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."

Phillies sign OF Daniel Nava, LHP Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts

Phillies sign OF Daniel Nava, LHP Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts

The Phillies made a couple quiet additions as the winter meetings ended, signing veteran outfielder Daniel Nava and lefty reliever Sean Burnett to minor-league contracts.

Nava, 34 in February, is a left-handed hitter who can play the outfield corners and first base. He came up with the Red Sox and became a fan favorite in Boston in 2010 as a 27-year-old rookie. Some Phillies fans will remember him for hitting a grand slam off Joe Blanton in his first major-league plate appearance.

Nava had a few decent years in Boston, the best of which was 2013, when he had 536 plate appearances and hit .303/.385/.445 with 29 doubles, 12 homers and 66 RBIs. 

Nava's numbers and opportunities have dropped every year since. He was designated for assignment by Boston in 2015, latched on with the Rays, signed the next year with the Angels and was traded late in the season to the Royals.

Over the last two seasons, Nava has hit just .208, albeit with an on-base percentage 99 points higher because of his 30 walks and 10 hit by pitches.

Burnett, 34, has spent five of the last seven seasons in the Nationals' bullpen. He had a 2.85 ERA in 283 appearances from 2009-12 and parlayed that success into a two-year, $7.25 million contract with the Angels. However, he barely pitched in 2013 and 2014 for the Halos because of an elbow tear. He returned to the Nats last season and allowed two runs in 5⅔ innings.

Burnett, perhaps more so than Nava, has a chance to fill a role with the Phillies if he can stay healthy. He's shown he can get outs at the highest level, posting a 2.38 ERA in 2012 with 9.1 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.14 ERA with 8.9 K/9 in 2010. That was a long time ago now, and Burnett's fastball has dipped from averaging 90-91 mph to 88.

According to Sportsnet's Ben Nicholson-Smith, Burnett will receive a $1.25 million salary if he makes the team and can earn another $1.75 million in incentives based on his number of appearances.

Burnett has an opt-out date of March 26, meaning he can become a free agent a week before the regular season begins if it looks to him like he isn't in the Phils' plans.

Nava's chances at cracking the opening-day roster seem longer because the Phillies are expected to make more depth signings between now and the start of camp. They've prioritized finding some offense in the corner outfield and that could come in the form of more minor-league deals, a guaranteed contract or trade. One potential fit I examined last week was Mariners outfielder Seth Smith, a hitter more proven than Nava (see story).

These minor-league deals were commonplace for Phillies general manager Matt Klentak last offseason, when the only free agent he signed to a major-league deal was reliever David Hernandez. 

Last season, three players who were signed to minor-league deals with invites to spring training made the team on opening day: outfielder Cedric Hunter, utilityman Emmanuel Burriss and reliever James Russell.

Others, such as former closers Edward Mujica, Ernesto Frieri and Andrew Bailey, failed to make the team out of camp. Bailey eventually earned a call-up; the other two didn't.

Former Sixer Lou Williams lighting it up with Lakers off the bench

Former Sixer Lou Williams lighting it up with Lakers off the bench

Former Sixers point guard and Meek Mill collaborator Lou Williams is enjoying quite the run off the bench for the Lakers recently.

Over Los Angeles' last four games, Williams has posted totals of 40, 38, 24, and 35 points. 

The six-man is averaging 34.5 points per game over the stretch, and his 137 points are the most off the bench in a four-game span by any player since 1970-71, when stats were first recorded, per Elias Sports Bureau, via ESPN. Williams is now averaging 19.3 points this season, which is 4.4 more than his highest average with the Sixers.

Williams isn’t the only player who used to play for the Sixers that is playing well for the Lakers this year. Nick “Swaggy P” Young, who also comes off the bench, is averaging 13.3 points per game. Just a few weeks ago, Swaggy P stole a pass intended for Lou Williams, and then proceeded to hit a game winner against the Thunder. Swaggy P, however, is currently sidelined with a right calf strain, but is getting closer to a return.

"Lou Will" was also talked about last April during Kobe Bryant’s final NBA game, when he was beefing on Twitter with another former Philadelphia athlete, LeSean McCoy.