Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Wildcats Barely Keep Up with Jones, But Tame Lions

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

On Monday night, Villanova welcomed an old friend back for the holidays, as
former Villanova assistant Joe Jones brought his Columbia Lions back to the
Pavilion, in his first year at the helm of the Ivy League program. However, the
Wildcats BARELY tamed the Lions, finally escaping with a 74-66 victory in a
game which was competitive throughout. Columbia trailed by only four with just
over a minute to play, and was more than capable of pulling off what would
have been a genuinely stunning upset (and one which, coupled with the Maui
Classic loss to Chaminade, might have ended any NCAA aspirations for Villanova this

It took Villanova surprisingly long to tame the Lions, given that Columbia
had only two wins (against a mind-boggling 25 losses) all last season and did
not have a dramatic infusion of talent (other than Jones himself) over the
off-season. Far from it - they lost their top two scorers from last season, to
boot. Jones' charges had successfully mustered two victories in six tries thus
far, ousting Sacred Heart and Stony Brook. And they outrebounded every opponent
so far. But other than the emotions stirred by Coach Jones' return to the
Main Line, where he spent six seasons as an assistant to both Jay Wright and
Steve Lappas:

there was little reason to think that the Columbia Lions (the owners of a
0-14 mark in Ivy League play last year, and which hasn't played in a postseason
tournament since 1968) would put up one of the most spirited and gallant fights
of ANY cupcake opponent at the Pavilion in recent years. It might not be out
of the question that Columbia has made their last trip to the Pavilion for
quite a while. Obviously, there's nowhere for Columbia to go but up; they can
only get better and more talented, as Jones' skills, especially in recruiting,
come to fruition. (Whether due to the presence of his former assistant on the
other bench, or perhaps a manifestation of the holiday spirit, coach Jay
Wright was extraordinarily mellow during tonight's game. Jones, however, was
quite animated, as would be expected. The crowd gave him a standing ovation
during introductions, which was well-deserved.)

Villanova improved to 7-2 overall, in only its second Pavilion appearance;
Columbia fell to 2-5 overall. Believe it or not, Columbia actually played
Villanova at the Spectrum once - and won. I'm not sure if the outcome or the venue
was more surprising; on December 29, 1969, Columbia faced Villanova in the
Quaker City Tournament and triumphed, 76-64, at the old Spectrum. By winning
tonight, Villanova improved to 3-1 in the overall series; the teams had played
recently, on December 2, 2000, at the Pavilion, with the 'Cats cruising to a
80-64 victory.

Four Wildcats reached double figures: Randy Foye (20 points) , Allan Ray (19
points), Curtis Sumpter (16 points), and Mike Nardi (14 points). For some
reason, Sumpter did not return to the game after the under-4 timeout in the
second half; Bloch seemed to take his minutes. The balanced attack came in large
part because of another shorthanded roster (although tonight, not due to
suspensions). Marcus Austin and Derrick Snowden, despite now being absolved of
phone-call-induced suspensions, did not step onto the floor, while Jason Fraser
played less than a minute, in the first half, before being removed for good.
For Columbia, Dragutin Kravic led the Lions with 17 points, while Matt Preston
contributed 13 points.

Villanova was lucky to win this game. And the great irony was that on paper,
they looked surprisingly strong. They committed a shockingly low and had
nine steals, their most all year. Their shooting percentage (43%) was mediocre
but not horrible. Four guys scored at least 14 points, which usually is a sure
recipe for victory, and Sumpter missed a double-double by only one rebound.
Columbia didn't have any numbers that leapt off the stat sheet.

Basically, Villanova was never able to effectively exploit its advantage in
size over its Ivy League opponent. Jason Fraser and Marcus Austin combined to
play less than a minute. Together with Chris Charles (and those three players
should be the heart of the frontcourt/rebounding cohort, despite Will
Sheridan's strong start) they combined for three points and two rebounds (all from
Charles) in 17 minutes. It's going to be enormously difficult for Villanova to
do well in the rugged, physical Big East unless it can start getting minutes
(let alone points and rebounds) from its bangers in the paint. Villanova and
Columbia deadlocked in rebounding at 34 apiece, which is astounding, looking at
the rosters (and Columbia actually outrebounded the 'Cats for most of the
game, until 'Nova started crashing the boards at crunch time). That and some
strong three-point shooting from the Lions in the second half (Columbia was 6-13
from beyond the arc in the second stanza, after going 4-13 from that range in
the first half), made the game far more competitive than it should have been.

Also, it wasn't like Columbia was only in the game at the end. In the first
half, the Lions were ahead at the under 16 timeout, 8-7; the under 12 timeout,
14-11, and the under 8 timeout, 20-15. It took a powerful run from 'Nova at
that point to reassert its authority and retake the lead. Villanova rattled
off nine quick points to take a 24-20 lead, the last four coming from Ray, on
two divergent shots: a layup and a 16-footer. It hadn't helped that Foye
picked up two quick fouls, and coach Jay felt obliged to return him to the floor as
Columbia made a game of it; now Wright could sit him back down, with the lead.

But Columbia hung in there, and trailed only 30-29 at intermission. (The
Lions would have been ahead at intermission, except that Preston missed a layup at
the buzzer, and he was arguably fouled on the play.) The halftime stats
indicated that while neither team was shooting well (both were under 35%), the key
was the rebounding: Columbia held a 23-18 advantage. And Villanova had made
only 3 of its 12 three-point attempts (25%), even worse than Columbia's 4-13
(28%). The Wildcats' best performers were Ray, who had 11 points, while
Sumpter had 10.

The stage seemed set for a typical Big East/cupcake clash at the Pavilion in
December: scrappy cupcake hangs around for a half, the distracted Wildcats
(with visions of going home dancing in their heads) gather at halftime and
resolve to crush the cupcake in the second half and put the game out of reach. As
the second half went on, it appeared that this tried-and-true paradigm would
once again hold. Villanova began constructing a solid lead. Foye banged a ball
in off the glass to make it 40-35, leading to a timeout from Columbia about 4
and a half minutes in. With around 12 minutes to play, the lead had risen to
51-41, when Foye went to the foul line for two shots. He missed both, which
was part of an alarming trend for Foye, the team's premier foul shooter.
Going into the game, he had missed only three free throws the entire season.
After missing those two, he had missed four just against Columbia.

The misses didn't dent Foye's confidence, though: he scored on two of the
next three possessions. First, he hit a three-foot bucket to make it 53-43.
Nardi then hit Sheridan with a bounce pass along the left baseline, which
Sheridan stuffed; and Foye led a three-on-three down the floor for another layup,
pushing the lead to 12, 57-45, Villanova's largest of the game with about 9:30 to
play. Villanova still hadn't committed ANY turnovers in the second half, a
remarkable fact.

But Columbia was undeterred by the fact that the Wildcats - playing on their
home floor with their supportive crowd - seemed to be well in control. The
Lions roared back with a 8-0 run over the next three minutes, pulling back to
within 57-53 and unsettling the Pavilion crowd considerably, with a little over
six minutes to play.

Villanova counterattacked, and Ray appeared to have delivered the knockout
punch by nailing a three at the 3:20 mark, which put 'Nova up by eight, 64-56,
and shortly after added a basket to make it 66-58 with 2:20 to play. At the
2:08 mark, Chris Charles drew a foul, sending him to the line for a one-and-one
to pad the eight point lead. At this point, the Lions made their final
charge. Charles missed the front end of the one-and-one, and Columbia got the
rebound. Kravic hit a three: 66-61. Charles replied with a basket underneath -
but Kravic hit another three, making the score an uncomfortable 68-64 with well
over a minute to play.

On the next four possessions, Villanova had two free throws, and (ironically)
four different Wildcats each made one of two free throws. But the failure to
execute at the foul line had the effect of keeping the Lions in the game. In
the midst of all the free throws, Kravic converted a one-and-one to pull them
back within four, 70-66, with a minute to go - but Columbia ran out of gas,
failing to score the rest of the way. 'Nova started piling up the free throws,
and escaped with a 74-66 victory. Hugs were exchanged by Jones and the VU
coaches after the game.

Perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising, though. Obviously, Coach Jones knows
the Wildcats' players' strengths and weaknesses like the back of his hand (he
recruited a lot of them) and that advantage probably offset a lot of
Columbia's weaknesses. And the game clearly meant a lot more to the Lions than to the

Nonetheless, this was still a team that Villanova should have

clobbered, especially at quasi-full-strength and playing at home. Most years, there
is a chasm between Ivy League powers Penn and Princeton and the rest of the
league. And Columbia is not a just a mediocre Ivy team, but the worst team in
the league, one that couldn't win a single game in it last year. Villanova
shouldn't have needed to make free throws down the stretch to escape with an
eight point victory, or hold only a four-point lead with a minute to go. The team
that showed up tonight, ought not to go to Kansas in a few days, because the
results will be extraordinarily hideous if it does.

The Wildcats will enjoy their Christmas break, and will not return to action
until Sunday, Dec. 28, when they take on UNC-Greensboro at the Pavilion.

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