Villanova will be wearing the white hats

(Published in Daily News, April 1, 1985)

 

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Yea, though they walk through the valley of death, the Villanova Wildcats are going to kick up their heels. Let the world beyond the NCAA championship game know that they have already lit a cigar for their beloved trainer, Jake Nevin, and gone swimming in the best spaghetti sauce Rollie Massimino could find hereabouts. Now, if someone will just turn down the music, they will conduct a voice vote on which one of the "Miami Vice" cops has influenced Dwayne McClain's wardrobe more, Crockett or Tubbs.

No matter how the vote goes, McClain is a vision - double-breasted sport coat with big, bold stripes, pushed-up sleeves and a T-shirt underneath, although America's taste-makers probably wouldn't call it a T-shirt. Match the high-stepping Wildcat forward against any clotheshorse from Georgetown and it would be no contest. The Hoyas hail from a button-down town, Washington, D.C., and in an unwitting bid to revolutionize fashion, the buttons run all the way from their collars to their lips.

They don't talk much and they smile less. They may not even want to be recognized, or why would Patrick Ewing have shielded his face like Greta Garbo the other day when a newspaper photographer zeroed in on him? The sight was enough to make you think that if coach John Thompson had his way, the Hoyas would be sequestered on a mountain top in Nepal each basketball season and simply parachute in for their games.

Alas, it is not a perfect world. For example, Georgetown is favored to mash Villanova by a million points tonight at Rupp Arena and ride off into the moonset with its second straight national title. Thompson doesn't like that at all. He is a self-described pessimist - others may employ less flattering descriptions - and he may fret about grabbing hold of the Hoyas' hearts and minds when they have been buttered up by the prognosticators.

It is a small worry when you consider that he has a team that could wade through the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs, but a worry nonetheless. "That's why I say Villanova is the favorite," Thompson says. So much for his sense of humor.

He can't charm anybody and he can't con anybody. All he can do is beat you into submission, and you in this case applies to the nation at large as well as the bound-for-the-meat-grinder Wildcats. For masochists, that may be delightful. For the rest of us, however, it would be nicer if the executioner sang a more sincerely sunny song. He doesn't appear to know any, though, and neither does anyone in his kitchen cabinet. With Georgetown, your only choices are arsenic (Thompson's poisonality) and old lace (the doily around the neck of academic coordinator Mary Fenlon's lucky game dress).

Is it any wonder, then, that Villanova has become America's team for a night? The Wildcats are an underdog the way Mickey Rooney would be if he wrestled Hulk Hogan, and yet they refuse to look as bleak about it as the team that is supposed to crush them. Somewhere along the way, someone must have told them they are still kids, not apprentice mopes.

"They project tremendous personality and articulation," says Massimino, who isn't so shabby in that department himself. "Where they are, people want to be."

If there was ever a test of the Wildcats' karma, it was over the weekend. For one thing, when they slugged towering Memphis State upside the head, 52-45, they proved they were stuck in a rut that isn't necessarily crowd-pleasing. They again failed to crack 60 points and their opponents again failed to get out of the 40s. "Sometimes we can lull a team to sleep," point guard Gary McLain says. Fine, but the paying customers aren't supposed to doze off as well.

Memphis State's song girls took care of that Saturday, although their voices had a lot less to do with the interest in their halftime show than did their metallic-blue Spandex pants. When their team was beaten, the girls slunk back to Tennessee, too, taking with them their awe-inspiring gluteus maximi and giving admirers of the female form a legitimite reason to resent Villanova's success.

But the Wildcats possess an infectuous good humor and a sense of perspective that makes you believe that they wouldn't mind having those femme fatales back on the premises, either. Failing that, they will do their best to keep you entertained by doing what mighty Georgetown can't. So it was Saturday that Ed Pinckney answered every postgame question that came his way despite a virus that had almost leveled him in the last two minutes of the game. When people say he's no Patrick Ewing, that isn't all bad.

In Harold Pressley, Pinckney has a roommate who complements him perfectly. Asked if "E-Z Ed" had been sick to his stomach the night before the game, the grinning Pressley replied, "I don't know. I never said, 'Ed, turn on the light.' "

And then there was the fashionable McClain walking down an arena hallway before Georgetown's 77-59 mutilation of St. John's was complete and asking Pressley, "I don't care who we play, do you?"

It was a nice, nervy touch. Better yet, McClain didn't seem to care who heard him. Contrast that if you will with the hypersensitivity that Georgetown's Michael Jackson displayed Sunday when a smile-seeking sports columnist from Detroit asked him if he ever gets kidded about his name. "Just by the media," the off-key Jackson said. "My teammates don't do it. They know I'm a different individual." There could have been no better illustration of Rollie Massimino's contention that players reflect their coaches' personalities. "Good, bad or indifferent," Massimino added. So it goes.

And John Thompson knows it. "We do the things other human beings do," he says of himself and his team. "We just do them alone." But it is one thing to be far and away the best college basketball team on the planet - and the Hoyas are indeed that - and it is another to be aloof, suspicious, even rude. The Hoyas are also all of those things.

By Thompson's lights, they should be able to get away with their bad manners because they don't cheat the people who pay to watch them play. "When the mallet comes down," he says, "we're very serious." But seriousness, like anything else taken to extremes, can become an addiction. And you realize how badly Thompson is hooked on it when he doesn't show up for such distractions as being interviewed by Al McGuire on television or receiving the Kodak Coach of the Year award. No wonder Patrick Ewing was invisible when it came time for him to accept the Adolph Rupp award as Player of the Year. Like player, like coach.

Villanova should be so lucky. But you know Georgetown will be there, mean, menacing and marauding. They will be coming for what is rightfully theirs, and there is only one thing the nation that has adopted the Wildcats, however briefly, can say about that.

Dammit.