How Villanova can repeat – and why the quest is such an immense challenge - The Buffalo News

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How Villanova can repeat – and why the quest is such an immense challenge

When his phone rang Tuesday morning, Bill Martin was filling out his NCAA Tournament bracket.

"I'm still a junkie," said Martin, the Georgetown forward who logged more minutes than superstar center Patrick Ewing in 1984-85, their senior season.

Among his first pen strokes? Drawing a line through Villanova.

Doesn't matter Villanova is the defending champion, is ranked first in the country and is the top seed in the East Region. Doesn't matter we didn't yet know what 16th-seeded opponent Villanova will play Thursday in KeyBank Center. Doesn't matter a No. 1 never has lost to a No.16 in tournament history.

Villanova is a carcass to him. Dead on arrival.

"Same as always," Martin said. "I got Villanova going out in the first round. I'm still mad at them 30-something years later."

Villanova is trying to accomplish this year what its forerunners denied Georgetown in 1985, a rare back-to-back NCAA men's basketball championship. Villanova's quest to become only the third repeat champ since UCLA's dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s first will require victories Thursday and Saturday in Buffalo.

"My advice," Martin said, "would be to think like the underdog, not like the favorite. You somehow have to get that fire again, that fire in your belly that comes so naturally when somebody says, 'You can't do it,' or 'That other team is better than you.'

"I'd much rather be told I'm not good enough, but know that I am and have something to prove."

Of all the phenomenal basketball teams we've watched since John Wooden retired in 1975, a lonely pair has won two titles in a row.

Wooden's UCLA program claimed 10 championships in 12 seasons. Duke won consecutive titles in 1991 and 1992. Florida repeated in 2006 and 2007. That's it.

Not only is it difficult to maintain greatness for a calendar year, but also for merely two and a half weeks.

The No. 1 program in the AP poll before the NCAA Tournament begins has won the championship once since 2001 and just four times since the bracket expanded to 64 berths in 1985.

"You have to respect the field and respect the game," said Turner Sports NCAA analyst Grant Hill, a star for Duke's back-to-back title teams. "You can't think, 'Oh, it's our birthright,' or, 'We're entitled to be here.'

"It takes one bad half. There've been other great teams that have been unable to repeat. It takes luck, a lot of things to go in your favor. You need six games of close to perfection in order to win."

Previous success provides no currency in this year's tournament.

Villanova appears to know this. After winning the 2016 championship on a buzzer-beating three-pointer, the Wildcats graduated starters Ryan Arcidiacono (the tournament MVP) and Daniel Ochefu (now in the NBA). And yet coach Jay Wright's squad improved, going 31-3.

Lee Humphrey, the sharp-shooting guard for Florida's back-to-back title teams, warned Villanova to take zero for granted.

"Nothing they did last year is going to help them this year," said Humphrey, the all-time leader in NCAA Tournament three-pointers. "They have to focus on the present, the possession in the game, and win possession by possession.

"If you start believing what you've accomplished in the past is going to impact the future, then that's when you get into trouble. They're going to have to win all six games again."

Two programs that seemed destined to double their crowns were Georgetown in 1985 and UNLV in 1991.

UNLV went into the Final Four having won 45 straight games. An undefeated season was a foregone conclusion.

UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian desperately tried to warn his players about getting complacent as they mauled opponent after opponent.

"Then the message would get lost because we would go out and kick the crap out of them," Tarkanian said in 2008 interview a few days before the New England Patriots lost in the Super Bowl and finished one game short of perfection.

"We went to Louisville, and I told our guys how tough it would be to beat them at their place, and we had them down by 30 in the second half."

In the Final Four, UNLV met a team it had vaporized by 30 points a year earlier. Three months after the rematch, Tark the Shark's lineup would produce the first, ninth, 12th and 29th overall picks in the NBA Draft. The Runnin' Rebels looked invincible.

Duke revels in its glory after winning its second straight NCAA championship by beating Michigan for the 1992 title. (Getty Images)

Duke won the rematch by two points and then went on to win its first of two straight championships.

"That loss certainly hurts more than anything," said Tarkanian, who died in 2015. "That was the best team I ever coached."

Martin knows the feeling. He was the dependable sixth man on Georgetown's 1984 title team and perhaps the Hoyas' most reliable player behind Ewing, winner of the 1985 Naismith Award as the country's best player.

Georgetown was rated the nation's top team when it returned to the NCAA Tournament. In the semifinal, Georgetown defeated St. John's -- ranked first for much of the season -- for the third time in a month.

"When people keep talking about being the favorite to go back-to-back," Martin said, "that takes your edge off."

In the final, Georgetown played Villanova, which it had beaten twice already.

Villanova, using a ball-control offense in the days before the shot clock and three-point arc, forced Georgetown to press early in the second half. Georgetown finally took the lead with 4:45 to play, and with about four minutes left went into a spread offense.

"That would have killed their whole game plan," Martin said. "If we made them play from behind, that would have killed their strategy. We would have held the ball. The game would have been over."

But with 3:35 left, Martin's careless pass went off teammate Horace Broadnax's ankle for a turnover.

"A horrible pass," Martin said. "They got the ball back, and we never got control of the game again."

Duke nearly experienced a similar fate, albeit in the semifinal, against Kentucky in its followup championship season.

Nichols grad Christian Laettner bailed the Blue Devils with a shot many consider the greatest in college basketball history. With 2.1 seconds left, Hill heaved from the baseline to the opposite foul line. Laettner made the turnaround jump shot to beat Kentucky by a point.

"We got sloppy in that game," Hill said. "We had the game under control in the second half, and we got bored. We just made assumptions, and it almost cost us the game and the opportunity to repeat."

Al Horford (42), Taurean Green (11), Joakim Noah (13), Lee Humphrey (12) and Corey Brewer (2) of the Florida Gators celebrate after defeating Ohio State in the 2007 title game. (Getty Images)

Each year Florida won the national title, it encountered turbulence right before the Southeastern Conference tournament.

The Gators went 5-6 from Jan. 21 to Feb. 26, 2006. Then they won 11 straight games for the SEC and national titles.

"Success sometimes makes you complacent," Humphrey said. "That was our issue the first year, just figuring out how to maintain that level of intensity with success."

Their top seven players returned to dominate the SEC again, but in February 2007, the Gators lost three out of four games by double-digit margins to non-ranked teams. Then the Gators won 10 straight to repeat.

"We weren't even close in those losses," Humphrey said. "But it was easy to look in the mirror and say, 'This is not who we are, and we need to get back to where we were.'

"Our conference tournament was our best basketball of the season. We were just killing people."

Humphrey credited coach Billy Donovan's psychological tactics for pulling them together. To combat smugness, Donovan brought in motivational speakers such as Patriots coach Bill Belichick and civil rights activist Harry Edwards so Donovan's voice wouldn't get stale.

Donovan also adopted slogans and symbols used throughout the season to band his players when they got sideways. One gesture was putting a hand, like a shark fin, against the nose to signify keeping attention on what's directly in front of you.

"When you're on a run and have a chance to bury a team," Humphrey said, "it's easy to lose focus in the moment. So you walk into the huddle, and before you put your arms around each other, you look each other in the eye and hold that hand in front of your face.

"Little things like that go a long way, but you have to make it a habit."

A "little thing" that proved significant to Duke's repeat were coach Mike Krzyzewski's artfully crafted words before the season.

As Hill recalled, Coach K said:

"Look, we are not defending our title. The championship we won is ours. No one can take it away from us. We don't need to defend it.

"So let's get that out of our head and focus on pursuing."

Akin to Donovan's shark.

But unlike Tark the Shark's pleadings, Duke's players bit.

"That changed the mind-set," Hill said. "That set the tone for the year. We were on the attack."

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