For Villanova this week, as the reality of the Wildcats' early exit from the NCAA tournament settles in, the magic of 1985 and the possibility of a repeat performance drifts one year further into the rearview mirror.
As long as that banner is in the rafters, however, the dream remains alive that Villanova will not merely play with the big boys, but could once again be the last boy standing at the end of the tournament. It's a nice thought, and certainly possible, but the philosophy of team-oriented, patient program-building that has developed under Jay Wright, while admirable in every other way, is not the likeliest path to the next championship.
Under all the gauze and emotion that is wrapped around the storied 1985 upset of Georgetown, it's worth remembering that Villanova had two future first-round NBA draft picks on the floor in Ed Pinckney and Harold Pressley and neither of them was a guard. Georgetown was the better team and the win was still a wonderful underdog tale, but the Wildcats probably wouldn't have been able to claw past Dayton, Michigan, Maryland, North Carolina and Memphis State to reach the title game without that level of talent on the team.
Don't start jumping up and down. Villanova still gets talented players, very talented players. Wright and his staff coach them extremely well and they play a beautifully cohesive game on both ends of the floor, albeit one that does require a great reliance on guard play and outside shooting.
When it works, as it did for nearly the entire regular season, it works very well. This Villanova team won 33 games, the Big East tournament and earned a No. 1 seed without a true star on the roster. That made the Wildcats difficult to defend, both because they share the ball so selflessly, always looking for the better shot, and because there was not one player upon whom an opponent could devote his attention.
When it does not work, however, as it didn't on a dreadful shooting night against North Carolina State, there is no horse to ride. At the end against the Wolfpack, as Villanova looked for its best option, it was completely natural, trailing by two points with 15 seconds to play, for Dylan Ennis to take a three-point attempt after a fake to the inside left him wide open. In the Wildcats' system, it didn't matter that Ennis wasn't having a great night or was 0 for 5 in his previous three-point attempts. He got the best shot, so he took the shot.
Other programs approach things differently, and that doesn't mean "better," but the schools that are consistently taking part in the national championship game recruit and land the five-star players who make for an undemocratic roster. The coaches are willing to live with the consequences that come along with just-stopping-by mercenaries, and they must continue to feed the recruiting beast to survive. That philosophy might not fly at Villanova, particularly since we know that some of the schools that stay in front cut a few corners to do so.
Nevertheless, since 1985, only one team has won a national championship without a first-round NBA draft pick on its roster. That was Indiana in 1987, and guard Steve Alford was on the cusp of the distinction. Usually, there are multiple first-round picks on the roster of the recent winners.
Under Wright since the 2001-02 season, there have been two first-round selections - Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry, both in 2006. Lowry came out as a sophomore, the only Wildcats player to enter the draft early since Michael Bradley and Tim Thomas did so under previous coach Steve Lappas. (Both were first-round picks, as was Kerry Kittles, during Lappas' nine-year tenure.) That 2006 team was arguably Wright's strongest, advancing to the Elite 8 before running into an eventual national champion Florida team that had Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Al Horford.
The same schools get the top players over and over and keep showing up in the championship game. Go figure. Just eight teams - Connecticut, Kentucky, Michigan, Kansas, Duke, Florida, North Carolina and Syracuse - have claimed 35 of the 58 title-game spots since 1985, and there were only two years in which the championship game didn't contain at least one of them (UCLA-Arkansas, 1995; Maryland-Indiana, 2002).
Breaking into that hegemony at the top of college basketball is a difficult deal, particularly for a smallish, private school with average on-campus facilities and a recruiting budget that is far from unlimited. (Although Wright did make a coup by landing point guard Jalen Brunson, an incoming freshman who isn't expected to last four years, but is expected to raise the bar significantly before he departs.)
Villanova will continue to fight the fight in the same manner, for the most part. Honesty, whether chosen or forced, sometimes has to be its own reward. Wright will coach the five fingers into a fist and the Wildcats will continue to be a difficult out. They get good players who stick around and make that happen, always remembering to point to the magic of 1985 and the infinite possibilities of the game.
Don't overlook, however, that they are also pointing up at two guys who were 6-foot-7 and 6-9, and had their names called early on draft night. That was important, too.
First and Foremost
Here are the NCAA men's basketball national champion teams since 1985 and the first-round NBA picks on their rosters:
1986 Louisville: Billy Thompson, Pervis Ellison ('89), Kenny Payne ('89)
1987 Indiana: None*
1988 Kansas: Danny Manning
1989 Michigan: Glen Rice, Rumeal Robinson ('90), Loy Vaught ('90), Terry Mills ('90)
1990 UNLV: Larry Johnson ('91), Stacey Augmon ('91), Greg Anthony ('91)
1991 Duke: Christian Laettner ('92), Bobby Hurley ('92), Grant Hill ('92)
1992 Duke: Christian Laettner ('92), Bobby Hurley ('92), Grant Hill ('92), Cherokee Parks ('95)
1993 North Carolina: George Lynch, Eric Montross ('94)
1994 Arkansas: Corliss Williamson ('95)
1995 UCLA: Ed O'Bannon, George Zidek
1996 Kentucky: Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty
1997 Arizona: Mike Bibby ('98), Michael Dickerson ('98), Jason Terry ('99)
1998 Kentucky: Nazr Mohammed, Scott Padgett ('99), Jamaal Magliore ('00)
1999 UConn: Rip Hamilton
2000 Michigan State: Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Jason Richadson ('01)
2001 Duke: Shane Battier, Jason Williams ('02), Mike Dunleavy Jr. ('02)
2002 Maryland: Chris Wilcox, Juan Dixon
2003 Syracuse: Carmelo Anthony, Hakim Warrick ('05)
2004 UConn: Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva ('05), Hilton Armstrong ('06), Marcus Williams ('06), Josh Boone ('06)
2005 North Carolina: Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants
2006 Florida: Joakim Noah ('07), Corey Brewer ('07), Al Horford ('07)
2007 Florida: Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Al Horford, Maurice Speights ('08)
2009 North Carolina: Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Ed Davis ('10), Tyler Zeller ('12)
2010 Duke: Nolan Smith ('11), Miles Plumlee ('12)
2011 UConn: Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb ('12), Shabazz Napier ('14)
2012 Kentucky: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague
2013 Louisville: Gorgui Dieng**
2014 UConn: Shabazz Napier
*Indiana did have three future second-round NBA picks on the 1986-87 roster: Steve Alford, Dean Garrett ('88), Keith Smart ('88). It was a 23-team draft. Alford, taken 26th, would have been a first-round pick if drafted today.
**Montrezl Harrell of Louisville is projected as a first-round pick in the 2015 NBA draft