Echoes of 1985 still ring at Villanova

If you’ve been online in the last 36 hours or so and still haven’t seen Jay Wright’s stoic walk up t
Mitch Buonaguro, former Siena men's basketball head coach and current Fairfield assistant, is shown Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 at the Howard Garfinkel Coaching Clinic in Clifton Park.
Mitch Buonaguro, former Siena men's basketball head coach and current Fairfield assistant, is shown Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 at the Howard Garfinkel Coaching Clinic in Clifton Park.

If you’ve been online in the last 36 hours or so and still haven’t seen Jay Wright’s stoic walk up the sideline, while all manner of bedlam exploded around him, congratulations for living in the sports internet equivalent of a cave.

If you also haven’t seen a Crying Jordan meme, kudos for having found a cave that was carved inside a black hole.

Reaction to Villanova’s astonishing buzzer-beating victory over North Carolina for the men’s basketball national championship on Monday night was widely — and rightfully — dubbed the most fantastic finish ever.

Hell, it catapulted 62-year-old Mitch Buonaguro off his couch.

“I jumped up,” he said with a chuckle on Tuesday afternoon, in a phone interview from his home in Connecticut.

I’ll bet.

One of the beauties of the Wildcats’ 77-74 victory, beyond Kris Jenkins’ ridiculous game-winning shot after Marcus Paige’s ridiculous game-tying shot, was how it became a such a distinctly Villanova moment, a link to another timeless national championship 31 years ago.

There was Rollie Mass­imino, the coach of the 1985 title team, now in failing health, who was shepherded to NRG Stadium in Houston on a private plane to watch the 2016 title game in person.

And in Connecticut, his former lead assistant, Buon­aguro, soaked it all in. Buon­aguro, who helped Siena regain prominence under Fran McCaffery from 2005-10, is an assistant at Fairfield now after bombing as McCaffery’s successor in Loudonville.

The first real job this basketball lifer ever had was assistant coach to Massimino from 1977-85, and he recognized so many similarities between the 1985 championship team and this one that it was uncanny.

The common thread is the 81-year-old Massimino, who was Wright’s boss at Villanova from 1987-92 and at UNLV from 1992-94 before the protegé’s first head coaching job, at Hofstra. Wright has been the boss at Villanova now for 15 seasons.

“It was wonderful. It reminded me of 1985 a lot, to be honest,” Buonaguro said. “The team kind of found their way in the tournament, like we did. Although in 1985, we did not have a great regular season. But we found our way.”

Like the 2016 team, the 1985 Wildcats had to go through North Carolina, which they did in the regional final.

The 1985 team also was the underdog in the championship game, against powerful Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas, coached by John Thompson. OK, the 2016 team came into the title game with a 34-5 record and wasn’t that much of an underdog. But the Wildcats had been largely disappointing in previous NCAA tournaments under Wright, during a time in which the Tar Heels won two of their five national championships.

“It could not happen to a better school, and I was part of it,” Buonaguro said. “Thirty-one years later, there’s still a strong connection.”

Deeply ingrained in that culture is the premium placed on preparation for scenarios in general and opponents specifically.

That’s something that Buonaguro brought to Siena, a concept that McCaffery embraced a long time ago, and a significant component of Wright’s success.

It all stems from Massimino, Buonaguro said.

“My initial years at Villanova, I saw all aspects of a program,” he said. “Fran always respected Rollie and what the program stood for. It was well-rounded; Rollie wasn’t just recruiting players. And Jay Wright learned a lot of the same things. So it’s a testament to Rollie.”

Buonaguro spoke to Massimino by phone last week, but missed him at the Final Four. Buonaguro was in Houston on Thursday, but had to come back on Monday morning because of difficulty finding a flight that fit his schedule.

Massimino wasn’t planning to attend, but at the last minute decided he could make it, once the private plane was offered.

While Buonaguro was in Houston, he reunited with some of the 1985 Wildcats, including Dwayne McClain, Harold Pressley, Chuck Everson, Brian Harrington and former Massimino assistants Steve Lappas and Marty Marbach.

It was McClain who produced the indelible moment of the 66-64 victory in 1985, tripping over the Hoyas’

David Wingate with two seconds left, then recovering to his knees just in time to snatch the inbounds pass from Harold Jensen before Wingate could do anything about it. Then Massimino was engulfed by his assistants.

This time, it was Jenkins, catching a flip pass from Ryan Arcidiacono and nailing the three that sent Wright walking calmly toward his North Carolina counterpart, Roy Williams. Simply cold-blooded.

It wasn’t the first time Buon­aguro had seen that play, 4.7 seconds left, and the Wildcats needing to go the length of the floor for a shot. After Buonaguro was fired by Siena in 2013, Wright invited him down to Philadelphia to observe a Villanova practice, take some notes and offer feedback.

“And they were practicing that play,” he said. “Rollie was big on that, time-and-score situations, and I was, too. The day I was there, I think it was in October [of 2013], they ran that play, that exact play.

“It’s one of these plays you’ll see played over and over on TV. One of the things from our game was when McClain stole the ball. How many times has that been shown?

“That is the torch to this team.”

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