Tuesday, December 28, 2004

A Blue Christmas for Blue Raiders, As Villanova Tops East Tennessee State At Pavilion, 81-62

Maybe it was too much holiday eggnog. Or turkey. Or even figgy pudding.

Whatever the cause, the Wildcats slept-walked through the first few minutes of their contest with Middle Tennessee State, falling behind 13-4, and the Wildcats led at halftime by just two. They seemed on the verge of nearly delivering the Blue Raiders a belated Christmas gift - and ironically, MTSU did dress a player with the apt name of Keith Christmas.

Fortunately, the Wildcats recovered from their early post-holiday hangover. After the 13-4 deficit, they hit their Southern guests with a quite inhospitable 18-2 run, taking the lead. MTSU stayed close, and 'Nova led at the half by just two. But a strong run to open the second half ended the first-half suspense. Ultimately, Villanova sent the Blue Raiders packing without plunder - or holiday cheer - shrugging off the early torpor with an 81-62 victory. In defiance of the season of giving, the Wildcats were in fact quite stingy. 'Nova gave up just 25 points in the second half - and in a shocking development, yielded just nine turnovers for the game.

Villanova won its fifth straight contest, improving to 6-1 overall; MTSU fell to 7-4 overall, in the first-ever meeting between the schools. Curtis Sumpter was once again awesome, rocketing to a 26 point performance on lethal 10-13 shooting. He also provided five rebounds and didn't commit a single turnover. Other noteworthy contributions came from Allan Ray (15 points) and Randy Foye (14 points). For MTSU, hometown favorite Michael Cuffee - playing in front of his family and friends - led the way with 17 points and six boards in logging 39 minutes. It was Cuffee's 16th straight game reaching double figures, and the 17 points tied a season high. Mike Dean added 15 points for the Blue Raiders.

A three from Nardi gave 'Nova its first lead at 14-13. The Wildcats forced a shot clock violation on the next possession, and Foye followed up with another three to make it 17-13, completing a 13-0 Villanova run. It culminated in an 18-2 run for 'Nova, keyed by a pressure defense that led to some points in transition, and 'Nova had quickly transformed a 13-4 deficit into a 22-15 advantage. The Wildcats would ultimately score 23 points off turnovers and eight fastbreak points.

But at the half, Villanova led by just two, 39-37, as MTSU had hung around for the entire first half. However, Coach Wright made some adjustments at intermission, and 'Nova roared out in the second half, clamping down on defense. The Blue Raiders managed just two points in over seven minutes after play resumed, as a tight contest had degenerated into a rout. 'Nova now led 53-39, after an "and-one" converted by Sumpter, and the Wildcats were not threatened afterward. MTSU never drew closer than eight during the remainder of the contest and trailed most of it by double digits.

Villanova shot an impressive 53% from the floor overall and a torrid 50% from three-point range. The usual trademark defense deteriorated, unfortunately, for the second straight game; MTSU shot well (43%, both overall and from beyond the arc) and Villanova won the battle of the glass by only a small margin.

Putting MTSU on the December schedule is a bit of a change of pace for 'Nova. MTSU isn't geographically close by, located in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Moreover, the Blue Raiders are both sufficiently dangerous (the Blue Raiders are the favorite to win one division of the Sun Belt Conference) and insufficiently RPI-potent to warrant inclusion on the schedule. Long-time members of the Ohio Valley Conference before switching to the Sun Belt, MTSU has received only one at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in school history (and the only one in the history of the OVC). Their deepest-ever postseason run was some modest NIT success in 1988, when a Dana Barros-led Boston College team stopped them one game short of the Madison Square Garden trip, after two NIT victories.

The MTSU Blue Raiders entered the game with a record of 7-3. The Blue Raiders had padded their record with some extraordinarily weak competition, scheduling a string of home games against Lambuth University, Belmont, Tennessee Wesleyan, Tennessee State, and Mississippi Valley State, all of which they won. In an unusual scheduling decision, they actually played MVSU twice in the early going, losing on the road and then winning the rematch on their home floor, the Murphy Center. They also had a loss to Rice. But by going 5-2 to start the season, it was the team's best start since 1997. The Blue Raiders had just come off competing in the San Juan Shootout, where they sandwiched a five-point loss to Auburn with a topping of Toledo and an overtime victory over Delaware.

They are helmed by Kermit Davis, who was at one point the youngest head coach in Division I, when he was named head coach at Idaho in 1987, when he was just 28. (He was a junior college head coach at 24.)

At least one Blue Raider was happy about the lengthy trip: senior Michael Cuffee, a native of Philadelphia. Cuffee averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds in his senior year at the Public League's Simon Gratz High.

In a small lineup shuffle, coach Jay Wright opted to bench Mike Nardi from the point guard spot, and insert Marcus Austin as the starting center. Wright is continuing to search for answers in the post. Chris Charles hadn't distinguished himself in the wake of Jason Fraser's injury revival, and so perhaps Austin was worth a look. Alas, the Big Dog was surprisingly silent in taking advantage of the opportunity, logging 15 minutes and failing to pull down a single rebound, finishing with just two points and a blocked shot. It seems clear that Fraser is going to have to get and remain healthy for Villanova to count on reliable offensive production from the five spot.

Fortunately, there was some good news on the Fraser front. The junior center came off the bench for 22 minutes, a remarkable coincidence for a player who had logged precisely 22 minutes in 'each of Nova's THREE previous games. And he not only played - he was awesome, actually. Despite some foul trouble, Fraser delivered nine points, three blocks and seven boards.

Also, Nardi seemed to take his absence from the starting lineup in stride. The struggling sophomore point guard came off the bench to play 33 minutes, scoring eight points, dealing three assists and most importantly, playing vigorous defense and helping to force some MTSU turnovers. He also helped squelch MTSU's mini-rally in the second half by hitting back-to-back threes.

Villanova resumes City Series action with a New Year's Eve matinee against ancient rival Penn at the Pavilion at 4:00 PM later this week. The Quakers will be coming off a stunning 23-day layoff; Penn hasn't seen action since falling 52-51 at Temple on December 8. But the Quakers have won two of the last three against 'Nova, and are making their first 21st-century visit to the Pavilion - where the Quakers have never won. The Wildcats own a victory over La Salle and a heartbreaking loss to Temple thus far in Big Five action, and can stay in the hunt for a share of the city title with a victory. Their final City Series game comes against St. Joseph's at the Palestra in February.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Wildcats Send Great Danes to Doghouse, Defeating Albany, 86-72, In the Midst of the Christmas Season

Villanova had some trouble in sending the Albany Great Danes to the doghouse on Wednesday night, 86-72, at the Pavilion. However, the Wildcats ultimately sent the Main Line crowd back scurrying to the King of Prussia Mall to finish Christmas shopping, secure in the knowledge that 'Nova is slowly - but surely - priming up for the Big East campaign.

Three Wildcats had tremendous performances. Curtis Sumpter finished with 23 points and nine rebounds on 8-12 shooting. Randy Foye also registered 23 points, on 8-15 shooting, including 4-8 from beyond the arc. Finally, best of all, Allan Ray rocked the Pavilion for 26 points to join the 1,000 point club. For Albany, Jamar Wilson finished with 19 points to lead the way, Lucious Jordan contributed 16 points, and freshman Brent Wilson scored 15 points, including five triples.

Villanova displayed a remarkable holiday spirit to their guests from Albany, surrendering an appalling 72 points. That may not sound so bad in absolute terms, but when you take into consideration that the Wildcats entered the game as the most miserly Scrooges in the nation, ranked first nationally in both points allowed and field goal percentage defense - well, that's disappointing. Moreover, the Wildcats had yet to allow more than 53 points in a game. How did it happen? Basically, unconscious outside shooting from Albany. The Great Danes growled their way to a shocking 52% from three point range and an impressive 54% overall. It was bound to happen, sooner or later.

Albany hung around a lot longer than it should have. After Villanova zoomed out to a 28-18 first-half lead, the Great Danes pulled to just 33-32 at intermission. Villanova once again appeared to have the game in hand, after Ray canned a three roughly midway through the second half to give 'Nova a 68-50 lead. However, the Great Danes were as close as 73-68 with less than five minutes to play, after Wilson made yet another three-pointer. Fortunately, the 'Cats were able to repel the Great Danes' charge, winning by double-digits - Villanova won the rest of the game 13-4.

Villanova improved to 5-1 overall, winning its fourth straight game. The Wildcats haven't lost since December 4, to Temple at the Palestra. Albany fell to 4-4 overall. The Great Danes are currently engaged in a highly arduous road trip, as Albany just played its seventh road game (out of eight total). The trip will also continue with (gulp) a visit to the Carrier Dome on Tuesday.

While Albany was only slightly better competition than the UMBC team Villanova crushed in the season opener, the Great Danes still provided some drama as to the outcome. The Retrievers were picked to finish 10th in the ten-school America East conference, while Albany was a marginally better 8th. (Vermont, the alma mater of former Villanova mentor Rollie Massimino, was favored to finish first.) Albany is coming off a calamitous season in which the Great Danes went 5-23 overall, 3-15 America East, finishing dead last. By Albany standards, they have had a decent season, losing their only home game against Long Island in overtime. Moreover, the Great Danes have BLOWOUT victories at Sacred Heart, Siena (its crosstown opponent), and Army, winning each by 18 points or more, as well as a 12 point victory at Hartford.

This was the first-ever meeting between the schools, which was not surprising in light of the fact that the Great Danes have only competed in Division I, since the 1999-2000 season. Entering the game, Albany had posted a not unimpressive 4-16 record against schools currently in the Big East (although not necessarily as Big East members). However, since Albany joined Division I in the 21st century, the Great Danes have challenged Big East opponents on four prior occasions, three of them against Syracuse. They have never come closer than 19 points in any of them. The best showing they have managed was a 79-60 loss, at the RAC to Rutgers on Valentine's Day, 2000. However, the Great Danes were obviously hopelessly outgunned and on the road in three of those four games. Syracuse actually came to the Pepsi Arena to play Albany in 2001, winning 91-65; it was probably a 3-for-1 deal since Albany has gone to the Carrier Dome twice and will be there again next week. It seems possible, based on tonight, that the Great Danes might have more success against the Orangemen than in the past. Albany is, quite simply, a work in progress. The head coach, Will Brown, is just 33 and already in his fourth season at the helm.

Worth noting: Will Sheridan and Great Dane freshman Joe Dyson were high school teammates at Delaware's Sanford School; Great Danes tri-captain Christopher Wyatt is from the Philadelphia area; he played at Montgomery County's Hatboro-Horsham High.

Ray Watch: The junior guard finally attained the millenial milestone, exploding for 26 points on 10-16 shooting. He is the first Wildcat to join the club since Ricky Wright.

The Wildcats continue this long homestand, when MTSU arrives at the Pavilion right after Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Villanova Fells Fordham, 68-47, at Pavilion

The Wildcats breezed to a wholly expected, but still reasonably well-played, victory over a hapless, overmatched Fordham Rams squad, 68-47, Tuesday night at the Pavilion. Curtis Sumpter roared for a season-high 20 points - plus 11 boards - to lead the Wildcats' efforts. Randy Foye had a particularly strong game, scoring 17 points, grabbing nine rebounds, dishing four assists and picking up three steals in 34 minutes of action. Jason Fraser came off the bench once again and delivered a powerful performance, scoring 12 points and collecting seven rebounds in just 22 minutes of action. For Fordham, Sebastian Greene was the only player to reach double figures, registering 11 points.

Villanova continued to play relentless defense this season, as Fordham became the third opponent this year to score fewer than 50 points. The Rams were held to just 31% shooting, on 16-51 from the floor, and 21% from beyond the arc on 3-14 shooting.

Fordham was simply never in this game. The Rams were able to muster only 16 points by halftime, trailing by 13, and it was quite obvious that they were not going to return to the Big Apple with a victory. The Wildcats maintained a comfortable double-digit lead throughout the second half and just put it on cruise control. Overall, Villanova shot well from beyond the arc, nailing 5 of 11 shots (45.5%) and also thumped the Rams on the glass, 41-27.

Villanova upped its record to 4-1 overall, while Fordham dropped to 3-4 overall. It was Villanova's third straight game against Atlantic 10 competition: the Wildcats fell to Temple on December 4, before beating another, La Salle, on Saturday - both opponents are Atlantic 10 members. (Villanova will also face defending regular-season champion St. Joseph's at the Palestra in February).

Surprisingly, it was the first meeting of the two geographically close, academically-oriented Catholic schools in over 33 years - since the second round of the 1971 NCAA tournament, when 'Nova won a 85-75 shootout (a lot of points in that pre-shot clock, pre-three-point shot era). Fordham was a powerhouse then; the team was coached by Digger Phelps (now an ESPN analyst) and completed the season with a 26-3 record. The Wildcats would go on to lose to powerful UCLA in the national title game that year. It was also the first scheduled, regular-season meeting since December 1961, when Villanova won 69-48 at Fordham. By winning tonight, Villanova increased its small lead in the all-time series with Fordham to 11-8; the Rams' last victory over the Wildcats came in 1957. Tonight also marked Fordham's first visit to the Main Line campus since 1949 (Villanova hosted them six times at the Palestra between 1949 and 1960.

Ray Watch: The junior guard entered the game just 26 points away from reaching 1,000 points in his Main Line career. Unfortunately, he was constrained by foul trouble. Ray played just 22 minutes, and finished with just five points on 2-4 shooting. He has an outside chance of attaining the milestone on December 22 against Albany, but it seems more likely that it will have to wait until the December 27 contest against Middle Tennessee State. He'll be the first Wildcat to do so, since Ricky Wright reached it in 2002-03. He will be the 46th Wildcat to clear the plateau.

Fraser Watch: On Saturday, the junior center also passed Ricky Wright (79 blocks) for ninth place on the all-time blocks list, and entered the game with 80, needing two blocks to tie Rafal Bigus for eighth place at 82. He passed Biggie easily, swatting four Fordham shots.

Fordham entered the game with a record of 3-3 - which is rather impressive for a program coming off a 6-22 season- and that dismal record was - incredibly - a four-game IMPROVEMENT over their 2002-03 record of 2-26 (not a misprint). They have had three double-digit losses, to Manhattan, Boston University and Holy Cross, none of whom would be described as powers and all of whom belong to lower-tier conferences. But you have to crawl before you can walk when you're rebuilding from 2-26 two years ago. Coach Dereck Whittenburg is in his second season, taking over after the 2-26 debacle. Whittenburg has some basketball lore surrounding him; he was the guy who fed Lorenzo Charles's miracle dunk to win the 1983 national title for N.C. State, shocking Houston's then-Akeem Olajuwon and Phi Slamma Jamma.

The Rams own victories over St. Francis (NY), Iona, and Fairfield, and are capable of launching a high-powered attack, scoring 83 and 84 points in two of those three wins. Against Fairfield, they achieved something which Villanova may never have done in its long, storied history - embark on an incredible, inconceivable 33-0 run! Holding a modest 24-19 lead with 5:37 to play in the first half, they scored the final 22 points of the first half and also the first 11 of the second half, building a shocking 57-19 lead before letting up and winning just 84-68; Fairfield actually won the rest of the game 49-27. However, they were also capable of horrendous offensive performances, as a 53-39 loss to Holy Cross on the Rams' home floor also demonstrated.

The Wildcats will enjoy an eight-day respite for exams, and will return to action against the Albany Great Danes on December 22 at the Pavilion. The Wildcats will be feasting on a five-game stretch of holiday home cooking, as they don't leave the Pavilion again until traveling to Notre Dame on January 8. In that span, they face two more cupcakes (Albany and Middle Tennessee State), one Big Five rival (Pennsylvania), and a Big East squad (West Virginia).

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Villanova Holds La Salle to Just 43 Points in City Series Victory at Palestra, Winning by 11

Relying on trademark tenacious defense, Villanova overcame some atrocious outside shooting and got past Philadelphia rival La Salle, 54-43, on Saturday afternoon at the Palestra. Not since FDR was in the White House, has Villanova held the Explorers to fewer points than they did today. The 43 La Salle points were the fewest against the Wildcats, since La Salle won a tight 29-23 contest in March 1935, just the third-ever game in this long, cherished rivalry. It will most assuredly not be included in the annals of the Big Five as a particularly well-played game by either side, let alone a classic contest to savor for years in one's memories. And it wasn't really close or exciting at any point. However, both teams played hard and it was morbidly fun to watch, with a lot of turnovers, mistakes, loose balls, and long rebounds.

Villanova held La Salle to only 43 points, by playing stellar defense from the floor. The Wildcats, who entered the game ranked 4th nationally in field goal percentage defense and 9th nationally in three-point field goal percentage defense, actually IMPROVED their numbers in those departments. The Explorers were held to a measly 29% (11-38) from the floor and a pathetic 1-11 (9%) from beyond the arc. None of Villanova's four opponents have scored more than 53 points this season, and three of them have been held to 50 or fewer. That is a powerful formula for success over the long grind of the winter campaign.

Villanova also crushed the smaller Explorers on the glass and in the paint, outrebounding La Salle 44-25. The Wildcats particularly clobbered La Salle on the offensive boards, pulling down 22 offensive rebounds to 7 for the Explorers. It helped that La Salle's 6-10 Lewis Fadipe played just five minutes and still managed to foul out.

The sole bright spot for La Salle was junior forward Steven Smith. Hailed as arguably the best player in the city, Smith showed why. Despite having virtually no help from his teammates, Smith finished with a game-high 19 points and just missed a double-double with eight rebounds, and also shot a perfect 6-6 from the line (although he also committed nine turnovers, partially because he was defended so intensely). No other Explorer scored more than nine points.

For Villanova, Curtis Sumpter carried the standard with 16 points and also narrowly missed a double-double with nine boards. Allan Ray had a so-so day from the floor (4-9 shooting overall and 1-6 from beyond the arc) but it was good enough for 11 points. But far and away the best news for Villanova fans was the performance of Jason Fraser. Fraser's knee had swelled up after the Monmouth game on Tuesday and he was relegated to coming off the bench today as a result. But Fraser showed no ill effects, having a tremendous game. Fraser played 22 minutes, scoring nine points, grabbing six rebounds and swatting four La Salle shots (the only flaw being a pair of three-second violations). Marcus Austin also played well off the bench, scoring half a dozen points and collecting four rebounds in 19 minutes of action.

Of course, it wasn't all good news. Against a very weak opponent, 'Nova managed just 54 points. The Wildcats shot a dreadful 2-18 from three-point range (11%) - but La Salle's 9% was even worse. And La Salle took even worse care of the ball than 'Nova did today; the Wildcats had 17 turnovers, but the Explorers surpassed it with 20 miscues (against just six assists).

Villanova improved to 3-1 overall, 1-1 City Series, and kept their hopes alive for a potential Big Five title. The Explorers fell to 1-5 overall, 0-2 City Series; the Explorers had dropped a decision to Penn last Saturday at the Palestra, prior to Villanova's heartbreaking one-point loss to Temple.

Villanova boosted its razor-thin margin in the all-time series to 28-26. The Explorers have not beaten Villanova, since the 2001-02 season at the Pavilion. Since 1994, Villanova has dominated the series, winning seven of the last nine contests and five of the last six. Also, La Salle hasn't beaten 'Nova at the Palestra since December 17, 1983. Since the full Big Five round-robin was revived for the 1999-2000 season, four of the five Villanova/La Salle contests have been at the ancient arena, after a 15-year respite from 1985-2000. The rivalry with La Salle is one of Villanova's oldest, dating back to March 6, 1934, when 'Nova triumphed in a 25-23 barnburner on the Main Line..La Salle entered the game with a 1-4 record, including losses to James Madison and Penn, but the most galling loss was the most recent, a double-digit defeat against Central Connecticut State on the Explorers' home floor, the Tom Gola Arena. They also have a 20-point loss at Hofstra, where Villanova coach Jay Wright was at the helm prior to coming to the Main Line for the 2001-02 season. Their sole victory came against Southern California at home, and shortly afterward USC's administration took their eyes off football for a moment, in order to dismiss coach Henry Bibby, in a rare early-season firing. Although, obviously, it would not be accurate to cite the loss at La Salle as the primary reason for his ouster, a humiliating loss to a scandal-depleted team did not help Bibby's cause.

Their new coach, Dr. John Giannini, got the job after a rape scandal brought down the regime of his predecessor, Billy Hahn, during the off-season. The crimes decimated La Salle's program, due to the highly deserved firing of Hahn and the equally highly deserved expulsion of the players involved, and an outsider, Giannini, was brought in to put La Salle's once-illustrious house in order. Giannini had a lot of head coaching experience, having been at Maine for eight seasons. Giannini - a Chicago native - also was quite familiar with the Philadelphia region, having coached for seven years at Rowan (formerly Glassboro State) in New Jersey, including a national Division III championship in 1996. Coincidentally, Giannini was also a graduate assistant on the Illinois team which blew a substantial lead to Villanova in the NCAA second round in 1988, one of the most exciting comebacks I've ever seen. The Wildcats went on to reach the Elite Eight that season; no Wildcat squad hassubsequently gone so deep in the tournament. Giannini's doctorate is in kinesiology with a specialization in sports psychology. His background provides quite a contrast to Hahn.

Giannini lost 20 games in each of his first two years at Maine, and that experience with adversity should serve him well at La Salle, where the team he inherited after the Hahn fiasco is going to struggle mightily.

Will Sheridan and Chris Charles started the game, with Ray and Fraser coming off the bench. La Salle led 7-6, briefly, before its offense collapsed completely for over nine minutes, and Villanova launched a 14-0 run. (Sheridan actually was whistled for traveling no fewer than three times in the first five and a half minutes, and that obviously put a damper on Villanova's offense in that span.) It was evidently going to be quite a sloppy afternoon; the teams had already committed seven turnovers each less than eight minutes into the game. Fadibe committed his fourth foul at the 7:35 mark, forcing him to the bench (where he probably should have been after his THIRD foul in the first half). Sumpter made one of two free throws to complete the run, which vaulted Villanova to a 20-7 advantage and included two La Salle timeouts in a futile attempt to stop the momentum. The most impressive play in this span was a dunk by Fraser, on an assist from Foye.

Then Smith singlehandedly got La Salle back into the game. On consecutive possessions, Villanova had two of their many three-point misses of the day - and the ensuing long rebounds permitted Smith to fastbreak and slam them home. La Salle had gone almost ten minutes without a field goal, and suddenly had just scored dramatically on back-to-back possessions. Coach Wright opted for a timeout to discuss this undesirable development.

The teams fenced back and forth for the remainder of the half, with Smith keying the rally, but Fraser basically thwarted the comeback with an outstanding putback at the buzzer. Officials had to review the shot, but they indicated that it counted, and it restored 'Nova's momentum going into the locker room. Villanova now held a comfortable 31-20 lead at intermission.

La Salle had been held to just 30% from the floor, but 'Nova was only a little better at 38%. And the teams had combined to shoot 2-16 from beyond the arc, with one basket apiece, while also combining for 20 turnovers (11 La Salle, 9 'Nova). But the big issue was rebounding; led by eight from Sumpter alone, Villanova held a huge 25-10 advantage there.

La Salle seemed to putting its act together early in the second half, but a dunk from Fraser at the 15:30 mark made it 35-26 and halted its momentum. Some hope then seemed to be sparked by the fact that 'Nova was sinking into a morass of foul trouble, with a short bench and an ostensibly less-than-100% Fraser; Foye and Sheridan picked up their respective third fouls on consecutive series around the 14:00 mark. In a comical moment immediately after, Fadipe checked back in for the first time after his four-foul performance in the first half - and was in the game for literally six seconds, before fouling out defending Jason Fraser in the paint. He played about four minutes in the first half and six seconds in the second. (In fairness to Fadipe, it was a marginal call - he was really just playing good defense, but w/ four fouls you can't take the chance.)

La Salle's last real hope came when Wright was whistled for a technical after complaining vociferously about a non-foul call on Austin driving to the lane. The two free throws cut it to 40-32, and despite horrendous play, La Salle was still in it with 10:48 to play. But it didn't matter, as Giannini was teed up less than a minute later. Suddenly it was 49-32, a 9-0 Villanova run had resulted in just three minutes, and the last eight minutes or so was garbage time. As it had in the first half, La Salle had now gone over nine minutes without a field goal. La Salle never drew closer than 11 points the rest of the way.

An important factor was the bench, as the Wildcat bench outscored the Explorers' reserves by an astounding 26-3 margin (albeit a bit inflated by Ray and Fraser coming off it). Also worth noting: It would be cool if Mike Nardi could regain his outside shot; the sophomore is just 1-21 from beyond the arc on the season.

Ray Watch: Allan Ray entered this afternoon's game, 37 points shy of the 1,000-point mark for his Villanova career. He finished with 11, putting him 26 points away. If he has a fantastic game, he has a slim chance of reaching the mark on Tuesday against Fordham, but it's far more likely that it will come against Albany on Dec. 22 at the Pavilion.

Villanova will return to the Pavilion to take on yet another Atlantic 10 squad, Fordham, on Tuesday night. It will be the first meeting of the two schools in over 33 years, since the 1971 NCAA tournament, and the first regular-season meeting since December 1961. Three of Villanova's first five opponents this year have been Atlantic 10 members, and Villanova will also take on defending A-10 regular-season champion St. Joseph's at the Palestra in February.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Wildcats Ground Monmouth Hawks, 70-50, at the Pavilion

In a solid, albeit unspectacular, effort, the Wildcats overcame some atrocious first-half turnovers to ground the Monmouth Hawks, 70-50, at the Pavilion on Tuesday night. 'Nova committed an appalling 11 miscues in the first half, and led by just seven at intermission. However, the Wildcats blew the game open early in the second half and breezed to victory, maintaining a comfortable double-digit lead for most of the second stanza.

The sluggish start may have been due to some letdown after the difficult City Series loss to Temple at the Palestra on Saturday. Villanova improved its record to 2-1 on the young season, while Monmouth fell to 1-5 overall.

Four Wildcats reached double figures in the contest. Allan Ray and Curtis Sumpter each scored 14 points to lead all scorers, while Randy Foye (12 points) and Mike Nardi (10 points) also made significant contributions on the offensive end. Tyler Azzarelli led the Hawks with 10 points.

Villanova filled up the stat sheets very well. The bigger Wildcats crushed the Hawks on the glass, outrebounding them 36-22, and swatting eight Monmouth shots (three of those courtesy of Will Sheridan). 'Nova made 53% of its shots overall and a formidable 46% from beyond the arc, as well as a nearly-perfect 13-14 from the free throw line (93%).

Perhaps more importantly, 'Nova has played very tenacious defense thus far this year. In three games, the Wildcats have yet to yield more than 53 points. UMBC scored 41, Temple 53, and Monmouth 50; that's a good sign for the future. Also, the Hawks weren't strangers to Big East competition; in fact, in their last outing, Monmouth had actually led Seton Hall at the Meadowlands at halftime, before the Pirates fought back and eventually blew them out by 20 - ironically, 70-50, precisely the same score as tonight's contest. However, familiarity and short road trips haven't helped Monmouth against Big East opponents; the Northeast Conference school is now 0-24 all-time against the Big East.

It was Monmouth's first game against Villanova, since the Hawks came to the Main Line for the Pavilion's inaugural season in 1985-86. Villanova improved to 4-0 all-time against the Hawks. (As a New Jersey-based, nearby cupcake opponent, one would think we'd see them more often.) The Hawks also were an opponent of the 1984-85 Wildcats, who went on to capture the national championship; Villanova won a 77-62 decision that year.

The final minute of the first half was interminable, due to a couple of timeouts and a mistake by Randy Foye. Attempting a long pass on an inbounds play with less than two seconds remaining, Foye hit the scoreboard overhanging center court. This 11th and final turnover of the first half gave Monmouth an additional possession, and the Hawks capitalized upon it, with Chris Kenny scoring at the buzzer to trim the 'Nova lead to 29-22.

'Nova's defensive statistics at halftime were awesome. Monmouth was held to a shooting percentage of just 28.5%, on 8-28 shooting, and the Hawks also committed nine turnovers in being limited to just 22 points. Unfortunately, 'Nova's torrid 58% shooting percentage was offset by the 11 turnovers. Allan Ray was leading the way with nine points.

Fortunately, the 'Cats took quick control as soon as play resumed. At the under-16 timeout, VU led 42-30; at the under-12, 'Nova was up 49-32, after leading by just seven at the half. The rest of the game was uncompetitive. The best play came when Foye hit a shot as the shot clock expired at the 8:33 mark, pushing the Villanova advantage to 20. Ross Condon and Mike Grace received some playing time at the end; Condon scooped up a rebound and had an assist Chris Charles dunked, on an assist from Marcus Austin in the final minute. (Coincidentally, Monmouth had a player with the similar-sounding name of Marques Alston, who finished with seven points.)

Allan Ray moved closer to the milestone of 1,000 career points. The junior guard had entered the game 51 points shy of the mark; he finished with 14. With 37 points still to go, It would appear that he'll clear the millenial hurdle on Dec. 22 at the Pavilion, against Albany. He'll be the first Wildcat to join the club since Ricky Wright did so in 2002-03.

One oddity: Mike Nardi had 8 points at halftime, but didn't score again until just after the under-4 minute timeout.

Villanova will resume City Series play at the Palestra on Saturday afternoon, when they take on the La Salle Explorers. Both teams will be seeking to rebound from disappointing losses in last Saturday's 4th Annual Big Five Classic; the Explorers fell to Penn, prior to 'Nova's loss to Temple.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Temple Tops Villanova in Palestra Heartbreaker, 53-52

Villanova saw its City Series opener slip away in heartrending fashion on Saturday, as Temple fans stormed the court to celebrate a 53-52 victory in the 4th Annual Big Five Classic at the Palestra. Temple's Dustin Salisbery drained a three-pointer with 1:06 to play, providing what would ultimately prove to be the winning margin. Jason Fraser's slam was unfortunately rejected by Temple's Mardy Collins at crunch time. However, Temple's Antwyane Robinson missed the front end of a one-and-one, providing Villanova with a golden opportunity to take the contest. The Wildcats tried to win it in the waning seconds, but Curtis Sumpter's shot at the buzzer did not drop.

Temple broke the all-time series deadlock in its favor, and the Owls now lead the 'Cats, 40-39. Villanova fell to 0-1 City Series, 1-1 overall in the young season. Temple improved to 1-0 Big Five, 2-3 overall. Today's tripleheader, in which Penn battled La Salle and St. Joseph's took on Drexel, marked the beginning of the year-long celebrationoftheBigFive's50thanniversary.

Sumpter recorded a double-double with 15 points and 13 boards, enough to lead 'Nova in both categories, and was a perfect 6-6 from the foul line. However, he struggled from the floor, making just 4 of 12 shots. Fraser had a monster game on the defensive end, swatting five Temple shots and grabbing six rebounds. Allan Ray scuffled to a highly disappointing 4-15 from the floor, although he did finish in double figures with 11 points, while contributing five rebounds. Randy Foye also reached double figures with 10 points, adding a pair of assists and steals as well as four rebounds. Mike Nardi had a tremendously frustrating afternoon, making just 2 of his 12 field goal attempts (including 1-8 from beyond the arc) and committing five turnovers against three assists.

For Temple, Salisbery led the way with 15 points, with Collins and Mark Tyndale each chipping in 11. Collins also dealt six assists against four turnovers. Keith Butler had seven points and ten boards before fouling out, playing just 26 minutes.

Villanova overall was dreadful from the floor, a not uncommon fate for Temple opponents. The 'Cats shot a horrific 31% from the floor and an even worse 19% from three-point range: numbers which against virtually any other opponent, would have indicated a blowout loss. However, with Temple as the opponent, they were still very much in the game. Temple was almost as bad, making just 36% of its shots and 25% from three-point range- but those slightly better numbers spelled the difference between a one-point victory and a one-point defeat. It also didn't help that Temple's bench thrashed the 'Nova bench, with the reserve Owls outscoring the bench 'Cats 16-4. Coach Jay Wright opted to use just seven players, and even the two reserves were used sparingly: Will Sheridan played just 20 minutes and Chris Charles played nine. Sheridan had a strong game on defense, with four rebounds and three blocks in his limited action.

It was an exciting contest, marked by a dozen lead changes and nine ties. Temple shot out to a short-lived 5-0 lead, before the game began seesawing between the two schools. The Owls appeared on the verge of pulling away when they gained a 22-15 lead, following layups from Butler and Wayne Marshall at the 2:35 mark. Villanova rallied, though, finishing the half on a 8-2 run, ending when Sumpter laid it in with 13 seconds to play. Temple held a narrow one-point advantage at intermission.

Other than the horrendous shooting, the halftime numbers looked reasonably okay for 'Nova. Six different players had scored, and the 'Cats had won the battle on the glass by two, 23-21. Ray had six points to lead 'Nova, while Salisbery had seven for Temple.

Temple would gain its largest lead of the second half, when Tyndale nailed a triple with 14:46 to go. The three-pointer put Temple up 33-27, and the Owls get particularly tough when they have a lead to protect and their slow, deliberative pace can have its full impact. Villanova responded with its finest stretch of the contest, ripping off nine straight points to recapture the momentum. Fraser came up with a block and then dunked to deadlock the game at 33, and Sumpter then hit a three to give 'Nova a 36-33 advantage. The Villanova lead peaked at four, when Will Sheridan converted a jumper with 8:40 to play, putting 'Nova up 40-36. The Wildcats' last lead would come at the 2:37 mark, after a layup by Randy Foye made it 49-48. Unfortunately, Villanova scored just three points the rest of the way. Temple successfully clung to its lead, not scoring for the final 1:07, and it was just enough. Villanova's 15 turnovers, and the 17 points which directly resulted, also hampered the cause.

Entering the game, in a remarkable coincidence, the all-time series overall, as well as those played at the Palestra, and John Chaney's personal record against 'Nova, were all deadlocked. Each team had won 39 games overall, 16 apiece at the storied venue on Penn's campus, and 10 each in games in which Chaney had coached. Villanova had enjoyed a lot of success at Temple's expense in recent years: 'Nova had won four of the last five meetings, especially the 73-48 shocking opener to last year's midnight season opener at the Liacouras Center. The teams also met in the inaugural Big Five Classic, in December 2001, with Villanova triumphing. Villanova had also done quite well at the Palestra over the last couple of years: the Wildcats had won eight of their last 10 games there.

The Wildcats will try to rebound from the disappointing loss, when Monmouth travels to the Pavilion on Tuesday night. They will then return to the Palestra for another try, when they meet City Series foe La Salle on Saturday afternoon.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

In Villanova's Season Opener, UMBC Retrievers Roll Over for Wildcats at Pavilion, 66-41

Villanova kicked off its 85th season of intercollegiate competition in outstanding form, crushing the Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers, 66-41. The contest was not as close as the final score indicated. 'Nova led 41-16 at halftime and truth be told, the game was over from the opening tap, when Curtis Sumpter - from Mike Nardi - and Randy Foye each threw down dunks, spurring 'Nova to a 10-0 run to start the game. Villanova's lead ranged as high as 64-30, before garbage time; some diminishing intensity and increasing sloppiness permitted the Retrievers to finish the game on a 11-2 run. Even so, Villanova's lead never fell below 25 during the entire second half. UMBC's Andrew Feeley ended up leading their feeble effort, with 12 points, as the Retrievers fell to 1-1 overall.

Ironically, UMBC's win this season came over Navy, where former VU coordinator of basketball operations Billy Lange just took over as head coach. UMBC's Randy Monroe, also in his first season as head coach, has as deep a Philadelphia pedigree as anyone in basketball. Monroe is a native of the city and played for Catholic League powerhouse Roman Catholic in the 1980s. He played at Textile (now Philadelphia U.) and Cheyney State before heading to La Salle as an assistant during its last glorious run in the late '80s.

This was the second straight season in which Villanova opened the season in stirring fashion. Last year, in the memorable midnight contest, a suspension-depleted Villanova squad shocked everyone by crushing Temple, 73-48, in the season opener.

Allan Ray led all scorers with 23 points, in just 26 minutes of action. The junior, named to the second-team All-Big East squad, demonstrated why: he drained five three-pointers in the first half, scoring 15 of Villanova's first 19 points. He was awesome, quite frankly. Ray shot 9-13 from the floor overall, 5-7 from three-point range, pulled down six boards and had three assists. Mike Nardi did an outstanding job running the point, playing 35 minutes, dealing ten assists against just a single turnover. Randy Foye also turned in a solid performance, scoring 16 points on 6-11 shooting, 4-7 from three-point range. Curtis Sumpter reached double figures as well, registering 14 points on 6-12 shooting and grabbing six boards.

Chris Charles, spelling the not-yet-100% Jason Fraser, was in the starting lineup and delivered a strong performance on the glass, pulling down five rebounds in just 18 minutes and swatting three UMBC shots. Charles also displayed some offensive skills with an impressive one-handed dunk in the second half. Fraser came off the bench to play 12 minutes; he had three boards, but he struggled, quickly sinking into foul trouble (he finished with four) and also committing four turnovers.

The short bench made meaningful contributions. Marcus Austin scored five points and had six rebounds in only 14 minutes, and Will Sheridan logged 25 minutes, scoring two points and hauling in five rebounds. They were major reasons for Villanova's massive rebounding advantage, as the Wildcats pounded the Retrievers on the glass, 42-27.

UMBC was hideously overmatched. The Retrievers are currently selected to finish 10th out of the ten-school America East Conference, and after tonight's performance, the reasons for that fact are quite evident. They tried hard, but they were no match for Big East-caliber players. Villanova clobbered them on the defensive end, holding their UMBC opponents to an anemic 32% shooting from the floor and 23% from three-point range. Meanwhile, the Wildcats shot a respectable 47% from the floor and a strong 42% from three-point range. The only fly in the ointment were the 14 turnovers, but a disproportionate number came during garbage time (the 'Cats had just four at halftime). And they were offset by 17 assists on the 26 field goals.

With Ray leading the way, 'Nova went up 19-9, and then cruised to a huge lead, raising its advantage to 35-11 after Sumpter put in a layup following a steal by Nardi at the 4:27 mark. When Sheridan scored off a Sumpter miss at the 1:30 mark, Villanova held a 41-16 lead, its largest of the game at that point, and they took that into the locker room, punctuated by an Austin block at the buzzer.

'Nova was shooting 60% from the floor and 57% from three-point range at intermission, with 17 points from Ray and 13 from Foye. The team cooled off during the second half, as the teams battled to a 25-25 draw. Nonetheless, do not be deceived by that fact. Villanova had a 34 point lead deep into the second half, and had the proper intensity been maintained, they could certainly have held it. Any time you hold a opponent to just 41 points in this day and age you've had quite a successful contest. 'Nova scored just two points in the final 8:04 - and still won the game by 25 points. Ross Condon, Tom Grace, and Baker Dunleavy made cameo appearances during the final 55 seconds of action.

This was only the second contest between the schools. However, this game was a refreshing contrast to the first one, which took place two seasons ago, with Villanova riding the crest of preseason buzz about the recruiting class of Sumpter, Foye, Ray, and Fraser. UMBC actually LED at halftime of that game, 29-26, before Villanova recovered to win, 72-60. And the Wildcats were outrebounded, 40-39, in sharp contrast to tonight's game.

Villanova will enjoy an 11-day respite over the Thanksgiving holiday. Their second game will not take place until Saturday, December 4, when they travel to the Palestra to take on the Temple Owls in the Big Five Classic. The Owls will undoubtedly be looking for revenge after last year's debacle.

Monday, November 22, 2004

2004-05 Villanova Wildcats Season Preview

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

As a result, the 2004-05 season will resemble the old Big East more so than in any season in recent years. There will be "only" 12 teams, the fewest the conference has had since Rutgers, West Virginia and Notre Dame joined for the 1995-96 season. There will be only a single division, something which has been rare in recent seasons (the format has vacillated over the years). Every school will face every other at least once.

Moreover, the absence of Miami and Virginia Tech (who have escaped to the ACC a year earlier than BC) also means that Villanova will have more games against its traditional Northeastern rivals like BC, Providence, Georgetown and Seton Hall, all of whom appear twice on the schedule.

It seems only fitting that this would take place on the 20th anniversary of Villanova's miraculous run to the national championship in 1985. On January 15 at the Pavilion, the school vanquished on that glorious night, Georgetown, will make its first-ever trip to that building. And 'Nova will honor the members of that squad in what undoubtedly will be a moving, tearjerking ceremony, complete with former coach Rollie Massimino. The day before, VU will issue a special commemorative DVD of the magnificent run, hosted by CBS/ESPN commentator Bill Raftery.

Villanova will open conference play against West Virginia at the Pavilion on January 5, and conclude its regular season precisely two months later, on March 5 at St. John's. In addition to the four opponents mentioned above, the Wildcats will face Notre Dame - currently ranked #20 - twice (including an ESPN2 tilt) and all other schools once. Villanova will take on defending national champion Connecticut on Groundhog Day at Storrs, Conn., and another conference game to savor will be when nationally ranked Pittsburgh comes to the Pavilion on February 20, when ABC's cameras will be rolling and the Wildcats will hopefully be in the hunt for a NCAA bid.

Another pleasant throwback will be the relative scarcity of games shifted to South Philadelphia. The Wildcats will travel down there only three times this season, with back-to-back contests in late January. They face Kansas on January 22 and Notre Dame on January 26, with ESPN covering the first game and ESPN2 the latter.

Of course, Villanova's schedule is not confined solely to conference foes. The Wildcats will face their traditional Big Five rivals in the full round-robin format once again, and with three of its four games coming at the venerable Palestra. The centerpiece game will be against St. Joseph's on February 7, with ESPN2 in attendance. With the Hawks coming off an Elite Eight season in which they reached the top spot in the national rankings for a week in March, the Wildcats will have an excellent opportunity to impress the Selection Committee down the stretch with a road victory.

Villanova will kick off City Series play with the always enjoyable Big Five Classic on Saturday, December 4, the Palestra tripleheader. Inaugurated in 2001-02, it has proven to be a big hit with the fans and become an annual tradition. The Wildcats will battle the Temple Owls, with SJU facing Drexel and La Salle taking on Penn. The following weekend, the Wildcats will return to West Philadelphia to challenge La Salle. It will be the third consecutive Palestra clash for the two ancient rivals. And on New Year's Eve, the Wildcats will bid 2004 a fond farewell by hosting the Penn Quakers at the Pavilion at 4 PM.

Villanova opted wisely to reduce the difficulty of its nonconference schedule this season; it is arguably the least formidable in recent years. Kansas is the lone non-Big East, non-Big Five opponent of any significance. The Wildcats aren't playing in a holiday tournament this season, most likely due to the complicated NCAA regulations regarding them. It's possible that this has been changed, because the NCAA was re-evaluating this particular policy, but the way it used to be was that you could only participate in (to cite a single example) the Great Alaska Shootout, once every four years, and then wait your turn again. The logic was that it wasn't fair for the big conferences to take all of these spots, and by forcing you to wait four years to participate in each one, it freed up spots for mid-major programs to get neutral-court games against the bigger fish.

However, since the fields are usually drawn up several years in advance anyhow, Villanova probably didn't decide during this off-season not to play in one. It may very well have been that it was just the luck of the draw, that this year they would miss one. Speculation aside, this was as good a year as any for Villanova to miss out on them. The weaker schedule will probably enhance the Wildcats' tournament hopes.

In recent years, Villanova's absence from the NCAA tournament has stemmed primarily from its won-lost record, not its lack of schedule strength. This year will be no exception. In the Big East, Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame are all in the AP Top 25, while Providence and BC are also receiving votes. And of course, Kansas is atop the poll, and the City Series games are always battles. There will be plenty of chances for 'Nova to prove its mettle.

Instead of scheduling a multitude of nonconference national powerhouses, Villanova will feast on a cholesterol-heavy holiday smorgasbord of cupcakes at the Pavilion. In November and December, Maryland-Baltimore County, Monmouth, Fordham, Albany, and Middle Tennessee (Editor's Note: MTSU will be a tough team) will come to the Pavilion and accept their thrashings to improve 'Nova's record and provide valuable playing experience for the bench. (Fordham, as an Atlantic 10 member, might not technically qualify as a cupcake, but the Rams are coming off a 6-22 season and are the traditional doormat of the conference.) Coach Jay Wright's alma mater of Bucknell will also pay a visit in February, providing a brief respite from the trenches of the Big East wars.

While the schedule may evoke memories of a bygone era, the team will actually be quite familiar, as it is virtually unchanged from last season. The Wildcats will add only a single player, in Kyle Lowry, to last year's squad, and lost only two scholarship players, Derrick Snowden and Andreas Bloch - both of whom averaged less than 17 minutes per game last season. And Lowry unfortunately tore his ACL on August 26 and thus his status this season is in question. In an era of coaching carousels, player transfers, and scandals, such stability in a major-college program is almost unheard of.

Moreover, Villanova's young team is long on game experience. Wright's ballyhooed recruiting class of Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser (now juniors) has logged quite a few minutes since they got here, and last year's pair of freshmen, Mike Nardi and Will Sheridan, saw significant playing time as well. Ironically, while the team has only one scholarship senior in Marcus Austin, the squad may very well be among the most experienced in the Big East.

The biggest threat at this point has been injuries. Lowry, a 6-0 guard and graduate of Philadelphia's Cardinal Dougherty High School, underwent successful surgery in September on his knee. He is making progress, but his status for the upcoming season is "doubtful", according to VU. Obviously, Lowry could end up taking a medical redshirt if unable to play this season, restoring his season of eligibility.

Fraser has been plagued with injuries throughout his Villanova career. After enjoying a healthy summer, in October, Fraser's knee began to swell and sidelined him, while he underwent arthroscopic surgery on the 22nd, his third knee surgery and second on the left knee. He has resumed practicing "on a limited basis", but remains doubtful for Tuesday's season opener against UMBC.

Austin underwent surgery in July to rectify problems in his foot, which had caused him to miss virtually all of last season. Apparently he is now back at full strength. But that's not all. Nardi, after suffering a sprained foot, collided with Foye in practice, injuring both players. Fortunately, both returned after a brief three-day hiatus; Foye suffered a mild concussion. Finally, Michael Claxton separated his shoulder, missing three weeks of fall practice; he remains doubtful for UMBC.

Despite all of these injuries, it appears that the Wildcats will have a meaningful shot at returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. The annual pre-season Big East coaches' poll forecast that the Wildcats would be solidly in the middle of the pack, with a seventh place finish in the 12-team league. In other words, squarely on the bubble, where the Wildcats have found themselves so often over the last few years.

Villanova will come into the season with some momentum. The 'Cats staggered into the Big East tournament last season, dropping their last five contests and appearing on the verge of missing postseason play for the first time since 1998. But they emerged with a stunning run, knocking off Seton Hall and Providence before falling to Connecticut (the eventual NCAA champion). The wins were good enough to boost the 'Cats to a .500 record and a chance to go to the NIT for the fifth straight year. They did well in that tournament as well, stopping Drexel and Virginia before being ousted by Rutgers. The NIT wins permitted 'Nova to finish the campaign at 18-17 - one game over .500. (Entering the Big East tournament the squad was 14-15, and if they hadn't made it to .500, they would have spent the postseason at home.)

The nucleus of that squad remains intact, despite the injuries. The heart of the team will be the two players recognized by the conference, Sumpter and Ray, both of whom were named third-team All-Big East after last season. They were promoted to the preseason second-team All-Big East squad in October. Sumpter averaged 14.3 points and 7.1 boards per game last season, while Ray led the team with 17.3 points per contest.

Rounding out the lineup will be Nardi, Foye, and Fraser (if he's healthy). Both Foye and Fraser are enigmatic figures on this squad. Foye shows flashes of brilliance; he was a big part of the team's late charge in the postseason, and hit the shot that beat Seton Hall in the opening round. He averaged over 13 points a game last season. On other nights, he cannot buy a basket. While to a degree, that can be said of any college player, with Foye the streakiness is especially pronounced. As for Fraser, the injuries have really hindered his development. He also began to show substantial improvement in March, and one could see the potential that all the scouts raved about, the skills that made him the top post prospect in America when he was signed - and understand the speculation that he'd be in the NBA by now, after just two years at Villanova.

Fraser still could be a great player, although obviously it's extremely unlikely that he'll be leaving to turn pro after this season. The potential is there - he just has to stay healthy and continue to polish his offensive game. He finished last season with - coincidentally - 7.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest, the latter figure tops on the team.

Nardi had a successful freshman season in the backcourt, and will likely only improve with time. He was flung into the college basketball wars at a tender age, due to the phone-access-card scandal - his first day on campus. Nardi started all 35 games and nearly averaged double figures, finishing at 9.9 pts/game and leading the team with 3.7 assists per contest. His classmate, Sheridan, also contributed significantly to last year's success, rebounding and playing strong defense in the interior. With relatively few players (and even fewer healthy ones) Sheridan's minutes off the bench will continue to increase: he made five starts and averaged 21 minutes a game as a freshman, adding 4.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Worth noting were his 32 blocks, second only to Fraser, and especially impressive in light of his minutes.

Marcus Austin, the lone senior, will try to rebound after a foot injury kept him out of action for all but one game of last season. Rounding out the frontcourt will be redshirt junior Chris Charles, a seven-footer who has come along slowly due to health problems. Charles appeared in 28 games last year and started eight, chipping in some rebounds and blocks. Coming off the bench will be Claxton and Baker Dunleavy, who both played sparingly last year, as well as walk-ons Ross Condon and Tom Grace. Claxton and Dunleavy combined to average less than 10 minutes/game last season, and neither figures to make a substantial impact.

Jay Wright returns for his fourth season at the helm. Wright has been tremendously successful at removing the pall of discontent which had been hovering over the campus like an ominous storm cloud under his predecessor, Steve Lappas (enmeshed in problems of his own at Massachusetts, nowadays). While his critics would note that Wright has yet to take the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament, it should be equally noted that Rome wasn't built in a day.

Villanova has never been a revolving door for coaches, nor should it be. The school has had just five coaches over the last several decades, including Wright. He enjoys sufficient political support, as well as solid standing in the all-important court of public opinion. He's going to be here for quite a while, and hopefully he'll have a lot of banners to hang up in the Pavilion. The off-season was briefly marred by the unpleasant news about the NCAA probation, but it does not appear that there were any serious violations and it should not adversely affect the future of the program. VU did not lose any scholarships or TV appearances.

On the whole, the future looks bright. If the Wildcats can put their talented pieces together and weave into a coherent whole, they have a fighting chance to be celebrating come Selection Sunday. The journey starts Tuesday night against UMBC.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Scarlet Knights End Wildcats' Season in NIT

Villanova's season - unexpectedly extended through late March - came to an unfortunately inglorious end on Wednesday night, as the Wildcats were solidly sunk, at Big East rival Rutgers, in the NIT quarterfinals. The 72-60 final did, nonetheless, mark the end of a winning campaign for 'Nova at 18-17. It was the second time in Jay Wright's three seasons that the Wildcats ended up one step short of the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City: two years ago, Temple stopped Villanova at the Liacouras Center in the quarterfinals.

Entering tonight's game, Rutgers was 15-2 at the RAC this season, a place notoriously difficult for visiting teams, and that was certainly an advantage. But it may not have mattered in any event: the Scarlet Knights had already demonstrated that they could beat Villanova this season, having won 71-68 at the Pavilion on January 28. Tonight, the Wildcats simply had no answer for Ricky Shields on the perimeter. His 21 points led all scorers, and most of them came on triples: Shields was a torrid 6-8 from beyond the arc. Three other Scarlet Knights reached double figures: Quincy Douby (18 points), as well as Adrian Hill and Herve Lamizana, who both had 13. Hill tied a career high with his 13 and had four dunks in the first half alone. Lamizana had a fantastic performance overall, as he swatted EIGHT Villanova shots, and narrowly missed a double-double by pulling in nine rebounds, despite playing the game on a twisted right ankle. Villanova self-destructed on the offensive end, committing 20 turnovers and shooting a miserable 52% from the line (over the season, the team had made 73.5% of its free throws). Those miscues offset Villanova's strong advantage on the glass, as the Wildcats outrebounded the Scarlet Knights Curtis Sumpter paced the Wildcats with 15 points, while adding five rebounds. Allan Ray scuffled through a difficult night from the floor (4-13) but managed to finish with 14 points. Best of all, Jason Fraser rebounded (literally and figuratively) from earlier-NIT struggles with a double-double, scoring a dozen points and collecting 13 rebounds.

Well, the basketball gods give, and the basketball gods take away. Villanova was given a new lease on life at the Big East tournament two weeks ago, and the 'Cats made great use of it, winning two Big East games and vaulting into the NIT after being left for dead. And the Wildcats even managed to acquire a pair of NIT victories. But the unexpected postseason ride came to a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion Wednesday night at the RAC at Rutgers. The game was not especially competitive, despite the fact that 'Nova managed to lose by only a dozen. The Wildcats were trailing by a dozen at halftime, and were never in the game, during the second half. RU's lead swelled as high as 68-49 at one point late in the second half, before Villanova rallied itself and won the rest of the game, 11-4. After intermission, the Wildcats shot just 33% from the floor and trailed by double-digits for all 20 minutes. It would have been nice if this game had ended up like the first (and until tonight, only) time Villanova faced another Big East team in postseason play: Georgetown on April 1, 1985, in the national championship. Ironically, along those lines, the coach of that team - Roland V. Massimino - whose tenure at Cleveland State ended after last season, was in attendance tonight. But there would be no miracle, not even with Rollie's presence.

Rutgers improved its record to 19-12 overall and is making its first trip to the NIT semifinals in a generation: the last trip up the New Jersey Turnpike for the NIT was in 1978. For Villanova, their final 18-17 mark represented an impressive improvement from a team that staggered into the Big East tournament with a 14-15 record, and needed to win two games just to assure its participation in the NIT. It was Villanova's first loss at the RAC since 2000, and it dropped their overall NIT record to 24-17, after two victories this season: Villanova won the NIT in 1994.

The game started out exciting enough, with frequent lead changes. There were no fewer than seven lead changes and three ties, while the score reached a 22-22 deadlock. Near the end of that span, we saw a thrilling sequence with shots raining down at both ends. Among the highlights: Mike Nardi went coast-to-coast following a failed Rutgers dunk, while Fraser delivered a monster dunk of his own- but ultimately, Shields made back-to-back threes, putting Rutgers up for good, while Snowden - not to be outdone - nailed his three, the final one of his Villanova career. Unfortunately, Villanova went cold near the end of the half, making just two of their last seven shots. Rutgers took a commanding 43-31 lead into the locker room, which Villanova never even trimmed to single digits the rest of the way.

The Wildcats enjoyed only one second-half spell where they seemed to make a game of it. Around the midpoint of the second half, they embarked on a 6-0 run (two layups from Foye keying it) while Rutgers went cold; the Scarlet Knights scored just two points over a five-plus minute span. But Shields, as he did all night, hit another triple and the 'Cats were back on their heels, and RU's lead ballooned to 18, 68-49, after Douby's three-pointer around the six minute mark. It was all over. The rest of the game was relegated to garbage time.

The game was the last for Wildcats Derrick Snowden, Andreas Bloch and walk-on Tom Grace (who played just three seasons). They finished their Villanova careers as the second class in a row to never participate in a NCAA tournament, but they did play in four NITs. As far as I can tell, the 2003 class and this one are the only Villanova classes who fall into that category: the 1965-68 Wildcats also went to four straight NITs, but freshmen weren't eligible back then. Snowden's final game featured him playing 22 minutes, as Randy Foye was saddled with foul trouble (Foye played just 23 minutes prior to fouling out). Snowden scored three points and added a string of singles across the box score: one field goal, one offensive rebound, one steal, one assist, one personal foul. He also took two shots from the floor (both triples), missed two free throws, and committed two turnovers. Neither Bloch nor Grace received the opportunity, in their final games as Wildcats, to see action. Which disappoints me, because they should have gotten to play during garbage time. If the game had been competitive down the stretch, I can understand Wright not putting them in. But when you're getting thumped late in the second half, and you have seniors that haven't played, they should be on the floor in the final seconds.

It also erases the final vestiges of the Steve Lappas era on the Main Line. Snowden and Bloch were the only Wildcats left to ever actually play a game for Lappas, which they did as freshmen. Marcus Austin, who will be back next season, is the only player remaining who was recruited by Lappas, but never actually played for him. (Chris Charles, who arrived the same year as Austin, was recruited by Wright after he became head coach that spring.) But, obviously, this year was played by Wright-recruited players, who logged the overwhelming majority of the minutes; Snowden and Bloch were bench players. Jay Wright is now 4-3 in NIT play at Villanova; he had two wins his first year, and two this season.

It was a forgettable performance by the Wildcats, but that shouldn't obscure the achievements of the squad this March. Villanova had won four out of five entering tonight. This season may ultimately have turned on Randy Foye making the game-winning shot against Seton Hall, during the first round of the Big East tournament. Had the Wildcats lost that game, they would have disbanded with a record of 14-16, with a 6-10 record in Big East regular season play and a first-round tournament loss (in other words, 6-11 in league play, losing nearly two-thirds of its games against BE opponents). With six straight losses, after staying on the fringes of the bubble for most of the season. A dark pall would likely have hung over the offseason. Instead, the team showed a great deal of heart and desire to keep playing. They have now ended their season with a winning record and four wins out of their last six, against fairly competitive opponents.

Villanova also has youth on its side. With statistics showing that the overwhelming majority (85%-90%) of the minutes and scoring are coming from freshmen and sophomores, the future would seem bright. By the time the illustrious 2006 class of Ray/Foye/Sumpter/Fraser are seniors, they will probably have more actual game experience than any other team in America. Ray and Sumpter are already third-team All-Big East players, and Nardi qualified for the All-Rookie team.

I tend to fall on the side of optimism, and to balance that out, I'll give the other side. It can't be denied that there aren't major problems to fix, for precisely the same reasons cited above. Villanova was one Randy Foye shot from going home with a losing record, for the second straight season. The team still turns the ball over WAY too much. Even by the standards of college players, Foye is maddeningly inconsistent; one night he looks incredible, the next he gets into foul trouble and can't put it in the ocean. And the greatest enigma is Jason Fraser. If he stays healthy, he could be a major wrecking crew in the paint. If he doesn't, Villanova will continue to struggle to diversify its offense, over-relying on its guards and their capacity to have hot shooting hands EVERY night.

It also would help to have two more role players: a stronger presence off the bench and a monster in the paint. Aside from Will Sheridan's solid play, the 'Cats really didn't have anyone this season, who could give them a lift at a key moment. And even Sheridan isn't an offensive catalyst, but instead a rebounder and defender. What 'Nova needs is a guy to play the role similar to that of departed transfer Reggie Bryant: a guy who could come into the game cold and score a couple of quick buckets, and take the momentum back from the opponent. As for the second need, a Chuck Kornegay/Aaron Matthews type (I'm oversimplifying, because those two guys weren't THAT similar, but you get the idea) could be helpful underneath. The guy doesn't need overwhelming offensive skills, but the size to push opposing rebounders out of the way and get to the loose ball. It's possible that Sheridan could develop into that kind of player.

But overall, fortune is likely smiling on the Wildcats and their future. Inherent in the discussion above, is the need for ROLE players. That, by definition, is something positive. The Wildcats already have the major pieces in place - a point guard, outside shooters, and a post player. What they need is better five-man basketball and a couple of extra pieces to get them over the hump.

Let's see what happens next season...

Go Wildcats!

Saturday, March 20, 2004

'Nova Cuts Down Cavaliers, 73-63, in NIT

In a rare morning contest, tipping at 11 AM, Villanova cut down the Virginia Cavaliers, 73-63, at the Pavilion on Saturday. The triumph advanced Villanova to the quarterfinals of the NIT, where they will face a fellow Big East school: the winner of Monday night's NIT contest, in which West Virginia will travel to Rutgers. The victory, the 18th of the season and fourth in the last five games, assured the Wildcats of a winning season, as they are now two games over .500, with only one possible loss remaining. It was the first meeting between the two mid-Atlantic schools since the first round of the 1992 NIT, a tournament which Virginia ultimately won at Madison Square Garden. That game was historically significant as the final game at Villanova for former coaching legend Rollie Massimino.

It's hard to believe that just a week and a half ago 'Nova was limping into the BE tournament; the 18-16 Wildcats now have a fighting chance at winning the entire NIT. The same cannot be said of Virginia. The Cavaliers' season ended with another disappointment for coach Pete Gillen, the former Villanova assistant who has also been head coach at Xavier and Providence. Gillen has just completed six seasons at the helm with a 104-78 record, and has been the focus of criticism in Charlottesville, due to the team's failure to reach the NCAAs since the 2001 season. The Cavaliers, members of the soon-to-expand ACC, finished the season with a 18-13 record, with all 13 losses coming to a squad which ultimately reached either the NCAA or NIT. But the Cavaliers finished 6-10 in the rugged ACC and won only a single road game in conference play. As the school is constructing a new (and by definition, expensive) building to replace the old "U-Hall", Gillen has been coming under fire.

Both of these programs have now been regulars in the NIT. This is, as we all know, the fifth straight appearance for 'Nova, but also the third straight for the Cavaliers and fourth in the last five years. Virginia, which won the tournament not only in 1992 but also in 1980, has now lost in the second round of the NIT, for the second straight season. (The Cavaliers haven't advanced past the second round in any of those last four NITs.)

Randy Foye completed his third straight game breaking 20 points, by pouring in 21 and dealing six assists, but Allan Ray led all scorers with an outstanding game: 23 points and eight rebounds. Curtis Sumpter, despite being saddled with foul trouble, recorded a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Will Sheridan played 31 minutes due to the foul woes of Sumpter and Jason Fraser, and contributed significantly on defense: the freshman forward finished with four blocks and five rebounds. For Virginia, star Elton Brown was shut down completely in the first half, in which he scored no points, and by the time he got rolling after intermission it was basically too late for the Cavaliers. Brown finished with 13 points and six rebounds on just 4-12 shooting. Todd Billet ended his days at UVA on a sour note, going scoreless in 25 minutes of action. Ironically, the Cavaliers were primarily keyed by a pair of bench players: Gary Forbes, who led the team with 19 points on excellent 8-11 shooting, and Donte Minter, who had eight points and five boards in just 15 minutes of action. Virginia's bench outscored 'Nova's, 30-2. The game also featured a cameo by a Philadelphia player, Jason Cain, who played just two minutes.

Possibly due to the early tip-off, and the generally subdued tone of NIT competition, the game was a little sluggish on both sides. Virginia made just three of its first 12 shots. Gillen, who likes unorthodox defenses, opted for a triangle-and-two in the early going. The teams traded baskets for a while, with Sumpter a monster underneath for 'Nova; less than seven minutes into the game he already had seven boards. For UVA, Donte Minter came off the bench to light a spark for in the first half. The Wildcats were hurt when Sumpter and Fraser both sank into foul trouble in the early going. Sumpter picked up his second foul at the 12:12 mark, and the resulting free throw pulled UVA within 12-11. About two minutes later, Fraser committed his second, on Minter and very far from the basket. Minter would give the Cavaliers their last lead at 19-18, with two free throws at the 8:51 mark, due to a foul by Sheridan. It came after one of the most exciting plays of the day, a three from Mike Nardi which came just as the shot clock expired.

Villanova began to pull away a bit, though, after J.R. Reynolds converted an "and one," the result of a one-on-one breakaway against Nardi. That made it 24-22 'Nova, but the 'Cats would finish the half on a 13-6 run to take a 37-28 advantage into the locker room. The big blow was at the buzzer, when after racing up the floor, Ray threw a desperate fling from about 3-4 feet beyond the arc into the hoop.

The halftime stats looked pretty good for 'Nova. Ray and Foye had each reached double figures with 10 each, and the team had held the Cavaliers to just 33% shooting and had outrebounded them 21-15. Best of all, Elton Brown, the Cavaliers' best player, who ranked 9th in the ACC in both scoring and rebounding, had been shut out entirely. Minter, Forbes, and Reynolds all tied for the Virginia lead with eight points apiece.

The second half of the game was delayed shortly, while medical personnel attended to a physically ill individual at the Pavilion. After play resumed, 'Nova quickly inflated its lead to double-digits, starting with a 8-0 run, and the lead peaked at 45-28 less than four minutes into the second half. Villanova began putting it on cruise control, but then a series of mental mistakes and foolish fouls began letting UVA back into the game. Fraser picked up his third and fourth fouls on consecutive possessions at around the 12:18 mark; Sumpter had picked up his own fourth just under the 16:00 mark. With both of them out of the game, Virginia began pounding it inside and enjoying some success doing so. The most egregious sequence came around the eight minute mark, when VU committed a 35 second violation and Derrick Snowden then committed three fouls in less than 90 seconds. The Cavaliers began to chip into the lead, and Wright opted for a 30 second timeout at the 7:01 mark with the score standing at 52-44; UVA was on a 16-7 run.

Fraser returned to the game immediately after that timeout, delivering an "and-one" but then ingloriously fouling out on the next possession, on a bad foul. Thus far in the NIT, Fraser has unfortunately regressed badly after a stunning improvement over three games in New York. He was once again a nonfactor, logging just 13 minutes, scoring three points and grabbing six rebounds before fouling out. While those are good numbers if they were projected over 40 minutes, Villanova really doesn't need Fraser to rev the offensive engine. The three guards and Sumpter can provide the offensive firepower. What the Wildcats need is for Fraser to stay out of foul trouble, keep himself on the floor and intimidate enemy shots in the paint.

Wright was forced to keep Sumpter on the bench as well, and gambled that he could ride out the storm. And the gamble was successful; the 'Cats did so successfully, never letting the Cavaliers get closer than six until Sumpter returned around the four minute mark. The Cavaliers made their final gallant charge with just under two minutes to play, when Brown scored to cut it to four with 1:51 to go. Sumpter was tied up going to the hoop on the next possession, and while VU retained possession on the arrow the momentum was headed UVA's way. But Foye buried the Cavaliers on the foul line, making six in the final minute, and they never got any closer. Sumpter put the exclamation point on the contest by dunking with 7.1 seconds to play, rendering the final score 73-63 - an accurate reflection of Villanova's play. The key stat was rebounding. Despite the long absences of both Fraser and Sumpter (they combined to play just 35 minutes), the Wildcats STILL crushed the Cavaliers on the glass, 49-37. And it didn't help Virginia's cause that they made just one of ten three-point attempts (and the one they made didn't come until less than six minutes to play in the game).

Surprisingly, given the schools' relatively proximate locations (just a six hour drive apart) and status as major conference powers, they haven't faced each other all that often. Today was just the sixth meeting ever, and two of those games have now been in the NIT and thus not voluntarily scheduled. The teams didn't meet until 1981, and haven't met in the regular season since December 1989. Villanova is now 2-4 all-time against the Cavaliers.

This year's Wildcats, Wright's third team, have now matched the mark set by his first team in 2001-02 for NIT success, when the Wildcats reached the quarterfinals before falling at Temple. Last season's NIT ended abruptly at Siena, when a skeleton team, reduced by suspensions, was blown out. It also sets a positive tone for next season, in that this season will now officially go into the record books as a winning campaign, unlike last year, which thudded to a 15-16 mark.

According to the NIT's official bracket, the quarterfinal game between Villanova and the Rutgers/West Virginia winner will take place on Wednesday, March 24, at 7 PM. No site has been officially announced. If one had to bet, it seems more likely that Villanova's quarterfinal opponent will be RU, given that in the teams' only regular season meeting at the RAC, the Scarlet Knights won by 21. But of course, you never know. After all, Villanova was embarrassed by Providence on the Pavilion floor earlier this season but ousted the Friars in the Big East tournament. Either way, Wright's squad will have the advantage of rest and a couple of extra days to prepare, as they await the outcome of Monday's game.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Wildcats Slay Dragons, 85-70, in NIT Opener

Villanova continued its surprising late-season renaissance with a St. Patrick's Day victory, as the Wildcats slew the Drexel Dragons at the Pavilion, 85-70, in the NIT opener for both teams. Villanova has now won all 17 games ever played against its West Philadelphia neighbor, but it was only the second game between the schools since 1990. At Villanova, coach Jay Wright is now 2-0 against the school where he was once an assistant, and 10-9 including his days at Hofstra. It was a deceptively lopsided final score; the Wildcats had to overcome a sluggish start, where they fell behind by as many as ten points early in the second half. They eventually buried the Dragons under a mountain of free throws, attempting 30 in the second half alone, as they won the second half by a resounding 52-31 margin. On Saturday, Villanova will host Virginia for an equally rare morning game (11 AM) intended by ESPN as an appetizer for NCAA action later that afternoon. The victory also boosted Villanova's record to 17-16, ensuring that the squad will finish with at least a .500 record this season, something which looked like a fairly bleak prospect as recently as last week.

St. Patrick's Day has not been kind to Villanova in recent years. The two most notorious defeats of the mid-90s, the early NCAA losses as a #3 seed to Old Dominion and Louisville, both took place on that day, in consecutive years. It's quite ironic, for a school founded by Irish Catholics (as any look at the campus building names, or cemetery, will quickly confirm) to have such dismal luck on that day. But until 1995, 'Nova's St. Patrick's Day history had been OK. The two bright moments were beating Brown in the first-ever NCAAs in 1939, and upsetting #1 seed Michigan in the second round of the NCAAs in 1985, en route to the national title. All-time, Villanova is just 5-6, though, with all of the games taking place in the postseason. In 1978, a team featuring current broadcaster Whitey Rigsby beat Bobby Knight's Indiana in the NCAAs; in 1994, Villanova beat Canisius en route to the NIT title. But 'Nova has lost NIT games to St. Bonaventure (1977), NYU (yes, NYU- 1966), and in the NCAAs to ODU, Louisville, North Carolina (1991) and Billy Packer's Wake Forest team in 1962. (Packer has recently been making news for other reasons.)

Randy Foye and Allan Ray each had 20 points, while Curtis Sumpter had a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, for Villanova. Sean Brooks had a great night for Drexel, scoring a career-high 24 points and dominating play in the first half, when he scored 15 points; in the second half, foul trouble and leg cramps restricted his effectiveness and helped 'Nova pull away. Tim Whitworth had 14 points in his final game at Drexel, while Phil Goss and Jeremiah King each chipped in a dozen.

With the victory, Villanova's record now stands at 17-16 and have now won three of their last four. The loss ended Drexel's season at 18-11, with three straight defeats. But the Dragons appeared in their second consecutive NIT, a tremendous boost for their program. The Dragons were thought to have a fighting chance at the CAA's automatic bid, but were upset in their conference tournament opener by UNC-Wilmington. But Drexel's future looks to get brighter. The CAA is a step up from the America East, their former conference, and in just three seasons at the helm, coach James "Bruiser" Flint has done wonders to rehabilitate his stock, after four rocky seasons at Massachusetts. His tenure at Massachusetts, prior to being replaced by Villanova coach Steve Lappas, was notable only for mounting losses, dwindling Mullins Center attendance, and Flint's consistent appearances on the lists of the "best-dressed coaches in Division I". (Ironically, Lappas has struggled in Amherst far more than Flint had, narrowly surviving an ill-concealed drive to replace him after three disastrous seasons.)

Tonight, Flint may very well have coached his last game at Drexel. With 15 vacancies already in Division I, Flint's name has circulated widely as a candidate for higher-profile positions, including even the new Big East vacancy at Georgetown. Although I'd be pretty surprised if that happened - given Flint's struggles at UMass - Georgetown is in a real cash crunch right now, and Flint could probably be had, relatively cheap. Georgetown's financial woes are further aggravated by the need to buy out Esherick's contract, inexplicably extended through 2009, after last season. As a result, Georgetown isn't in a position to outbid other programs for the "hot" names rising on the coaching carousel, such as Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez. Bruiser's from the Northeast, he's young, personable, and doesn't have any ties with the previous John Thompson/Craig Esherick regime, which might be a plus in the current climate. But even if Flint stays in University City, his future looks pretty bright. Senior Tim Whitworth is the only player Drexel loses from a 18-11 squad, in a conference which may even attract a second NCAA bid next season.

With tonight's victory, the Wildcats have already surpassed last year's NIT phone-access-code suspension-induced disaster, which was mercifully ended in a rout at Siena in the opening round (in the same Albany, NY Pepsi Center where ODU broke 'Nova's hearts in 1995 in triple overtime, a loss which still haunts the program). In 2002, Wright's first season at the helm, Villanova made a nice NIT run, winning two Pavilion games prior to being stopped by John Chaney's Temple team in the quarterfinals.

The key advantage that Drexel enjoyed in this contest was that the game meant far more to them and their fans (many of whom made the trip out to the Main Line) than it did to Villanova. For Drexel, a NIT appearance is a substantial accomplishment; Villanova fans may fret about five consecutive NITs, but at Drexel that would be considered a real blessing. And they played like it; Drexel led by six at halftime but easily could have led by more, having held the lead for virtually the entire half.

Brooks was a monster inside, scoring 15 points. Unfortunately, Jason Fraser regressed from his outstanding performance in New York, which were among the best games of his career. Fraser was dominated by Brooks inside, and quickly sank into foul trouble. Fraser picked up his second foul guarding Brooks at the 14:21 mark and went to the bench; he played just six minutes in the first half and was basically a non-factor. Brooks made one of two free throws to give Drexel a surprising, early 11-4 lead. While Villanova fought back consistently, a DEEP three by Goss (one of his four triples in the game) gave Drexel a 25-18 lead and took back the momentum; Drexel extended the lead to 33-23 after a three by Whitworth with around four minutes to play. The Dragons took a 39-33 lead into the locker room and were brimming with confidence; they had shot 50% from the floor and 45% from beyond the arc, although just four players had all their points. Only Villanova's outstanding foul shooting (11-12 by halftime) was keeping them in the game.

After play resumed, Villanova was still scuffling. Drexel pushed the lead back to ten after a particularly ugly sequence: Fraser committed his third foul, Sumpter missed a dunk, and Fraser then turned the ball over stepping over the end line. When Kenell Sanchez hit a bucket to give Drexel a 45-35 lead with 16:46 to play, Wright called timeout to discuss the situation. It was tough to see why a team that looked so great in New York had deteriorated so sharply. But it was Drexel's last basket for quite some time.

Fortunately, Villanova was spared the fate of having the season end at below .500, with a first-round NIT loss on its home floor. After that low point, the Dragons' fire was largely extinguished in the early minutes of the second half. The chief cause was a remarkably large number of whistles; Drexel fell into the double-bonus less than six minutes into the second half and began racking up fouls on most of their key players. Brooks, who had no fouls in the first half, committed THREE in a two-minute span. Chaz Crawford, their only other center, fouled out with over 14 minutes to go.

In a five minute span, Villanova embarked on a fitful 18-0 run (including eight straight from Ray) to transform the 45-35 disadvantage into a 53-45 lead. It might have been one of the least exciting 18-0 runs in Villanova history, given that most of it was at the foul line, with the prominent exception of a Ray steal-and-dunk. It was impossible for the game to flow smoothly due to the frequency of the whistles. It's highly unusual, obviously, for one team to be in the double bonus with over 14 minutes to play, and the number of free throws reflected that fact. Villanova shot 42 free throws in the contest, and turned in an outstanding performance at the line, making 35 of them (over 83%). And if you take out Fraser's 1-6 from the line, the rest of the team went a near-perfect 34-36. In contrast, Drexel went 16-23 from the stripe. Angered by the disparity, Flint was whistled for a technical, and it was unwise to put 'Nova on the line, as Ray made both of them, of course. Brooks was hampered both by foul trouble and leg cramps, and without him, Drexel just couldn't compete underneath. The Dragons are "munchkins," to use Flint's favorite term when he has to face major-conference competition, and with their best post player struggling they had no shot at an upset. Brooks didn't score for the first eight minutes of the second half, and at that point Villanova had already taken control of the game.

Villanova had the momentum, momentum disproportionate to the actual lead, which never exceeded 11 points until garbage time. The Dragons actually got the lead down to as low as 71-66 around the four minute mark, but Villanova's stellar free-throw shooting saved the day. Every time the Wildcats went to the line, they dropped, which is a real morale killer for the team trying to rally.

Eventually, Drexel collapsed and the Wildcats widened the margin, winning the final four minutes, 14-4.

The final numbers noted that Villanova killed Drexel on the glass, winning the rebounding battle by 18. One reason was a standout game from Will Sheridan, who pulled in five boards in just 18 minutes, while scoring 11 points. The Wildcats also turned the ball over just 12 times. On Saturday, Villanova will face former Villanova assistant Pete Gillen's Cavaliers for the first time since the 1992 NIT. Gillen, a one-time candidate for the head coaching position here, is himself is on the hot seat after several lackluster seasons at UVA, and could unquestionably use a strong NIT run to solidify his position.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

'Cats Fall to #9 UConn, Head to NIT

Villanova's glorious, long-shot Big East tournament run came to an end Friday
night, as the 11th-seeded Wildcats simply ran out of gas against a superior
#9 Connecticut squad, 84-67, in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New
York City. Despite the loss to a back injury of arguably the best player in
America, Emeka Okafor, the 2nd-seeded Huskies breezed past the 'Cats to reach
the tournament final, where they will face #6 Pittsburgh, for the third
straight year. But most importantly, Villanova reached the goal it had set when it
arrived in New York: come home with the two necessary wins to assure
qualification for the 40-team NIT. And the Wildcats did.

Villanova finished its season at 16-16 overall, having just reached the .500
record for official NIT consideration, with the pair of victories this week
over Seton Hall and #20 Providence. The hated Huskies improved to 26-6 overall
with the victory. The Huskies will be battling Pitt for the third straight
season in the final; this marks the first time in the Big East's 25 year
history, that the same two teams have met in the final three years in a row. Each
team has won once. Coach Jim Calhoun will seek his sixth tournament
championship, which would tie him with former Georgetown coach and Villanova nemesis
Thompson for the most ever.

Three sophomores - Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser - had
tremendous games for 'Nova, but everyone else had an off-night. Those three scored
54 of 'Nova's 67 points. Fraser, in particular, has shown a tremendous
improvement during this tournament run, in which he has barely resembled the
struggling sophomore he was all season. And that fact, more than any other, made the
run possible. Fraser matched his season-high with 17 points, while recording
another double-double with 11 rebounds. Foye paced the Wildcats with 20
points, while Sumpter finished with 17 points and 7 rebounds before fouling out
with two minutes to play. The Wildcats were badly hurt by a horrible game from
Allan Ray, who had an atrocious night, making just one of ten shots from the
floor and finishing with two points. Ray was saddled with foul trouble and
limited to just 25 minutes, and he still fouled out with over eight minutes to

Even with Okafor out of the lineup, the Huskies demonstrated why they are
among the handful of elite teams with legitimate aspirations to capture the
national championship, with four players having outstanding games. At least, Ben
Gordon may finally be leaving for the NBA. The Connecticut junior, who first
burst into the Villanova fans' enemies list with a shot to beat 'Nova in the
2001 Big East tournament, gave 'Nova fans something else by which to remember
him. Gordon scored a game-high 29 points, some on incredible shots which were
impossible to defend, and added six rebounds. Villanova had nobody who could
guard him- but probably, neither does any other school in America. If Gordon
gets hot, he really cannot be shut down. He also had 29 points in the Huskies'
victory over Notre Dame in the quarterfinals last night. Not to be outdone,
senior guard Taliek Brown also concluded his career against Villanova with a
stellar performance. Brown scored 11 points but also had six rebounds, dealt
10 assists and committed only a single turnover (his performance was marred
only by making one out of six free throws). Freshman Josh Boone had a superb
performance, as he dominated the glass. Boone recorded a double-double with 11
points, 15 rebounds and also swatted six Villanova shots. Finally, Rashad
Anderson had 19 points,

Villanova fell behind early, as Connecticut dominated play for most of the
game. The Wildcats did make a spirited charge, early in the second half, but
the Huskies soon quelled the rally and coasted for the last ten minutes or so
with a comfortable, double-digit lead. It was never competitive beyond the
ten-minute mark.

In summary, Connecticut looked more like a national powerhouse, than the team
which was embroiled in a challenging struggle with Villanova two weeks ago at
the Wachovia Center. In that Feb. 28 contest, Villanova battled the Huskies
- WITH Okafor - right down to the final shot, when Okafor blocked a Foye drive
and arguably fouled him in doing so.

There are some games where you have a gut feeling about the ultimate outcome,
and this was one of those games. Connecticut began pulling away around the
midpoint of the first half, and it was then apparent that this was simply not
going to be the 'Cats' night. UConn was firing on all cylinders, and the 'Cats
were just not playing with the same level of passion that characterized the
games earlier this week. Friday night is when Cinderella traditionally hits
the wall at Madison Square Garden, having played three games while its opponent
has played only two. Villanova had a lot of history to overcome, even to
reach the final, let alone win the tournament and take the automatic bid. Since
1992, the league has instituted byes in the conference tournament, and no team
without one has ever won it. Only twice has one of those teams even reached
the final: Connecticut in 2000 and Pittsburgh in 2001.

After trading baskets in the early going, the Huskies held just a modest
16-13 lead at around the 12:30 mark, before starting their run. Villanova missed
nine straight shots during this span, while Connecticut embarked upon a 10-0
run. When coach Jay Wright finally called a long-overdue timeout at the 8:05
mark, the Huskies had widened the lead to 26-13 and were basically in control
for the rest of the game. Even at their high-water mark early in the second
half, Villanova would never get closer than five. With less than two minutes to
play, Villanova had just 19 points and trailed by 15, before Foye ripped off
five straight points to revive the offense. But Gordon nailed an NBA three
with 40 seconds left to boost the lead back to 13, 37-24, where it remained at

Villanova shot just 28% from the floor in the first half, a percentage the
Huskies neatly doubled at 56%: Connecticut had led the nation in field goal
percentage defense. And even without Okafor, they had a substantial 23-17
rebounding edge. The one thing Villanova did have going for it was an outstanding
turnover count of just three. Gordon had 13 points already, while Brown had 10;
Fraser had nine points (but three fouls) for 'Nova, while Allan Ray was
scoreless, having gone 0-6 from the floor.

The Huskies nearly broke the game open as soon as play resumed, zooming out
to an 18 point advantage at 42-24 and forcing Wright to use another timeout
just 1:20 into the second half. To their credit, the Wildcats fought their way
back into the game, scoring 10 straight. The run culminated with a Sumpter
putback of a Foye miss at the 15:59 mark and a Calhoun timeout to break the run
with the score 42-34.

Villanova's last gasp came when Sumpter scored four straight points to carve
the deficit to 48-43 with 12:09 to play. But Villanova could draw no closer
and soon lagged behind by double-digits, where they remained for the rest of
the game. Over the next five minutes, Connecticut went on a 17-4 run to make it
65-47. At the 7:01 mark, Charlie Villanueva suffered a high ankle sprain,
and play was halted while Villanueva had to be helped off the floor. But even
the delay had no effect on the Huskies' momentum. Their lead peaked at 20
after Anderson drained a three at the 5:41 mark, effectively ending the game -
Wright called another timeout, but it was way too late. The rest of the game was
garbage time. Andreas Bloch made his first appearance of the tournament
immediately afterwards, and converted a traditional three-point play almost as
soon as he took the floor. In a classy move by Wright, reserves Tom Grace and
Baker Dunleavy made a cameo appearance in the final minute. Less explicable was
Wright's decision to keep ordering fouls in a long-decided game. Despite
trailing by 16 points with three minutes to play, Villanova committed seven fouls
in the remaining 2:56, a ridiculous number for a situation in which they
never reduced the deficit to less than a dozen points.

Villanova's next contest, in the NIT, will take place some time next week.
The NIT takes some time after the NCAA Selection Show to determine its field,
and so the answer to Villanova's opponent and site will come some time on
Sunday night. Unlike the NCAA tournament, which uses strict, complex criteria in
creating its brackets, the NIT is not subtle (and can't really afford to be)
about its desire for attractive matchups to generate revenue, fans, and media
interest. With Villanova, Temple, and Drexel all probably in the field of 40,
the NIT would likely put all of them in the same bracket, in order to stage at
least one well-attended game in the Philadelphia area. In 2002, Villanova and
Temple were deliberately put on a collision course for the third round, which
did in fact take place, with Temple winning at the Apollo (now Liacouras
Center) in a close game.

Will Villanova get a home game? Probably, if past history is any indication.
Although the Wildcats usually don't draw well for NIT games, Villanova does
have a strong fan base. In 2002, the 'Cats received two home games before
"traveling" to Temple; last season, the Wildcats did not receive a home game due
to their status as a suspension-depleted team, a consequence of the
phone-access-code scandal (they arguably shouldn't have received a bid at all, under
those circumstances, and it would hardly seem to fair to give them a home game).
They made a quick first-round exit after a desultory loss to Siena in Albany,
New York.

Overall, this impressive New York performance goes a long way toward quelling
the anxieties 'Nova fans have been experiencing over the team's struggles
this season. Four days ago, the most realistic expectation for the conclusion to
this season was a six-game losing skid, a first-round BE tournament loss, and
no postseason bid at all. But in just three days, the 'Cats have turned that
picture completely inside out. Playing with increased confidence, the
Wildcats seem poised to win some more games and make some noise in the NIT, a
tournament the team will be participating in for the fifth straight season.