Saturday, January 03, 2004

Villanova Doesn't Self-Destruct- But Falls to Kansas

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

The last time Kansas fell to an unranked opponent at home was on Feb. 10, 1999, against Nebraska. So Villanova was facing an uphill fight in any event, with 16,300 fans screaming "Rock! Chalk! Jayhawk!", et al., at the top of their lungs. Four Jayhawks reached double figures, in their high-powered offense. The Jayhawks' Keith Langford led all scorers with 24 points, including a stunning 14-18 from the foul line. Wayne Simien also finished with 23 points, one fewer than Langford, but was a perfect 9-9 from the line. Blue-chip recruit David Padgett narrowly missed a double-double, finishing with 15 points and nine rebounds and blocked three Wildcat shots. Finally, Aaron Miles struggled from the floor, going just 2-7, but contributed from the line, converting five of six opportunities and finishing with 10 points.

Villanova had a five-game winning streak snapped (the 'Cats hadn't lost since
the Maui tournament at Thanksgiving), and fell to 8-3 on the season. Kansas
improved its record to 8-2 and picked up a good, solid victory for its March
NCAA profile (not that the Jayhawks will need it to get in - far from it - but
the RPI boost from a Big East opponent could help its seeding). It was only
the second meeting ever between the schools: Kansas won the first game, in the
1968 NIT at Madison Square Garden, 55-49.

Ironically, 'Nova had FIVE scorers in double figures, unusual for a losing
squad. Allan Ray had an exceptional game for 'Nova, scoring 22 points, dealing
seven assists against NO turnovers, and pulling down six rebounds. Once
again, Curtis Sumpter had a strong performance: playing all but one minute, Sumpter
scored 18 points (including three triples) while grabbing nine boards. Mike
Nardi scored 16 points, contributing big-time on offense, but struggled
running the point, turning the ball over six times against three assists. And while
Randy Foye reached double figures at 11, he was plagued by foul trouble,
playing just 29 minutes before fouling out and shooting only 4-15 from the floor.
But best of all, Andreas Bloch reached double figures! Bloch had a veritable
offensive explosion, dropping in 10 points (including two three-pointers) in
only 15 minutes of action. (And, as is his wont, he somehow managed to FOUL
OUT, even though he only played 15 minutes.)

Villanova did have a larger than normal (although not exceptional) number of
whistles, getting whacked for 32 fouls in the game: the bulk of them came in
the second half, when the 'Cats were playing from behind and were thus forced
to foul often. Coach Jay Wright used only nine players, but each finished the
game with at least two fouls; Foye and Bloch fouled out, while Fraser, Sumpter
and Ray each finished with four. In the unlikely event that Villanova could
have pulled off the miracle and forced overtime, it probably wouldn't have
done them much good: the attrition from fouls would have made the game less
competitive. Kansas went to the line early and often, taking 41 free throws (and
making an astounding 35 of them, over 85%). In contrast, while the Wildcats
were just as accurate (84%), they took just 19 attempts, converting 16 of them.
(It's kind of a shame that 'Nova couldn't have saved such an awesome
foul-shooting game for some bricklaying Big East contest in February, when it could
have made a difference in the outcome...)

But the chief explanation for the foul disparity was not the officials being
intimidated by the crowd, but the 'Cats' difficulty in containing the
Jayhawks' frontcourt. KU wasn't shy about pounding the ball inside, right from the
get-go. Villanova lacks a big-time scorer in that area this year, and couldn't
counter the tactic effectively. However, in that same vein, 'Cat fans should
take heart by the meaningful appearance from Jason Fraser tonight. While the
injury-plagued Fraser is still a long way from being anywhere near the player
he could be if fully healthy, he made a substantial contribution off the
bench, grabbing nine rebounds and swatting three KU shots in just 21 minutes.

In that fact lies the central problem, however. The 'Cats' bangers
underneath (Fraser, Charles, and Will Sheridan) combined to score 2 points and collect
13 rebounds in 39 combined minutes. Those rebounding numbers are formidable,
but the 'Cats desperately need at least ONE of those guys to develop some
offensive moves and a shot that will go in on a consistent basis. Opponents are
quickly discovering (if they haven't figured it out already) that they can
chase the guards exclusively, without having to guard against passes fired into
the interior. The guard-oriented squad is good enough to beat less talented
teams, and to be competitive against better teams - but it won't beat a lot of
ranked teams without some help from guys scoring in the paint. Villanova was
forced to over-rely on the three-point shot, taking 35 of them in the game (and
making a solid 37% of those attempts).

This was a somewhat odd game, the way it developed in the second half. The
Wildcats had stood toe-to-toe with the Jayhawks the entire first half, after
falling behind 22-12 (and giving up a dunk in the beginning of the game). They
successfully resisted Kansas' attempts to blow it open and actually dragged
the Jayhawks into a first-half deadlock at 38 after Ray nailed a three-pointer
at the buzzer.

Psychologically, Villanova would have benefited enormously from being able to
actually take the LEAD in the second half, but it was an advantage which the
'Cats would never enjoy. They hung around, and trailed by as few as six,
around eight minutes in - but then Kansas just exploded, and I expected at that
point they would blow it open and rout the 'Cats and make everyone forget
forever that it had been tied at halftime. Their superior talent began to assert
itself. Before you knew it, the KU lead had ballooned from 54-48 to 66-48, the
crowd was going crazy and the Wildcats were coming apart at the seams.

But to their inestimable credit, they recovered, outscoring Kansas 31-20 down
the stretch. That's not easy to do in that atmosphere and against such a
powerful opponent. However, it would be a bit of an overstatement to say that
Kansas was ever really seriously threatened with actually LOSING the game after
that big run. 'Nova scratched and clawed its way back to a five-point
deficit, with less than two minutes to play - but never got any closer. And it did
seem clear that KU, had it needed to, could have turned on the jets again and
pushed 'Nova back. (If Kansas hadn't had such tremendous success at the line,
it might have come to that.)

Villanova really did have a chance to help its NCAA cause with a victory,
given that an upset would have illuminated three bumpers (and arguably the most
important three) on the metaphorical NCAA pinball machine: "Road Record",
"Record vs. RPI Top 50", "Win Over Prestigious Opponent in Tough Home Court". But
it was not to be, unfortunately.

Villanova will return to action at the Wachovia (formerly CoreStates and
First Union) Center in South Philadelphia on Tuesday, January 7, against Memphis -
again in front of a national television audience, this time on ESPN2.

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