Sunday, January 25, 2004

Villanova Warms Up in Miami, 76-69

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Villanova improved its record to 11-6 overall, 3-2 Big East. Despite the new venue, Miami still has a reputation as one of the most visitor-friendly home courts in the Big East. (Prior to the recent construction of the Convocation Center, home games were played at the NBA venue, the cavernous Miami Arena, and even successful Hurricane squads played to sparse crowds.) As a result, today was one of the easiest BE road games, and thus it was probably a game Villanova HAD to have as it seeks a NCAA bid. The schedule gets very rough down the stretch, and the 'Cats will need to be over .500 in BE play to have a fighting chance of getting in. Miami fell to 13-6, 3-2 Big East; despite having similar records, Miami padded its record with a lot of home-court wins, and so are probably a weaker team. The teams will clash again at the Pavilion on March 2, as Miami is one of only three teams 'Nova faces twice this year, under the new, single-division format.

It was a huge game for Foye, who has struggled since BE play began in early January. Foye turned in a tremendous overall performance, racking up 21 points, but also contributing seven assists and eight rebounds. Foye was also nearly perfect from the foul line, converting eight of nine opportunities, including a big pair in the final minute. Curtis Sumpter, who did not start due to a violation of team rules, came off the bench to score 16 points and narrowly miss a double-double, collecting nine rebounds. Allan Ray added 15 points and five rebounds, as well as a perfect 6-6 from the line. Best of all, Andreas Bloch came up with a significant contribution. Starting in place of the disciplined Sumpter, Bloch played 19 minutes, scored nine points, had three rebounds, and even blocked a shot for good measure. (Although he did have one grievous error, trying to dribble the ball the length of the floor near the end of the first half, during which he was easily stripped by Rice.) As a team, 'Nova crushed Miami on the boards, racking up a 43-28 margin. And another positive trend continued: foul shooting. The Wildcats reached the line reasonably often (27 attempts) and did extremely well when they got there, converting 23 of them, a highly impressive 85%.

In light of the overall numbers, it's somewhat surprising that the 'Cats only won by seven. Villanova shot very well, especially on the road, draining 54% from the floor, while playing with Jay Wright's idealized defensive intensity. Villanova held Miami as a whole to just 33% from the floor, a total which will lead to a victory virtually every time out. All of the pleasant numbers did a great deal to obscure one BIG regression, an appalling 22 turnovers. It was even worse compared to the fact that Miami committed only eight, and was a major factor in keeping the 'Canes in the game.

For Miami, Robert Hite led the way with 21 points, tying Foye to lead all scorers. Rice, a potential All-American candidate, didn't have a BAD game in terms of overall numbers: he had 15 points and also just missed a double-double with nine boards. But the fact remains that he still shot 4-19, less than 25% from the floor, and it cost his team the game. If Rice (the nephew of NFL great Jerry Rice) doesn't have a powerful game on any given day, it becomes difficult for Miami to win. Guillermo Diaz also reached double figures for Perry Clark's club, scoring a dozen points.

A VERY positive sign was the liberal substitution pattern used by coach Jay Wright. Today's game reversed a general trend toward neglecting the bench. Against Miami, no fewer than eight players saw at least 13 minutes of action, but more importantly, only Foye logged more than 32 minutes (he had 37). A well-balanced team with a lot of role players is much less likely to be susceptible to cold nights, and the strong bench presence today undoubtedly helped the team to victory. Will Sheridan and Marcus Austin were the only guys who didn't share in the fun; the freshman forward Sheridan managed only two minutes of playing time from Wright, and the junior forward Austin did not play at all.

In the first half, the game seesawed back and forth quite a bit, with a lot of lead changes. Jason Fraser, although he had a solid game otherwise, did commit a bad foul on Hite with 3.6 seconds to play in the half. 'Nova, holding a 35-34 lead, was playing for the last shot, and after Hite corralled a rebound, Fraser fouled him from the floor, stopping the clock. But since it was 'Nova's seventh foul, it gave Hite a chance for a one-and-one, which he promptly converted. Granted, it was only two points, and one should give Fraser credit for aggressiveness, but it gave Miami the psychological advantage of a halftime lead at 36-35. Although Sumpter didn't start, he came off the bench with a vengeance, scoring a dozen points prior to intermission on perfect 4-4 shooting.

After Miami inched out to a 42-41 lead early in the second half, 'Nova embarked on a 13-2 run over the next five minutes, which decided the game. A pair of Foye free throws put 'Nova up 54-44 with about ten and a half minutes to play, and the 'Cats were able to hold on from there - they never relinquished the lead. Miami made it a little scary down the stretch, though, when Diaz nailed a triple with just under a minute to play, cutting the 'Cats' lead to 68-65 and raising the alarming possibility that the 'Canes might steal it at the end. But the 'Cats put out the fire, and ended the game on a high note, literally and figuratively, when Ray dunked at the buzzer.

The win was particularly meaningful, in light of how much Villanova has struggled against Miami in recent years (despite having won the last three contests). This series was entirely fabricated, a direct result of the Big East's football-mad expansion in the 1990s. The schools had never met, prior to Miami's joining the BE in 1991-92. Villanova now leads the overall series, 13-9, but the 'Cats had won nine of the first ten contests. Miami then won eight of nine, before dropping the last three. Ironically, Villanova is now 2-0 at Miami's new Convocation Center, having won its inaugural trip there, 72-67, last February 8.

Miami's signature sport, football, was undoubtedly the big prize in the offseason maneuverings and intrigues between the BE and ACC. Football was what propelled Miami into the BE, back in 1991, when the basketball program was moribund (it hadn't received a NCAA bid in three decades), and it was what got them into the ACC this time. While Miami had enjoyed some success over the past five years in hoops, looking at it from purely a basketball perspective, the addition of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College probably weakens the ACC more than it helps it. However, basketball is not driving the dynamic; football, and its bowl money, is. The ACC wanted to inflate itself to 12 teams, in order to host a lucrative conference championship game in football, the NCAA does not permit a conference to stage a title game with fewer than a dozen teams and refused to grant the ACC a waiver to do so without the minimum. In theory, at least, Miami's bowl money and general prestige will augment ACC football to a degree, that the acceptance of two solid (BC and Miami) and one terrible (VT) basketball program will not offset.

Virginia Tech, of course, is no slouch on the gridiron, but they were NOT the original ACC target; Syracuse, a FAR superior basketball program, was. Virginia Tech only got in because Virginia (whose vote was needed to approve expansion within the ACC) refused to agree to the move unless their fellow Old Dominion institution came in. Ironically, this change weakened the justification for the move even further; it was certainly plausible to argue that adding the defending national champion, as well as two solid programs, was in the ACC's best interest. It's a lot harder to argue that instead, adding two solid programs and a terrible program is the best way for the ACC to go; it helps the football side a lot, but makes basketball significantly weaker.

I also remain skeptical that even leaving aside all other considerations, that any ACC school would end this arrangement with more dollars than it started. For one thing, it assumes that Miami and Virginia Tech will reach a lucrative bowl every year, and that the dollars those payouts bring in, will offset the fact that the pie now needs to be split 12 ways rather than nine. The mere addition of those powerhouses makes it far less likely that your OWN school (i.e., an existing ACC school) will reach one of those bowls, defeating the original purpose - and you have to split the money 12 ways EVERY year, regardless of whether one of those schools got to a bowl or not. Duke and North Carolina refused to support expansion, and one major reason was that they did not want to reduce their share of ACC basketball tournament tickets (a guaranteed source of revenue), in pursuit of this scheme, which may or may not be profitable in the long run.

Nonetheless, while there is no doubt that Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College will be out of the Big East in the near future, there is still an issue remaining as to exactly when. Now, it appears that the timetable for the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East to the ACC is in fact set for next season, with BC still struggling to extricate itself prior to the 2005-06 season. I am reluctant to say "definitively" that Miami will be gone after this year, because there have certainly been enough twists and turns in this soap opera to defy ANY easy categorization. But it does, as of this writing, seem that unless something changes, this season will be the swan song for the Hurricanes and Hokies in their relatively brief Big East residencies.

After a 1-1 split on the two-game swing to Providence and Miami, the 'Cats will return to the Pavilion on Wednesday, to take on a dangerous Rutgers squad.

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