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Former Villanova Coach Steve Lappas chats ‘Cats ahead of the Sweet Sixteen

We spoke to Steve Lappas about predicting a champion, beating the press, and why playing Allen Iverson was the worst.

Steve Lappas

Steve Lappas got his first head coaching job at Manhattan College before arriving at Villanova in 1992. He coached the Wildcats for 9 seasons, making seven postseason tournaments and winning Villanova’s only NIT Championship. Since leaving UMass in 2005, Steve has become an analyst for CBS Sports. You can follow Steve on Twitter here.

You had a really successful tenure when you were at Villanova, coaching a lot of great teams. Is there a run of games, or a team, or a even just a specific moment that sticks out to you in your time with Villanova?

Steve: Winning the Big East Championship in ‘95 was a big moment. It was the first one in the history of the school. It was at MSG, and you know, it was the old Big East. Beating UConn twice that year was obviously a thrill. Then the following year we finished the year winning 11 or 12 in a row. Then we had the phone card thing with Kerry and it kinda derailed us a little. Lots of good moments, some disappointments for sure, but it was a great time.

You mentioned Kerry Kittles - Is there a difference coaching a guy who has so much talent and is definitely going to be a player at the next level, or is Kerry the kind of guy that was easy to incorporate into the group?

Steve: He was really easy because the thing about him was that he was such an unselfish superstar. He was a guy that really did most of his damage without having the ball in his hands, without creating shots for himself. He was so good at moving without the ball and coming off screens. His teammate really delivered to him. He was not the kind of guy you just the gave the ball to and said ‘hey, alright, go get us a shot’ - that wasn’t who he was. He fit in unbelievably with the team and his game was even better for the team because he was a guy who didn’t have to have the ball in his hands.

Kerry comes off as a great guy, it’s really cool to hear that he was like that as a player.

You were at Villanova during the heyday of the old Big East and coached against a lot of really good players - Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Ron Artest, to name a few. Is there a guy that, when you saw him on the schedule, you were like “damn, I have to play this guy?”

Steve: Ray Allen was tremendous, and as you said there were so many - John Wallace - There were so many great players when I was around. I have to say Allen Iverson was a guy that was un-guardable. You know what I mean?

I remember telling Alvin Williams - we’re getting ready for the game - We’re in the huddle before the game starts, and I remember telling him ‘listen here’s what you gotta do with [Iverson], you gotta do this, this and this’ and Alvin went into the game and I turn to my assistant and I say “I just pray he misses.” Whatever you did wasn’t going to affect him. It was a matter of if he was going to make them or if he was going to miss him. Some days he missed them, some days he made them.

There’s only so much you can do from the coaching or playing side if the guy is at that level.

Steve: When the guy is like that - To be 5’11 and eventually be one of five best players in the world. At that point, you’re at his mercy. You can try and make it hard, no question, but it’s a matter of whether he was going to make or miss.

He came into the league and what, crossed up Michael Jordan famously as a rookie, so --

Steve: He was really just impossible to guard. We did stop him. We played him in his sophomore year and beat Georgetown at the Spectrum. He had like 4 points in the second half. Two weeks later he had 37 against us. That’s how it was.

You’ve watched how the Big East has evolved, from the teams we’ve lost to the way the game has changed. This is a two part question - What’s the biggest change from the old Big East you coached in to the new one, and are you nostalgic for anything from the old Big East?

Steve: Let me say it like this - Obviously not having Cuse, not having Pitt, those guys were charter members in the conference. Then UConn - Those teams you miss a lot.

The things about it is, it’s not that that Big East was different than this Big East, it is. But that era of college basketball is different than this one. You look at the teams that were around in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. It just doesn’t compare because of the one and done [players]. I had Kittles as a senior in college, I had Jason Lawson and Alvin Williams as juniors. ‘Conn had Ray Allen as a junior. That’s not happening ever now. Those guys are all gone after their freshman. Was that Big East better than this one? Yes. But not because they’re different, but because the sport is different.

You could have gone anywhere with that answer - emphasis on shooting, lack of physicality - but I think you’re right. That caliber of player today, we get a glimpse but they go right to the league because it’s the smartest move for them.

Let’s talk about the upcoming game - We all know about the press, and that we should fear the press, but I’m curious about your perspective as a coach - Why can a team like West Virginia be successful with the press and other teams can’t?

Steve: It’s a combination of things. Obviously they’re tough guys, very good athletes, play extremely hard, and have a shot blocker which allows them to take chances on the perimeter. Those are things that go into it.

I just feel like, if I’m Villanova, I want West Virginia to press me. I think that Villanova is a very hard to team to press. They will take advantage of situations when they throw over the top of the press. I’m guessing that Huggins is not going to press as much as he usually does because Villanova is so hard to press.

You actually anticipated one of my questions. I was going to ask if you thought we were going to play differently. So you think we will be more opportunistic instead of playing our typical slow tempo?

Steve: I think Villanova and Jay’s teams are really good at playing at two speeds. I think they can play fast and I think they can play slow. That’s one of the reasons why it’s a team that’s built to have a great NCAA Tournament. When you can play two speeds and be adaptable it’s really helpful in the tournament because you’re playing against all different kinds of teams. I don’t think they’re going to play methodically. I think they have the ball handlers and shot makers to attack pressure. I would be surprised if they didn’t attack that pressure.

What do you think on the West Virginia side? The story offensively seems to be ‘let’s get turnovers and turn them into points.’ After that it becomes the Jevon Carter show. Is that what you see from them as well, or is there something they can do to surprise us?

Steve: That’s what I see. They force 17 turnovers per game, and they score a ton of points off those turnovers. My point is I don’t think they can get those turnovers against Villanova. I think they’re going to have to adjust somehow and score a little more in the half court, which is not their strength. Obviously Jevon Carter is a tremendous player, but they have to adjust. If they force 18 turnovers I would be surprised.

On that note, is it fair to say Jalen Brunson is the x-factor because, if the turnovers come, they will come from him?

Steve: I think the x-factor is the guys above that line. In other words, Jalen is going to have the ball in the backcourt, he’s going to get trapped, and he’s going to have to throw it up. Those guys, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth, Donte, even Paschall and Spellman - Those guys across half court when Jalen gets doubled - those are the key guys.

Jalen Brunson is not going to throw the ball away. He’s going to pass the ball off and those guys are going to have opportunities to make plays. That’s where the game lies.

You’re right, you gotta be smart with that next pass: Do you speed it up or slow it down?

Steve: I think you go.

Do you remember an instance when you had to prepare for a team like this, one that had a specialty defense?

Steve: People don’t remember that when Jim Calhoun was coaching in the 90’s he pressed every possession. We had to be prepared for that. They had three or four different full court presses. Later on Calhoun didn’t press, but in the 90’s he pressed every possession and we had to prepare for that two times a year.

How do you prepare for that? Do you replicate it in practice?

Steve: We would play 7 vs 5. We would have seven guys against the five starters and have the two floaters trap everywhere and everything.

I guess there’s no way to do it 5 vs 5, you gotta stack the deck.

Steve: You want to simulate it and make it more difficult than the game, which is hard to do. I think it’s harder to play against seven guys instead of five guys who know how to press.

That’s cool perspective. Last question - When it’s all said and done, who do you have lifting the trophy.

Steve: I had the final four as: Duke, Villanova, Arizona, and North Carolina (laughs). Right now, it’s going to come down to that semifinal between Villanova and Duke. Those teams are a level above. Unfortunately they have to meet in the semifinal.

I think it’s funny that the narrative was that Villanova caught a break. In the end we have an almost chalk region and other teams gets a cakewalk.

Steve: [John] Calipari was complaining about how the brackets fell when they came out, and now he’s got Loyola Chicago, Nevada and Kansas State - Couldn’t ask for more than that!

No one ever said this was the best way to decide a National Champion, but it is the most fun.

Steve: It is definitely that.