Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Villanova Can't Help Falling in Memphis, 73-57

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Villanova fans are mightily tempted to vent some frustration after Memphis
mopped up 'Nova in the second half at the Wachovia Center on Tuesday night, en
route to a surprisingly easy 73-57 victory. Elvis himself could have helped
the Wildcats with some outside shooting, as 'Nova plummeted from a hard-fought
29-29 tie at intermission, permitting a 16-1 Tiger run to start the second
half, from which it never recovered. It was arguably Villanova's worst
performance of the season, and a depressing sign on the advent of Big East play. Read

Villanova fell to 8-4 overall, with just one nonconference clash remaining,
against #9 St. Joseph's. Memphis, led by senior Antonio Burks and freshman
Sean Banks, improved to 9-2 overall and looked like a team well poised to return
to the NCAA tournament. The Tigers completed a two-game sweep of the
home-and-home series, as they triumphed at Memphis last season, 72-68. With the pair
of victories, Memphis has chipped its all-time series deficit against 'Nova to
8-4. The most memorable contest came in the 1985 Final Four, when the
underdog Wildcats stunned the Tigers in the national semifinals. Prior to the
revival of the series last season, the teams hadn't met since that Final Four.

Banks and Burks (that has a great sound to it...) each had 22 points, 8-14
shooting, 7 rebounds and 3 steals (a statistical coincidence) to lead the
Tigers. Burks made all four of his three-point attempts; Duane Erwin and Jeremy
Hunt each had a dozen rebounds. For Villanova, it says volumes that not a single
Wildcat had more than THREE field goals. The team as a whole shot only 31%
from the floor (a season-low) and scored only 57 points in a game in which the
tempo wasn't deliberately slowed down, a la Rollie Ball. The Wildcats also
committed 20 turnovers, reversing a trend in which the turnovers had been

Looking for bright spots, Mike Nardi led the team with 12 points, including
6-6 from the line. Derrick Snowden (the only other 'Cat to reach double
figures) had 10, including two back-to-back triples midway through the second half,
when the 'Cats showed a brief pulse on a 12-2 run. Jason Fraser continued his
comeback, playing just 18 minutes, but he prospered on a night when nobody
else had much of anything to offer. Fraser had seven points and six boards in
limited playing time - but most importantly, he looked active and alert on the
floor. Will Sheridan also did well off the bench, playing only 23 minutes but
scoring nine points and pulling down six rebounds.

As for everyone else, ugh. Memphis coach John Calipari obviously saw the
explosive offense of Curtis Sumpter on film and devoted his time to shutting him
down; Calipari succeeded wildly. Sumpter was held to only four points, made
only one of his six shots, and committed five turnovers, by far his worst
offensive output of the year. (Perhaps due to such frustration, he also went only
2-5 from the line.) Allan Ray went 3-10 from the floor - which sounds pretty
bad until you read that Randy Foye went 3-19 (although he did have nine
rebounds). Villanova finished the game even worse from beyond the arc, than from
the floor (28%).

Villanova failed to score at all for the first 4:21 of the game, quickly
falling behind 7-0, which made it all the more amazing that they managed to rally
to tie the game at the half, buoyed by a 13-3 run. Unfortunately, the Tigers
blew the barn doors off to open the second half, and were never seriously
challenged the rest of the way, despite a rally which got the lead down to six at
one point. Coach Jay Wright also prolonged the agony by persisting in fouling
during what I describe as "white flag" situations: for example, down by 10
points, with less than 30 seconds to go. The extended garbage time did have the
beneficial effect of spacing out the traffic in the parking lot of the
"crowd," such as it was, but had little discernible impact on the outcome. It also
got Baker Dunleavy into the game for a cameo, due to Wildcat foulouts.

The game was theoretically attended by 9,528 people. Crowd estimates are
always dicey, but I estimate that only about 7,000 hardy souls braved the
suddenly-chilly winds to witness the contest at the Wachovia Center. With the
students on break, there were entire sections in the lower rim that had no people at
all in them. According to the VU media guide, the average attendance for the
22 previous Villanova games at the Center (12 of which, not coincidentally,
were losses) was 14,876. In light of the fact that tonight's "official"
attendance was only two/thirds of that number, it probably wouldn't be an
exaggeration to say that tonight was the most sparsely attended Villanova contest at the
Center since it opened during the 1996-97 season, and the first in which the
official attendance dipped below 10,000. (Last season's game vs. St. John's
came close, which checked in at 10,017.) Villanova has only sold out the
building twice, both in that first season, when the team's national ranking for
part of the season, and the novelty of the newly-opened building, both helped to
draw in casual fans.

For practical purposes, Villanova has now concluded the nonconference portion
of its schedule, with the February battle against SJU the last matter to be
resolved in that area. Let's take a look at how this worked out, to the sum of
eight wins and four losses:

  • Teams that Villanova should have beaten AND did beat: Redlands,Northeastern, Columbia, UNC-Greensboro
  • Team that Villanova should have beaten, but lost to: Chaminade
  • Games that realistically could have gone either way, that fell in Villanova's favor: La Salle, Penn, Santa Clara
  • Games that realistically could have gone either way, that Villanova lost: Memphis, Ohio State
  • Team that Villanova should have lost to, but didn't: Temple
  • Team that Villanova should have lost to, and did: Kansas
In light of the circumstances of the phone-call scandal, and all of the travel that resulted from it, and the difficulty of the schedule, studded with major conference opponents - 8-4 isn't so bad. The Chaminade loss is arguably more than made up for by the win at Temple. Of the five "swing" games, Villanova won three (and best of all, won the two City Series games, the two most meaningful and most dangerous).

Villanova will return to the Wachovia Center floor on Saturday, to take on Notre Dame at a noon tip-off, in its Big East opener.

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