For sports fans, early April can be the best time of the year. Baseball season is underway, the NBA and NHL are preparing for the playoffs, and NFL fans anxiously await the upcoming draft.
And then there is the NCAA Tournament, when March Madness rolls into April, and the Final Four, which would have taken place this weekend. The COVID-19 pandemic made sure there were neither buzzer beaters nor upsets this year, and no No. 8 seed will suddenly catch fire and win six straight to capture a national championship.
But that was precisely the case 35 years ago, when Villanova, which had entered the tournament with a record of 19-10 after finishing fourth in the Big East, rolled through to the final game and pulled off one of the more memorable upsets in the history of the tournament: A 66-64 win over Georgetown to give the Wildcats their first national championship.
Mark Plansky, a Wakefield native and current Needham resident, was a freshman on that team, appearing in 30 of the 35 games the Wildcats played that season.
“First forward off the bench as a freshman, playing with a pretty darned good team,” said Plansky while social distancing in Chatham last week. “Happy to be there, had a fun career afterwards, but that was obviously a magical year.”
The former Globe all-scholastic at Wakefield High seemed destined to take his talents to Boston College, from which his parents graduated. His father was close to Dr. Tom Davis, who coached the Eagles from 1977-82, and Gary Williams, who took over after Davis left for Stanford and recruited Plansky.
But Plansky wanted to look at other programs. He visited Duke, where a young coach by the name of Mike Krzyzewski had taken over. Sophomores Jay Bilas and Mark Alarie, who were part of Coach K’s class of ’86 that went to the championship game, served as hosts.
Plansky’s next visit was to Villanova, which he felt was a lot like Duke, just in the Northeast and closer to home. He liked the players he met, and could envision having them as teammates.
When he returned home, he informed his parents that he wanted to go to Villanova. His father was not on board. Going to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference was one thing, but if his son was going to stay in the Big East, he wanted him to attend his alma mater. After checking out Villanova’s campus, the Planskys came away impressed.
During preseason of Plansky’s freshman year, the Wildcats earned an endorsement from his father.
“He said, ‘This team’s pretty special," Plansky explained. “'Not only can I understand why you came down here to play with these guys, but they’re pretty good. You guys have a legitimate chance.’ So in November of ’84, my dad was probably the only guy saying we had a legitimate chance to win the title.”
No one else was jumping on the Villanova bandwagon, but that was more of a reflection of the competition in the Big East than an indictment of the talent.
Of Villanova’s 10 losses, five of them came at the hands of St. John’s and Georgetown, who had taken turns being ranked as the No. 1 team in the country. Both would end up in the Final Four. The Wildcats lost to St. John’s three times.
“All three times they were No. 1 in the country and all three times we lost by, I think, double digits,” Plansky said. "And if we played them a fourth time, we would have lost. We just didn’t match up well at all with St. John’s.”
It was the first year of the expanded 64-team tournament, and the Wildcats were awarded the No. 8 seed in the Southeast Regional – opposite Georgetown (No. 1 seed in the East) and St. John’s (No. 1 seed in the West).
The only way Villanova would have to face St. John’s again would be if both teams made it to the championship game. Georgetown derailed them, 77-59, in the Final Four.
Georgetown focused on “intense, defensive pressure and physicality, but they weren’t going to put up 100 points,” Plansky said.
"St. John’s – Chris Mullin could put up 40 points by himself. Walter Berry, Bill Wennington, Mark Jackson, and Willie Glass, that whole team, they could just get out and run and score.
"Georgetown could get out and run and score, but not like St. John’s, so we knew we could compete better. I think playing against them all year long, knowing that we had a good matchup, kind of gave us confidence.”
Victories over Dayton on its home court and and top-seed Michigan in the first weekend sent the Wildcats to the Sweet 16. That set up a rematch with Maryland, which was led by Len Bias. The two teams had met during the regular season, with the Terrapins prevailing in overtime, 77-74, but the Wildcats learned from the experience.
“I played a lot of minutes that game, that allowed me to cover Lenny. That was very exciting. I allowed Lenny to have a new career-high,” Plansky joked.
Villanova coach Rollie Massimino assigned Plansky’s teammate, Ed Pinckney, to Bias the second time around. He was held to single digits.
Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight with a 46-43 win over the Terps, and beat North Carolina, 56-44, to advance to the Final Four at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.
With Villanova, St. John’s, and Georgetown earning berths, it was almost a Big East sweep. But Memphis State defeated Boston College, 59-57, on an Andre Turner jumper at the buzzer in the Sweet 16, then defeated Wayman Tisdale and Oklahoma to face Villanova.
Memphis State had size in center William Bedford and forward Keith Lee, but the Wildcats controlled the game, winning 52-45 to advance to the final against Georgetown.
The defending champion Hoyas had won 17 in a row to end up in the championship game at 35-2, and were nine-point favorites.
But the Wildcats had played them tough during the regular season, losing in overtime at home and by seven on the road, and were not intimidated by Georgetown’s size.
No one embodied the physicality of the Hoyas more than center Patrick Ewing, who played at Cambridge Rindge & Latin before taking his 7-foot, 255-pound frame to D.C.
In 1985, he was appearing in his third championship game in four years, having lost to Michael Jordan and North Carolina by one point in his freshman season, and defeating Hakeem Olajuwon and Houston his junior year.
It was the first year the NBA instituted a draft lottery, and interested swirled around Ewing, who would no doubt be the No. 1 pick that June.
Massimino decided to switch things up on Ewing.
“He was just tremendous,” said Plansky of Massimino, who passed away in 2017. “He prepared us from October 15 to April 1. The one thing he put in, in between the semifinal game and the Monday night championship game, was a new defense to cover Patrick. So we actually put in a new rotating defense to cover Patrick when he got the ball."
That wasn’t the only thing Villanova had on its side. From the day it arrived in Lexington, it had the crowd rooting for an upset.
“We were playing the New York Yankees of college basketball, so I think 90 percent of the people were pulling for us,” Plansky said
This was the final season without a shot clock in college basketball, and Villanova took advantage on offense.
“We weren’t running old school, Phil Ford-North Carolina four corners, and take four minutes off the clock,” said Plansky. “We just ran our stuff, and if it was open we took a shot, and if it wasn’t, we started our offense again. We made a lot of open shots, and we made a lot of contested shots.”
That’s no exaggeration: The Wildcats went 22-for-28, good for a 79 percent shooting percentage. They missed just five free throws all game.
Early in the game, Massimino subbed Harold Jensen for Dwight Wilbur. Jensen played 34 minutes, going 5-for-5 from the field and 4-for-5 from the line. Wilbur would play just five minutes.
“I would usually go in after the second, or definitely the third, TV timeout," Plansky said. "I look at Dwight and say, ‘I haven’t even gone in yet, and you haven’t gone back in. What the hell is going on?’
"He goes, ‘Dude, we haven’t missed a shot,’” Plansky recalled with a laugh.
Plansky entered the game twice, once in each half, for a total of one minute.
In the second half, Massimino sent Plansky in to take a free throw in place of the injured Gary McLain, who had his head stepped on by Georgetown’s David Wingate after drawing a charge. Massimino didn’t want to burn a timeout.
Plansky had assumed Wilbur would be the one subbing in.
“I was like, ‘Hey Dwight, there’s 25,000 people here at Rupp Arena, 25 million people watching on TV, don’t worry about it. Just go in and knock them down,'" Plansky recalled. “All of a sudden, Coach Mass says, ‘Plansky, go in.’”
Just one year before, Plansky was watching the championship game with his high school teammates. Now, he was checking into the game. He didn’t exactly get a vote of confidence.
"Before I even check in, I’ve got one assistant coach telling me, ‘Don’t dribble the ball. Get the ball to [Harold] Pressley, he’ll bring the ball up,’” said Plansky.
Plansky missed the free throw. Georgetown came down on the fast break, and threw the ball out of bounds. As soon as the horn sounded, Plansky headed back to the bench.
"The funny part was, when I sat down, I’m obviously pissed at myself, and Coach Mass comes over and slaps me on the knee and goes, ‘Great job out there!’"
Years later, Plansky asked his old coach why he was so positive.
“He said, ‘I was afraid I was going to have to put you back in,’” Plansky said, “'I didn’t want you to go into the tank.'”
Plansky had an up-close view as the Wildcats pulled off the upset. Dwayne McClain had 17 points, while Pinckney added 16 points while playing outstanding defense on Ewing. Pressley added 11 points as Villanova stunned the defending champs.
Three years later, Plansky had a different role as a senior captain when he lead the Wildcats to the cusp of another Final Four. In 1988, Villanova made it to the Elite Eight before losing to an Oklahoma team that featured Mookie Blaylock, Stacey King, and Harvey Grant, all of whom would be picked in the first round of the draft.
Plansky, who, in addition to his role as executive director for Mizuho Securities, serves as a college basketball analyst for ESPN, feels for this year’s athletes who didn’t get to experience March Madness.
“With the blanket disclaimer that it’s obviously the right thing to do to flatten the curve and make sure the community can handle the cases that end up in the hospitals and care centers, it’s just too bad,” said Plansky. “If you’re a senior, or this is your last year of college, I can’t imagine the disappointment, because, quite frankly, it’s 35 years later and we’re talking about my college career.
"It’s memories that you make and cherish for life, and unfortunately, these kids will never have that opportunity.”
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.