As a graduate of the renowned Bronx High School of Science,
Villanova coach Steve Lappas had dreams of becoming a doctor
when he enrolled at City College of New York in 1974. One D in
organic chemistry later, he was contemplating alternative
careers. Two decades have passed now, and Lappas has forever
lost whatever tenuous grasp he had on benzene rings and
hydrocarbon bonding. But he has not forgotten a fundamental
lesson from his premed foray: that an experiment can be
dangerously altered by the introduction of a different catalyst.
Last season, the Wildcats shocked the Big East by roaring to a
25-8 record and winning the conference tournament before bowing
to Old Dominion in triple overtime in the first round of the
NCAAs. All season, point guard Jonathan Haynes inspired the team
with his unbending work ethic and his iron will; when the
coaching staff would arrive in the locker room for its ritual
rant at halftime, Haynes would already be lecturing the troops
on what they had done wrong. But while the other four starters
from 1994-95 remain at 'Nova, Haynes has graduated, and how the
loss of its catalyst will affect the team is unclear. "When we
lost Jon we lost a strong leader," says junior center Jason
Lawson. "His presence on the court was felt by everyone."
Alvin Williams, a 6'4" junior, succeeds Haynes, and fortunately
for the Wildcats, his catalytic qualities have been documented:
While Haynes was out with a stress fracture in his right foot
last season, Williams guided Villanova through an 8-1 stretch,
and he finished third in the conference in assist-to-turnover
ratio. "Jon and Al are so similar," guard Kerry Kittles says.
"They play so hard when they're out there, but they're both
Still, it's uncertain whether the soft-spoken Williams can
provide the energy that infused the team last year. "I learned a
lot from Jon," Williams says. "I should be ready."
"We'll miss Jon," Lappas says. "He knew the buttons to push. But
look how we did without him last year. I think that answers the
If Williams steps up, the Wildcats don't doubt that they will
have all the ingredients needed to produce a Final Four team. As
Lappas puts it, "I think we have a prototype guy coming back at
Lawson is already the finest true center in the Wildcats'
75-year history, a combative, 6'11" shot blocker (2.6 a game)
who can launch his hook shot with either hand and has worked on
adding a 15-foot jumper to his repertoire. Lawson's asthma
problem, which slowed his development early on, is being
controlled by medication, but his rapid metabolism still keeps
him from putting on pounds. Even though Lappas has instituted
team meals to help balance Lawson's diet, the center still
weighs in at a wiry 226 pounds. He has, however, favorably
tipped the scales in the personal-fouls department, cutting down
on his disqualifications (from 13 to seven last year) while
raising his free throw percentage (from 58.3 to 73.0).
At 6'9" and 225 pounds, junior power forward Chuck Kornegay may
not have Lawson's range, but he is both fleet enough to run the
floor and strong enough to stand his ground in the paint. "He
doesn't even know what he's capable of doing on the court,"
Kittles says. After leaving N.C. State in January 1993 for
academic reasons, Kornegay contemplated going to either the CBA
or the NAIA until Lappas swooped in. Kornegay became eligible
last December after sitting out almost two years, and he wound
up averaging 8.4 points and 6.3 rebounds. "It's like he just
fell from the clouds," Lappas says. "You talk about a power
forward, and he's who you draw a picture of."
Senior small forward Eric Eberz complements the Cats' two
post-up men. He led the conference in treys per game (2.85) and
finished fourth in three-point percentage (43.9), earning him
the nickname the Assassin. Eberz's cold-blooded accuracy beyond
the arc is a relatively recent development; he played with his
back to the basket at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute in
Buffalo and nailed only 4 of 23 as a Wildcat freshman. Now,
after honing one of the nation's sweetest strokes, Eberz gets
pointed reminders from Lappas that his duties as a small forward
include rebounding and defending. "Nothing fazes him," Lappas
has said. "I'll be killing him, and he'll listen like, O.K.,
I'll just let this guy go nuts."
Then there's senior shooting guard Kittles (following page),
last season's Big East Player of the Year. An efficient scorer
(21.4 points a game on 52.4% shooting from the floor), sneaky
rebounder (6.1 boards) and dynamic off-the-ball defender (2.2
steals), the 6'5" Kittles possesses an understanding of the
game as complete as that of anyone in the land. "Kerry's a
player who makes other guys better," Lappas says. "And I think
he's going to be more of a leader now that Jon's not here."
Being a leader is something the 41-year-old Lappas has learned
plenty about since Rollie Massimino bolted from Main Line
Philadelphia for the Vegas Strip in 1992 after 19 years as the
Wildcat coach. In his three seasons since arriving from
Manhattan, Lappas has improved the Cats' league finish from 10th
to fourth to second while proving he can recruit in Philly by
landing Lawson and Williams. Lappas's affable off-court demeanor
belies his combustible temperament on it. His big push this
season will be for a stronger commitment to rebounding, a
category in which Villanova was slightly outdone last year. "We
joke, we laugh," Lappas says, "but the players know I'll kill
That was clear when Lappas said he planned to bring a tape of
the 89-81 loss to ODU to the Cats' first practice this fall.
It's not exactly four-star-quality footage; Villanova shot 36.5%
from the floor and in overtime turned the ball over five times
and missed four free throws. "I'm not going to even watch it,"
Kittles vowed. "We're not going to look back on last year,
because this year we don't have any limits. Chemistry is what
our team has." And if the Wildcats have the right elements, they
could do their coach proud and wind up acing the final.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER The ambidextrous Lawson is the Cats' meow--as long as he doesn't foul out. [Jason Lawson dunking basketball]
THE DATA BOX
Coach: Steve Lappas
Career record: 109-101 (7 seasons)
Record at Villanova: 53-39 (3 seasons)
1994-95 record: 25-8 (final ranking: 23rd)
Big East record: 14-4 (second)
SF *Eric Eberz, 6'7", Sr.
Cats 15-0 when he shoots 50%
PF *Chuck Kornegay, 6'9", Jr.
No. 2 on team in rebounds (6.3)
C *Jason Lawson, 6'11", Jr.
Named to All-Big East tourney team
SG *Kerry Kittles, 6'5", Sr.
His 23.2 points per game led Big East
PG Alvin Williams, 6'4", Jr.
Terrific 2.21 assist-to-turnover ratio
Dec. 13 at Temple
Season's marquee Big Five matchup
Jan. 8 at Connecticut
Lawson had 27 in 96-73 win at Storrs last season
Jan. 20 vs. North Carolina
Cats last beat Tar Heels in 1985 Elite Eight
Feb. 25 vs. Connecticut
Big East regular-season title on the line?
March 2 at Georgetown
Last season's worst loss was to Hoyas, 77-52
NEWCOMER TO WATCH
When Rafal Bigus arrived at Archbishop Carroll High in Radnor,
Pa., two years ago, he brought a videotape travelogue of his
hometown. But the VCRs couldn't play the tape, so Stargard,
Poland, remained a mystery in Radnor. What Radnorites did see
were the soft hands and sure shot of the 7'1", 270-pound Bigus,
who last year led Carroll to its first Philadelphia Catholic
Bigus had come to the U.S. to sharpen his game, and coach Tom
Ingelsby had put him on Carroll's team sight unseen. He got an
eyeful. "He ran the floor very well, passed exceptionally well
and had a nice shooting touch," says Ingelsby.
Before long the people of Stargard will be popping Villanova
tapes into their VCRs.