Sunday, January 18, 2004

Young Wildcats Overcome St. John's, 85-74

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

But back to basketball. Five of the youthful Wildcats reached double
figures, with Mike Nardi excelling, racking up 23 points and eight assists, including
a perfect 7-7 from the free throw line. Allan Ray also cracked the 20 point
plateau, scoring 21 points. Curtis Sumpter had 15 points, including two
devastating dunks which really stopped St. John's momentum at key points. Randy
Foye scored 14 points, despite once again struggling with foul trouble, playing
just 24 minutes. But best of all, Jason Fraser had a double-double, with 10
points and 12 boards. For St. John's, Grady Reynolds was the biggest bright
spot with a double-double of his own, recording 16 points and a dozen rebounds.
Also with strong performances were Darryl Hill (20 points, four steals, and
seven assists, although it took him a tough 8-21 day from the floor to do it)
and Kyle Cuffe added 17 points and five boards. 'Nova did well controlling
Elijah Ingram, whose unorthodox jump shot can be effective: Ingram really
struggled from the floor, hitting only two of his 10 attempts.

Villanova improved to 2-1 Big East, 9-5 overall, in winning their only
meeting with St. John's this season. It was 'Nova's second straight conference
victory since falling to Notre Dame last weekend. The Johnnies fell to 0-4 in Big
East play for the first time in school history (and St. John's has been a
member of the conference for all of its 25 years.) It also continued the
school's disastrous overall start, as its overall record is now 4-10, with the heart
of the Big East schedule coming up. SJU has failed to defeat a single
major-conference opponent this year; its four wins are over Holy Cross, Stony Brook,
St. Francis and Niagara. It's a bitter fall for one of the most illustrious
programs in NCAA history, one which ranks among the top five in all-time
victories. And they did, after all, win the NIT last year, in an all-BE clash
against Georgetown. (Villanova has an opportunity this season to achieve a rare
feat: defeating BOTH the defending NCAA and NIT champions in a single year.
They battle Syracuse on February 23.)

Villanova continues to enjoy success against St. John's in the cozy confines
of the Pavilion. The Wildcats have now won seven straight against the Red
Storm there; the last SJU victory came on January 13, 1993, amidst a dreadful
season for Villanova. One of the most memorable wins in the span came on Feb.
27, 1999, when the 'Cats nailed down a NCAA tournament bid with a
nationally-televised upset of the #8 ranked Red Storm on Senior Day.

The game got off to a bit of a sluggish start, with the score only 3-3 at the
first TV timeout; it didn't help the offensive excitement that SJU starters
Ingram and Cuffe had been dropped from the starting lineup for missing a team
meeting (they came into the game after that timeout). VU would end up with two
field goals, against five turnovers, during the first seven minutes. It
picked up, however, and the half ended with a reasonably interesting 31-29 VU
lead. SJU had built a modest 18-11 lead early, but the 'Cats chipped away at it,
with the most memorable play being a Sumpter dunk (on an assist from Ray) on a
three-on-one break at the 5:49 mark. It got the crowd excited and tied the
game at 22. Villanova scuffled to a workmanlike near-draw at halftime, 31-29.
By halftime, Nardi and Ray were already the stars of the game, with 13 and 14
points respectively, although the rebounding numbers (24-15 in favor of SJU)
were ominous.

At the 16:27 mark of the second half, Sumpter threw down another dunk (again,
thanks to Ray) that put 'Nova up 43-37, and the 'Cats were on their way. The
'Cats began grinding down St. John's through the second half, finally taking
command; they extended the lead out to 63-49 by the 9:25 mark, leading to a
timeout from coach Kevin Clark, but the game seemed over. SJU just isn't very
good and while they had put up a gallant effort, it was just going to be
another road loss in an already frustrating season.

Unfortunately, sloppy play, poor floor decisions, and silly turnovers
permitted an outgunned Johnnies squad to fight their way back into the game. Before
you knew it, a game that seemed all but over was suddenly tight. St. John's
showed some gumption: first, as they cut the lead down to 73-68 with over five
minutes to play, as a visibly agitated Jay Wright called timeout. The
Johnnies, thanks to 'Nova turnovers, then crawled back to as close as 74-70, with
4:02 to play. Fortunately, the young 'Cats reasserted control over the game,
running off seven quick points and ending any threat of a comeback, and so the
'Nova faithful weren't required to sweat out the last couple of minutes. After
the lead was cut to 74-70, Sumpter came up with a BIG play at the other end,
though, hitting an outside jumper near the end of the shot clock, pushing the
lead back to 76-70. It was only two points, but it was one of those turning
points, and SJU never mounted another threat after that. After Sumpter's
bucket, 'Nova scored five more points, boosting the lead to 81-70 with just 2:24 to
go; the rest was basically garbage time.

The Johnnies have been in disarray all season, thanks largely to the
unconventional move of suddenly dismissing coach Mike Jarvis in mid-December. Rumors
of SJU's dissatisfaction with Jarvis, in light of his disproportionately large
salary and recruiting difficulties, had been swirling all last season, and
the school's public refusal to extend his contract meant that the handwriting
was on the wall. But nonetheless, it's highly unorthodox to ax a coach in the
middle of the season, unless he's engaged in some kind of serious misconduct.
According to's Andy Katz, the last time a Division I coach had been
fired, absent unusual legal/NCAA circumstances, before conference play began,
was when BYU's Roger Reid was axed in 1996 (and the assistant, Tony Ingle, who
replaced him, won only a single game the rest of the year). Katz believes
that Jarvis was fired due to personal differences between himself and the
university president, Father Donald Harrington.

It's not like Jarvis hadn't had ANY success there; he finished five full
years with a record of 108-57, before being fired after a 2-4 record this season.
It certainly can't be argued that Jarvis was significantly less successful
than either Brian Mahoney or Fran Fraschilla, his immediate predecessors, both
of whom were fired under difficult circumstances. More and more, SJU is
turning into a pit of quicksand for coaches. Jarvis, after all, had won a Big East
tournament and a NIT, among other things. But unfortunately for him, he had
never put together the kind of sustained success that a program like St. John's

So St. John's fell into an even steeper fall, after all the turmoil. Today
was SJU's fourth straight defeat. Assistant Kevin Clark was quickly named head
coach for the time being, which certainly put HIM in an awkward position, in
light of his personal relationship w/ Jarvis. It also meant that Clark has to
carry the load with only one assistant, as Jarvis had put his son on the
staff (and who obviously wasn't going to stay after his father had been fired).

So in light of the above, Sunday's outcome wasn't all good news, though,
because overall, it was a pretty lackluster effort. As noted above, SJU has NO
wins against major conference opponents this year (in the Big East or
otherwise), so a home loss would have been pretty disastrous (as in ending NCAA
tournament hopes, most likely). Of particular concern was that SJU blew the 'Cats off
the boards, 43-31, including 15 offensive rebounds. St. John's is one of the
worst programs (and arguably THE worst program) in the league this year, and
they shouldn't have been in the game down the stretch. But, fortunately, with
the Eagles in the primacy of most 'Cat fans' minds, the team's overall sloppy
performance will likely be forgotten. Villanova was helped throughout the
contest by strong foul shooting, as the 'Cats converted 21 out of 27 free throw
attempts, a 78% clip. Jay Wright's recruits served him well, as for the first
time in his tenure, all of the points were scored by Wright-recruited
players. And so that bodes well for the future.

One of the nice things about the rickety-but-intact Big East is that the
Villanova/St. John's rivalry will be preserved. The schools have been battling
each other since 1923, and except for a fifteen year span between 1939 and 1954,
have basically played each other almost every season since the rivalry began.
The victory today cut the St. John's advantage in the overall series to
58-39, and as members of the Big East to 23-21; the Johnnies have also taken four
out of six from 'Nova in the Big East tournament.

Villanova will return to action in a two-game road swing, to Providence and
Miami. The 'Cats will face the Providence Friars at the Dunkin' Donuts Center
on Wednesday night at 7:30.

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