SAN ANTONIO, Texas — At this stage of the college basketball season, we tend to search for reasons why one shot falls while another doesn’t. Why one loose ball bounces into one team’s hands while the next ball bounces into the stands. It feels like divine intervention.
For instance, Loyola of Chicago had Sister Jean, the 98-year-old nun who prayed them into the second Final Four in school history. Villanova has associate athletic director Father Rob, a priest with a law degree; that covers a lot of bases.
But in the past few weeks, the Wildcats seem to have had something extra on their side. Something mystical. Spiritual.
It was evident when they tied the Final Four record Saturday night by hitting 13 three-pointers … by halftime. They made four in a row in a span of 2 minutes, 38 seconds. They made six of eight in a 5:32 span. An inconsistent defensive team, they surrendered only five points to Kansas in the first eight minutes of the national semifinal, and Kansas averaged more than 81 points per game, among the top 10 percent in the country.
By halftime, a spot in the final on Monday might against Michigan was virtually assured. Villanova was playing the perfect game. Again.
It was eerie.
Maybe it was the ghost of Rollie Massimino. Maybe he’s watching over them.
“The spirit of Villanova will always live on,” said Mike Nardi, Villanova’s director of basketball operations, who played for Jay Wright from 2003-07 and has coached for him the past three seasons. “Coach ‘Mass’ is one of the staples of Villanova basketball. His energy and his spirit will always live here at Villanova. Whether or not he had something to do with yesterday’s performance, I don’t know.”
“If I had to guess? I would say yes. He lived and died with Villanova basketball. I know he’s looking down.”
It’s not all Rollie, of course. Maybe it’s not Rollie at all.
Villanova was already a pretty good team in late February. The Wildcats were 24-3 and ranked No. 3 in the country. But after a loss at Creighton on Feb. 24, the Wildcats changed. They stressed defense and rebounding. They became unstoppable. They have won 10 in a row and are, without question, the best team in the country.
They were good in 2016, too, when they won their first title since Massimino’s in 1985, but they’re better now. They have won their five NCAA tournament games by double digits, something done only four times before. The first three times, the teams added a sixth double-digit win and a national championship — Michigan State in 2000, Duke in 2001 and North Carolina in 2009. UNC came up short in 2016, thanks, of course, to Villanova.
Rollie was there in 2016, too. It was his place to be there.
A fiery, little elf, sometimes jolly, sometimes fierce, Massimino had built a strong program at Villanova in the early 1980s but he got famous in ’85 when he led Villanova to its first national championship, as a No. 8 seed. That remains the lowest seed to ever win the NCAA tournament. On the way, Massimino beat No. 1 seed Michigan and No. 2 seed North Carolina, and then he coached The Perfect Game and beat Georgetown. The Hoyas were the defending champions and the top overall seed. They featured future Hall of Fame coach John Thompson and Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing.
The victory made Villanova a destination school. It was something of a miracle.
This edition of Wildcats didn’t need a miracle, exactly, but Wright certainly didn’t expect to be back in the big game so soon.
“You can’t even say it’s a dream come true, because you don’t even dream about it,” Wright said Saturday. “You don’t dream about getting here two out of three years.
“And not having Coach Mass this year … I personally miss him a great deal.”
Wright was Massimino’s assistant at Villanova from 1987-92, then at UNLV from 1992-94, so he saw Rollie both enchanting and enraged. Massimino could be a scoundrel, and a taskmaster, and an opportunist, but, like the best of them, he had the good sense to smile when the lights were on. By the time Massimino exited retirement to coach Keiser University, an NAIA school in West Palm Beach, Fla., he was 72, and he had mellowed. When he visited Villanova, Wright’s players knew only jolly Rollie.
“I’d always say, ‘You didn’t play for him. He was not always that sweet when you played for him,’ ” said Wright, then added: “I love the fact that’s the how these guys know him.”
It’s easy for the current to team view Massimino as their patron saint.
He was by their side in 2016. He’d lived the game’s biggest moments. He knew how tense the team would be before the game, and he knew Wright, a clothes horse of the first degree, had a fixation with fashion and fastidiousness. Before the game, Massimino broke the tension.
“We’re in the championship game,” recalled forward Mikal Bridges, who was a freshman. “It’s a lot of pressure. He looks at Coach [Wright] and tells him to fix this little pocket.”
Wright looked down and, sure enough, the flap that covers his suit coat pocket was tucked into the pocket. He fixed it, a bit abashed that Massimino, whose rumpled suits fit like gunny sacks, was able to correct his dress, but happy that Rollie relaxed his team. Villanova beat Carolina at the buzzer. They never played tense.
“Everybody is, you know, nervous. Everybody’s real anxious for this game,” Bridges said. “And you just see him point at Coach: It’s like, “You gotta coach this team, but fix this first.’
“That was probably the best moment.”
The best until — maybe — Saturday night.