'Cats come full circle from 2005 loss
PHILADELPHIA -- Night turned to near dawn and still Ed Pinckney sat in a hotel room with Allan Ray's father and grandfather, watching and re-watching the game film.
"We must have sat there until about 4 a.m.," Pinckney said. "We'd get to that part of the game and his grandfather would say, 'No wait. Rewind. How did this happen?'"
Right question, wrong subject.
Four years ago Villanova and North Carolina tangoed in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. In Villanova circles it is remembered for a call by Tom O'Neill, a tweet in the waning seconds that everyone including Tar Heels defender Melvin Scott figured was going to be a foul. Instead O'Neill signaled travel, negating Ray's made basket, negating a free throw attempt that might have forced overtime, negating a shot at an epic upset.
How did this happen?
As the dust has cleared and the Wildcats have eased -- if not altogether erased -- O'Neill's call with a trip to the Final Four and a rematch with North Carolina, the question has to be asked again:
How did this happen?
Not the call, but this current team, a team with no evident NBA prospects on its roster, dining at the Final Four feast.
The answer is in that 2005 game tape.
"Carolina had a bunch of pros and nobody knew who we were," said Kyle Lowry, a freshman on that '05 team. "We weren't a national team or anything like that, so no one gave us a chance. But in that game, we really showed our resiliency. We weren't going to back down from the fight and that's the kind of team we decided to be. That's the kind of program Villanova is now."
Sports teams always talk about developing an identity and passing it down, but the truth is players change and things change. Gritty players give way to finesse players, what was once difficult becomes easy and a program's personality morphs based on the names on its roster.
But Villanova has established a predictable persona. You can count on the Yankees to be businesslike, the Cowboys to be brash and Villanova to be tough. Theirs is a trait passed down like a treasured family heirloom from generation to generation.
Asked to characterize his team's attitude, Scottie Reynolds said, "No excuses."
Carolina had a bunch of pros and nobody knew who we were. We weren't a national team or anything like that, so no one gave us a chance. But in that game, we really showed our resiliency. We weren't going to back down from the fight and that's the kind of team we decided to be. That's the kind of program Villanova is now.
Reached by phone as he was sitting in his beachfront apartment on the Adriatic Sea in Italy, Mike Nardi explained Villanova this way, "No matter what, that's what this program is about. Guys are sick, injured, you have homework to do, we don't care. You take care of business."
Senior co-captain Dante Cunningham described it, "It doesn't matter what the calls are, what happens in the game, we just play."
From his Houston hotel room, Lowry, now with the Rockets, said, "We don't back down from a fight, doesn't matter what the odds are."
Shane Clark, another current senior shrugged his shoulders, "Everybody is going to have bumps along the way. You can't worry about it."
In Minnesota preparing for a game against the Dallas Mavericks, Randy Foye described it simply, "We don't quit."
And it was born in 2005.
I was a beat writer for Villanova that year and remember vividly meeting with Jay Wright for our annual preseason interview. He knew what was coming. After two years, one great recruiting class, two NIT berths and probation to show for it, his Armani-clad derriere was on the hot seat.
To emphasize the point: Two games into the season, the Wildcats trailed Temple 24-23 at halftime of a Big 5 game at the Palestra. A fan walked up to me at my courtside seat and said, "It starts with you. You need to get this pretty boy fired. He's in over his head."
Villanova went on to lose that game to Temple, 53-52, and start a tepid 5-5 in the Big East.
And then the Wildcats won their final seven games of the regular season and narrowly lost to West Virginia in the Big East tournament semifinals to earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Wright was a hero.
But early into the second-round game against Florida, Curtis Sumpter crumbled to the floor. Sumpter averaged 15.3 points and 7.2 boards, his career arcing toward the NBA, and already had eight points in just 10 minutes.
The diagnosis was immediate: a torn ACL. He was done.
"We were building a power team, not this little four-guard team," Wright said. "And then, bam! Curt goes down and we changed everything."
Thanks to Jason Fraser's channeling Willis Reed to finish with 21 points and 15 rebounds on two balky knees, the Wildcats dispatched of Florida 76-65 to roll to the Sweet 16 showdown with North Carolina in Syracuse.
Most people figured good enough.
After all, Lowry wasn't exaggerating. That Tar Heels team sent four first-round picks to the NBA that June. Without Sumpter the Wildcats were basically six deep, relying on Fraser and little-used Marcus Austin off the bench.
"I vividly remember Jay saying to Mike Nardi and Kyle, the two smallest guys on the team, 'if you get switched off on any big guys, you better not get posted up,'" said Pinckney, then an assistant on the Villanova bench and now with the Timberwolves. "They took that to heart."
From the opening tip, Villanova went at Carolina. Foye drained 11 points in the opening 4:30, delivering the message: Game on.
"One thing I've learned, players look at games completely different," said Brett Gunning, then the associate head coach at Villanova and now on the Rockets staff. "Fans are thinking, 'No chance.' As coaches we're thinking, 'Oh my God,' but players are just thinking, 'Let's play.' Do you think Allan Ray was scared? Or Kyle or Randy? No way. They don't see pressure. They see an opportunity."
Instead Ray was whistled for the travel, Rashad McCants hit one free throw and Lowry's 3-pointer was too little, too late. Final score 67-66.
"It wasn't a moral victory," Wright said. "We thought we could win, but there was something about everything that we overcame I felt like we had something starting. We didn't just hang with Carolina. We could have beaten them."
It is one thing for that attitude to permeate the team the following year, when Foye, Ray, Fraser and Sumpter were seniors.
It is another for a program a full class removed to continue with the same attitude.
But Cunningham, Clark and Dwayne Anderson were like kids sitting at the knees of wily veterans when they got to Villanova.
They watched players who would go on to NBA paychecks trying to win Attitude Club -- where points are awarded for taking charges, diving for loose balls and making other hustle plays -- and not think it was the least bit hokey.
They bought in and when Foye, Ray, Fraser and Sumpter graduated and Lowry bolted early for the NBA, the next class passed it on like some attitudinal game of whisper down the lane.
"Coach always would say, 'That's the way Randy did it,' or 'This is how Kyle did it,' and of course it gets old hearing it," Reynolds said. "But at the same time, they earned it. They made us reach to be what they were. They set the bar for everything that we wanted to be and how we wanted to play."
Thanks to a six-hour time difference, Nardi sat up until 4 a.m. watching the Villanova-Pitt game. Playing against the Clippers that night, Lowry checked in with Gunning, who was getting scores texted to his phone, for an update at every timeout.
When the chaos had cleared after Reynolds' One Shining Moment dropped through the cylinder, the messages started flying.
From Boston to Houston, Boston to Minneapolis, Boston to Italy, the current Wildcats sent text messages and IMs to the Wildcats who preceded them.
"I got a message from Scottie," Foye said. "It just said, 'You started this.'"
How did this happen?
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.