A History of Villanova Basketball – 20 years ago – 1995 – 1996
In the past ten years probably the biggest change in Villanova’s program was the move to replace Rollie Massimino with his former assistant coach, Steve Lappas. The Big East Conference went from its founder and first commissioner Dave Gavitt to be replaced by Mike Tranghese, who would start to expand the conference in order to appease its football members. The Big East became a hybrid conference of both basketball and football with its expansion in 1991 to include Miami as a full member and also invite Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech and West Virginia as football members only. In 1995 Rutgers and West Virginia upgraded to full membership and in the same year Notre Dame would join the conference as a non-football member. The conference now had 13 members and split the conference into a Big East 6 and 7. The 45 second shot clock, implemented in the 1985-1986 season, would be reduced to 35 seconds in 1993 and the three point shot was introduced into NCAA games in 1986-87. Villanova would win its first Big East Championship in the 1994-95 season. Fr. Dobbin would become the 31st President of the University (1988) and Gene DeFilippo took over as the A.D. in 1993. Long time athletic trainer Jake Nevin would pass on to a new training table in Heaven and an assistant coach from Drexel was added to the staff in 1987 – Jay Wright.
Let’s look at the biggest change – a change in the leadership of the program by letting Coach Massimino go and hiring Steve Lappas. Coach Alex Severance took Villanova to the Final Four in 1939, Jack Kraft went to the Final Four in 1971, Rollie Massimino, not only the Final Four but gave the University its first NCAA basketball championship in 1985, thus etching Villanova into the record books forever. His fall from grace within the Villanova community came from a number of reasons. First, he wasn’t winning enough anymore. His last 20 win season (a benchmark for all programs) was in 1987-88 by going 24-13 and getting to the Elite Eight before losing to Oklahoma. His next four seasons were: 18-16 in ’89, 18-15 in ’90, 17-15 in ’91 and 14-15 in ’92, his last season. Critics were saying that he was not changing with the times as the 90’s brought in a quicker pace and the 3 point shot revolutionized the game. He made some questionable hirings as assistant coaches, not the best recruiters or X and O guys. His personality changed as after the Championship he saw himself as the center of the universe and his arrogance didn’t win him many new friends. Thus a change and new era for Villanova basketball.
Steve Lappas was no stranger to the Villanova program. He served as an assistant for three years from 1985 to 1988. He then took over the Manhattan program, improving each year and culminating in a 25-9 record in his last season (’91-’92) before returning to the Main Line. A leader is only as good as the generals he surrounds himself with and Lappas hired Paul Hewitt, who arguably became the best recruiter in Villanova history. He also brought along John Leonard and Steve Pinone from Manhattan as his assistants.
The Lappas/Hewitt first “get” was to convince a high school standout from Louisiana to honor his commitment and enroll at Villanova – Kerry Kittles. Kittles, in this writer’s opinion, became the 2nd greatest player ever to don a Villanova uniform and left school as its highest scorer. He was a First Team All-American in his senior year and became the 8th pick of the 1996 NBA Draft. Now Hewitt set his sights in recruiting Philadelphia, a pipeline that ran dry in the Massimino era as he burnt too many bridges. Hewitt would bring in two future pro players – one from Olney, 6-11 Jason Lawson and the other from Germantown Academy – 6-5 Alvin Williams. Add a transfer from Temple in Jonathan Haynes, who was the heart and soul of the team, another transfer from North Carolina State, 6-8 Chuck Kornegay and add a sharp-shooter from Buffalo, 6-7 Eric Eberz and the Cats were ready for another Final Four run. Unfortunately for Lappas it never came inspite of some great talent which would eventually lead to his dismissal after 9 seasons on Lancaster Avenue.
In the 1994 -95 season the Cats would win their first Big East Championship and Kittles was named as the Big East Player of the Year, a first for a Villanova player. He was also recognized as a first-team All-American, becoming the first Villanova player since Howard Porter to do so. The Cats would enter as a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament but fall in 3 overtimes to 14 seed Old Dominion. A season that should have ended in Seattle (site of the Final Four) ended in the Baltimore Arena 1st round games and a 25-7 record.
In 1995 – 1996 the team would lose only one starter (Jonathan Haynes) and Hewitt would add to the collection of talent the following freshmen class: 6-5 Howard Brown (PA), 6-3 John Celestand (NJ), and 7-1 Rafal Bigus (Archbishop Carroll/Poland). With an extra year of maturity surely this would be the year to crash the Final Four party and not as Cinderella as in 1985.
The Preseason Top 25 Teams in 1995-96 were: (1) Kentucky (2) Kansas (3) Villanova (4) UCLA (5) Georgetown (6) UConn (7) Massachusetts (8) Iowa (9) Mississippi St. (10) Utah (11) Wake Forest (12) Louisville (13) Memphis (14) Missouri (15) Maryland (16) Arkansas (17) Michigan (18) Stanford (19) Virginia (20) North Carolina (21) Cincinnati (22) Virginia Tech (23) Indiana (24) Purdue (25) California.
The Cats would play 10 games at the DuPont Pavilion and 5 at the Spectrum in Philly (Temple, UNC, Georgetown, LaSalle and UConn). They would win the Maui Invitational over Thanksgiving beating Wisconsin, Santa Clara and North Carolina. They would get into a fight with Bradley at home resulting in Kornegay and Lawson being suspended for one game. They would start out 7-0 and jump to #2 in the Nation before losing to Temple, 62-56. The Cats would play Carolina a 2nd time and win at the Spectrum, 76-56 before a crowd of 18, 524. This was the largest crowd ever at the Spectrum including pro and college games. We saw freshman Howard Brown limit All-American Allen Iverson to 5 points in the 2nd half as the Cats beat the Hoyas, 79-66. Kerry Kittles would score his 2,000 point and finish the season passing Keith Herron as the All-Time leading scorer in Villanova history. Jason Lawson and Eric Eberz both would score their 1,000th point in this season. The Cats played Hofstra (Jay Wright’s 2nd year) and Delaware (Mike Brey’s 1st year) and win both games. Life was good on the Main Line until an unfortunate event occurred which would break the team’s mojo and destroy their high hopes for the season. On the eve of their nationally televised game with Connecticut at the Spectrum, Kerry Kittles was suspended for 3 games for the illegal use of a phone credit card of a University employee. The Cats had won 10 in-a-row but would go 1-2 during Kittles’ absence. They won their 1st game in the Big East Tournament (Providence) but lose to Georgetown in the next game. They would enter the NCAA Tournament with a 25-6 record (their 2nd back-to-back 25 win season) and as a #3 seed. They would beat Portland, 92-58 in their first game but lose to 6 seed Louisville in the 2nd round, 68-64. The Cats were never the same after the Kittles suspension.
Paul Hewitt would continue to work his magic by signing a future pro in 6-10 Malik Allen (NJ), 6-7 T.J.Caouette from Maine, 6-6 Brian Lynch (NJ) and the #1 High School player in America in 6-9 Tim Thomas (some had Kobe Bryant as their #1), who would become Villanova’s first one-and-done. OK, Eberz and Kittles graduated but with everyone else back in ’96-‘97 plus the #1 player in America, surely the Cats would pack their bags for the final weekend of the collegiate season. However…
6-6 Kerry Kittles SR/G/F/ LA – 30 games – 20.4/7.7rpg
6-7 Eric Eberz SR/SF/NY – 32 games – 13.5/3.8
6-11 Jason Lawson JR/C/PA – 32 games – 12.3/6.8
6-5 Alvin Williams JR/PG/PA – 33 games – 11.0/3.5
6-9 Chuck Kornegay JR/PF/NC – 32 games - 6.3/4.8
6-6 Zeffy Penn JR/F/PA – 33 games – 4.7/3.1
6-5 Howard Brown FR/G/F/PA – 32 games – 3.6/2.0
6-3 John Celestand FR/PG/NJ – 30 games – 3.3/1.2
7-1 Rafal Bigus FR/C/PA/Poland – 28 games – 2.8/2.2
6-8 Jaime Gregg SR/PF/NJ – 14 games – 1.5/1.4
6-3 Kevin Cox – SR walk-on/G/ILL – 13 games - 0.8/0.6
6-1 Brian Noone JR walk-on/G/NY – 8 games – 1.1/0.1
6-1 Nick Fraganis SR walk-on/G/Greece – 6 games – 0.0/0.2
The Big East Standings in 1995 – 1996 (the regular season champ and tournament champ was UConn)
UConn 17-1/32-3 – coach Jim Calhoun (10th yr) (Ray Allen, Doron Sheffer, Travis Knight)
Villanova 14-4/26-7 – coach Steve Lappas (4th yr) ( Kerry Kittles, Jason Lawson, Alvin Williams)
B.C. 10-8/19-11 – coach Jim O’Brien (10th yr) (Danya Abrams, Mickey Crowley, Scoonie Penn)
West Virginia 7-11/12-15 – coach Gale Catlett (18 yrs) (Sheldon Jefferson, Damion Owens)
St. John’s 5-13/11-16 – coach Brian Mahoney (4 yrs) (Felipe Lopez, Zendon Hamilton)
Notre Dame 4-14/9-18 – coach John MacLeod (5 yrs) (Pat Garrity, Ryan Hoover, Doug Gottlieb)
Georgetown 13-5/29-8 – coach John Thompson (24 yrs) (Allen Iverson, Othella Harrington)
Syracuse 12-6/29-9 – coach Jim Boeheim (20 yrs) (John Wallace, J.B. Reafsnyder)
Providence 9-9/18-12 – coach Pete Gillen (2 yrs) (Jason Murdock, Austin Croshere, God Shamgod )
Miami 8-10/15-13 – coach Leonard Hamilton (6 yrs) ( Steven Edwards, Kevin Norris)
Seton Hall 7-11/12-16 – coach George Blaney (2 yrs) (Adrian Griffin, Danny Hurley)
Rutgers 6-12/9-18 – coach Bob Wenzel (7th yr) ( Damion Santiago, Geoff Billet)
Pitt 5-13/10-17 – coach Ralph Willard (3 yrs) ( Jerry McCullough, Andre Alridge, Vonteego Cumming)
In the NCAA Tournament all Big East teams (Georgetown a 2 seed, Villanova, a 3 seed, UConn #1 over-all seed, Boston College, an 11 seed, and Syracuse, a 4 seed) would win their 1st round game. Georgetown would lose in the Elite Eight to UMass, Villanova lost to Louisville in the 2nd round, Boston College lost to Georgia Tech in the 2nd round, UConn was upset by 5 seed Mississippi State in the Sweet 16, Syracuse lost to Kentucky in the Championship game, 76-67. The other two Final Four teams were UMass and Mississippi State. Rick Pitino won his first title as a coach and Kentucky won their 6th title. Tony Delk (Kentucky) was the MVP of the Tournament. UMass (coach John Calipari) would end up vacating their 1st Final Four as Marcus Camby had accepted illegal gifts from agents. The Final Four was played in the Continental Airlines Arena (East Rutherford, NJ) the last time in a basketball/hockey arena before moving to domed stadiums. In the 32 team N.I.T. Tournament, Danny Nee’s Nebraska Cornhuskers would beat Phil Martelli’s St. Joe’s Hawks for the championship. The Big East sent Providence to the NIT where it went 1-1 (losing to St. Joe’s).
1995-1996 1st Team All-Big East: John Wallace (MVP/Syracuse), Danya Abrams (B.C. – 3rd time), Ray Allen (UConn), Allen Iverson (Georgetown), Kerry Kittles (Villanova – 3rd time).
The 2nd Team All-Big East: Doron Sheffer (UConn), Damon Santiago (Rutgers), Adrian Griffin (Seton Hall), Zendon Hamilton (St. John’s) and Jason Lawson (Villanova)
The 3rd Team All-Big East: Jerome Williams (Georgetown), Othella Harrington (Georgetown), Pat Garrity (Notre Dame), Austin Croshere (Providence) and Damian Owens (West Virginia).
The Big Five was reduced to everyone playing just 2 games and, of course, Massimino, rightly or wrongly, was blamed for the demise of the historic City Series games.
The Big Five in ’95-’96:
Temple 2-0/20-13 – coach John Chaney (14th year)
Villanova 1-1/26-7 – coach Steve Lappas (4th year)
St. Joe’s 1-1/19-13 – coach Phil Martelli (2nd year)
Penn 1-1/17-10 – coach Fran Dunphy (7th year)
LaSalle 0-2/6-24 – coach Speedy Morris (10th year)
All-Big Five First Team: Kerry Kittles (Villanova/MVP), Ira Bowman (Penn), Marc Jackson (Temple), Jason Lawson (Villanova) and Reggie Townsend (St. Joe’s).
All-Big Five 2nd Team: Mark Bass (St. Joseph’s), Eric Eberz (Villanova), Romaine Haywood (LaSalle), Will Johnson (St. Joe’s) and Tim Krug (Penn).
The Hall-of-Fame Inductees that year were: Lionel Simmons (LaSalle), Doug West (Villanova) and Jeffrey Clark (St. Joe’s). Clark is a current Big East Official and one of the best refs in the NCAA.
The 1995-1996 All-American 1st Team: Ray Allen (UConn/JR), Marcus Camby (UMass/Player of the Year/JR), Tony Delk (Kentucky/SR), Tim Duncan (Wake Forest/SR), Allen Iverson (Georgetown/SO) and Kerry Kittles (Villanova/SR).
The 2nd Team All-American was: Danny Forston (Cincinnati/SO), Keith Van Horn (Utah/JR), Jacque Vaughn (Kansas/JR), John Wallace (Syracuse/SR) and Lorenzen Wright (Memphis/SO).