The best and worst thing about the NCAA tournament is that it isn’t designed to identify a superior team.
If it were, the 1984-85 Georgetown Hoyas would be national champions. John Thompson’s team was, by any sane measure, the greatest collection of amateur talent in the world that year—and perhaps any year in the 1980s.
But March Madness doesn’t care for the long view—never has. The central conceit of the entire production is that anyone can beat anyone once. And so long as that possibility exists, our curiosity abides.
It’s a cheap thrill, really—substituting variance for fairness. But, in the right circumstances, it can be the best thrill, too.
Like on the night of April 1, 1985, when the Villanova Wildcats played a perfect game—a game that meant nothing by the dictates of logic but everything to the young men who played in it.
To understand why the 1985 NCAA title game was the greatest Final Four upset of all time, one first need understand that they don’t make college basketball teams like the 1984-85 Georgetown Hoyas anymore.
It wasn’t just that John Thompson’s squad entered the NCAA title game at 35-2. Or that their two losses were by a combined three points. Or even that they were the defending national champs.
Those facts, remarkably, sell Georgetown’s dominance short.
This was a team that had gone 69-5 over the past two seasons and 121-22 in the four years since all-world center Patrick Ewing first arrived on campus. The Hoyas were the next phase of basketball evolution—faster, stronger, more cohesive. It was the kind of collective talent that simply doesn’t exist on college campuses in the one-and-done era.
Villanova, by comparison, was utterly average. The Wildcats were a nominally talented group, and Rollie Massimino, their lumpy carnival barker of a head coach, was a good quote, but no one expected much from a team that had gone 19-12 the year prior with essentially the same roster.
In fact, the ’84-85 Wildcats finished the regular season with a record exactly one game better than their ‘83-84 counterparts.
They made the tournament anyway, a No. 8 seed out of the Southeastern Region, and slowly the season began to turn. A 51-49 win over Dayton. A 59-55 triumph against top-seeded Michigan. Then 46-43 over Maryland. Then 56-44 over North Carolina. And 52-45 over Memphis State.
Like that, Villanova had reached its second-ever national championship game on the strength of five wins by a combined 28 points.
Georgetown, meanwhile, had beaten its first-round opponent by 25. In its five-game run to the championship, only one team, Georgia Tech, had played the Hoyas down to single digits.
Regarding the actual game, it’s no secret how Villanova managed the upset.
The Wildcats didn’t miss. Star forward Ed Pinckney went 5-of-7 from the floor. So too did Dwayne McClain. Harold Jensen and Gary Mclain combined to shoot 8-of-8.
For the game, Villanova hit 78.6 percent of its field goals.
That's 78.6 percent.
It was as if Villanova played the game in some alternate Platonic universe. As if you could simulate and recreate the ultimate basketball performance.
The Wildcats won by two, 66-64. To this day, they are the lowest-seeded team to win an NCAA championship.
Almost two decades later, Patrick Ewing—who finished his legendary college career that night with 14 points and five boards—still smarted over the loss. He told Sports Illustrated, “The better team did not win the game. I said it then, and I'll say it now."
Ewing is right. The 1984-85 Georgetown Hoyas were better than the 1984-85 Villanova Wildcats.
And thank God that doesn’t matter.