckney survived into the 90s, enjoying a journeyman-ish career that included a stop with the Sixers in '95-'96. "We are remembered as the ultimate underdog," said Pinckney about the Wildcats' '85 Cinderella run. "Everyone has their defining moment in sports, and that was ours."

Jay Wright amazed by Joel Embiid's improvements since Kansas

Jay Wright amazed by Joel Embiid's improvements since Kansas

Jay Wright remembers facing Joel Embiid's Kansas team, and he's shocked by the improvements Embiid made while sitting out the last two years.

"Could you imagine not playing for two years and getting better?" Wright said Friday on TCN's Breakfast on Broad. "We played against him in college and he was not close — he was good, but not close to the player that he was at the start of this year. 

"What [the Sixers'] staff did while he was out is incredible. I don't know what other pro athlete has done that or could do that — not play and improve drastically.

"He's a unique force. We haven't seen a guy that's got this will defensively and ability defensively and then the skill level and mobility offensively. I've heard some people compare him to (Hakeem) Olajuwon. He's far more mobile than Olajuwon. Olajuwon, offensively, had his set of skills, which [Embiid] will develop. But the mobility he's got far exceeds Olajuwon. He's exciting. ... It's nice to feel this vibe with the Sixers right now."

Wright was also asked if he, as a coach, would want a player on a minutes restriction participating in the All-Star Game.

"Yeah, I would," he said. "I think that it's such an accomplishment for Joel Embiid. It would build his confidence so much to be on the floor with those guys and realize he's earned this. And to have that a part of his psyche going into the next season — 'OK, I've already been separated during the regular season with those guys, I belong with those guys.' So next year I'm thinking, 'I wanna beat these guys, I wanna be better than these guys.' 

"I think it'll be great for him. I think it's awesome ... what Brett Brown and his staff have done with this guy."

As lucky as good?
With a national championship and another No. 1 ranking this season, it would be understandable if Wright was feeling himself right about now. 'Nova is 17-1 and back atop the AP poll after a brief stint at No. 3.

National Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart is leading the way for the Wildcats with 18.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. A lot of Villanova's success this season is owed to Hart's decision to return for his senior year, so Wright has no issue admitting there's been some luck involved in the Wildcats' recent success.

"It's a tremendous advantage and it's really been probably the most important factor in our success the last three, four years," Wright said of 'Nova's senior leadership Friday on TCN's Breakfast on Broad.

"A lot of it is, on Villanova's side, luck. Josh Hart could have left last year. He just looked at it and kind of said, 'I could be maybe a late first-round, early [second-round pick]. I'd rather come back and get my degree.' 

"Having people that make that choice, you're lucky. If we lose him last year, we're a lot younger team this year. Daniel Ochefu the year before was faced with that decision. He stayed. 

"So when you get those guys that decide they're gonna stay, you catch a break because they're invaluable, a senior of that level. Daniel's playing in the NBA now. So we had a guy for a year that was an NBA player. And we have that with Josh this year. Kris (Jenkins) is developing into one, Darryl (Reynolds) has a chance."

Villanova, which destroyed Seton Hall 76-46 on Monday, hosts Providence Saturday at noon.

Gregg Popovich on Sixers: 'One of my joys in life to watch them win'

Gregg Popovich on Sixers: 'One of my joys in life to watch them win'

When Brett Brown agreed to become the Sixers' head coach, he knew he was embarking upon a unique challenge with a franchise that planned to be as methodical as possible in its rebuild. 

One of the results was a career record for Brown of 47-199 entering this season, a record so lopsidedly poor that Brown may never break the .500 mark.

But the Sixers are finally showing real progress, with a star in Joel Embiid and young players who are turning out to be useful pieces. The Sixers have won seven of their last nine, and there's no one happier to see that than Brown's former boss and mentor, Gregg Popovich.

"It's one of my joys in life to watch them win basketball games because if there's any team that deserves it, it's those guys," Popovich told ESPN.

Brown and the Sixers aren't out of the woods yet. At 14-26, they're still closer to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, but the entire vibe around the team has changed. 

"They've had it really tough for all the obvious reasons," said Popovich, who has been the Spurs' head coach since 1996 and worked with Brown from 2002-13.

"There's nobody in our business that is more positive, and more day-to-day upbeat and ready to teach and love than Brett Brown. He's a unique, unique guy."