PITTSBURGH - As long as the NCAA continues to hold a basketball tournament at the end of the season - and it seems likely that will continue for a while - the loop of historical highlights will always include the final moments of both the 1983 and 1985 championship games.
Lorenzo Charles of North Carolina State will forever rise up in front of Akeem Olajuwon of Houston to gather in Dereck Whittenburg's desperation air ball and drop it through the net. Jim Valvano will run endlessly around the court, arms outstretched, wondering what he is supposed to do next. The Wolfpack pull off the upset and become NCAA champions.
Harold Jensen will successfully in-bound the ball to Dwayne McClain, lying prone on the court after a tangle with Georgetown's David Wingate as the final seconds tick away. Rollie Massimino begins to hug everyone wearing blue in Rupp Arena. The Wildcats have toppled the mighty Hoyas to win the title.
Those games didn't change college basketball, but they did help define the massive popularity of the tournament. If anything can happen, if any upset is possible, then it's best not to miss a game. They weren't bad moments for the two programs, either.
Villanova and N.C. State will match up Saturday night in the third round of the NCAA tournament for the right to advance to the Sweet 16 next week. The tournament is full of odd coincidences, so it's not much of one that the Wildcats, in the 30th anniversary of their shining moment, find themselves going up against a team whose vault contains the same sort of cobwebbed memory from the same era.
"Yeah, we've definitely seen both of the clips, where the N.C. State guy air-balled it and the other guy put it in," Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono said. "But then the video that always sticks out is Villanova, where he's on the ground. I forget who he is, but the last two seconds, he's holding the ball. It's pretty bizarre how the game ended like that."
He doesn't know who that was? Time out, please. Full timeout.
During this anniversary season, Villanova has made references to the championship even more of a point of emphasis than usual. The team opened play this season with an exhibition against NAIA Northwood University, coached by Massimino. Almost all of the players from the 1985 team returned. It was a walking, talking history lesson, the same one that Jay Wright imparts every season.
At least Arcidiacono is ahead of JayVaughn Pinkston, who has managed to miss the final page of the 1985 storybook even though the game is replayed endlessly on a monitor in the lobby of the Davis Center, where the team practices.
"I haven't seen ours yet," Pinkston said.
"It's playing all day," Arcidiacono said.
"To be honest, I never saw it," Pinkston said. "I never really paid any attention."
"All right," Arcidiacono said.
Wright was a little surprised, or pretended to be, when told some of his players were fuzzy on the details of the 1985 game.
"What parts of that? Did they know we won?" Wright said.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried knows about both the games. He has Whittenburg, the shooter of the most famous air ball in NCAA history, on his staff to remind the players that anything can happen, and he remembers just as vividly watching Villanova play its perfect game against Georgetown.
"I was like everybody as the game got going and they couldn't hardly miss a shot. You know, you're excited watching those guys play. That was fun," Gottfried said. "For our program . . . I think it's important for our players to appreciate the history and the tradition of what's gone on there. Our school has won it. We've stood on the top box. It's important for your players to know what is possible. And hopefully, it gives our guys some confidence as well."
Neither of the famous games will help Saturday night, though. It's a different era, a different game. The three-point line and the shot clock changed everything. There's a good chance this meeting will be decided by shooting percentages from behind the line. Both teams are capable of good ones. N.C. State seems a little more capable of a bad one.
Only one will come out of the game still hoping for another magical run to hang next to the one already on the wall. (The Wolfpack also won a championship in 1974, but as a powerhouse, not a surprise.) Wright would be happy to have his own story to tell, even though he can still get some mileage out of the other one.
"I realized that I have to stop referring to that game and how we played because they don't see it. They don't know," Wright said. "They know these guys now as almost 50-year-old guys that are around all the time and revered on campus, but they don't know a lot about the game. I've told them about the history of that time and what Georgetown was then and what a big upset it was . . . but I don't use it as a reference to how we play."
Makes sense, but, man, 1985. Villanova. Georgetown. McClain. Rollie.
"I'm still disappointed in them," Wright said, and then he smiled.