Thursday, February 12, 2004

Providence Hands Villanova Worst Loss Ever At Pavilion, 100-74

The loss may have represented a mortal blow to Villanova's NCAA hopes, which were not insubstantial entering the game. The Wildcats fell to 5-4 Big East, 13-9 overall. Although that is far from a bad record, and the RPI hit from a loss to a formidable Providence team will be minuscule, the psychological impact of a 27 point loss on the home floor will probably be devastating. The simple reality is that NCAA-bound teams generally don't get annihilated (and basically left for dead) on their home floor: especially by teams which ought to be considered their peers, after six days to prepare. Providence, while a good, solid, NCAA-bound team, is not a juggernaut; Villanova nearly upset the Friars on their January trip to Providence.

If this season were a presidential campaign, 'Nova would probably have followed Wednesday's example of retired General Wesley Clark, and folded its tents after tonight's performance, the equivalent of a 27 point loss in a candidate's home state. The previous mark for the worst loss of the season was held by the Jan. 6 loss to Memphis at the Wachovia Center, which was a 16 point defeat. Unfortunately, the schedule grows no kinder the rest of the way. For 'Nova to have a meaningful shot at an at-large bid, it has to finish no worse than 9-7 in conference play (and thus 17-12 overall), and that looks pretty unrealistic right now. The 'Cats still have to go to Pittsburgh, Seton Hall, and Syracuse - all of which look like losses - as well as playing a quasi-home game against Connecticut downtown. 'Nova would need to win home games against soon-departing Miami and Virginia Tech, win at West Virginia (among the most difficult venues for a visitor in the conference) AND somehow upset at least one of the others, to have a shot.

Also, it has to be acknowledged that this performance was probably the worst of the Jay Wright era. The only other loss that was really comparable was the 92-75 debacle against St. Joseph's last year, but that was mitigated by the following facts:

-it's the Super Bowl for SJU every year;
-it was at the Palestra, with SJU controlling a majority of the tickets;
- and after an atrocious 40-9 start, the 'Cats at least got up off the floor and made a game of it.

In contrast: tonight's fiasco was:

- at the Pavilion;
- had no particular emotional significance for the opponent;
- actually grew WORSE as the game progressed.

We would all agree that if a NCAA tournament run is to be made, February is a time when the team should be jelling for it. It is NOT the time for games to take place which can be reasonably described as among the Worst of an Era. And if they are, the odds that the team will suddenly start knocking off nationally ranked teams on the road, are probably not all that favorable. Villanova already has five losses on its home and quasi-home courts this year: Rutgers, St. Joseph's and PC at the Pavilion, and Memphis and Notre Dame at the Wachovia Center. That's probably the maximum quota of home losses, unfortunately,
for the ENTIRE season (and unless you have a team with a real penchant for winning road/neutral games, even five is probably too many). And 'Nova still has two Pavilion contests and a Wachovia Center game remaining.

Villanova has had some substantial struggles with Providence in recent years, although most of the problems have occurred on the road; 'Nova has lost an amazing 12 of its last 13 at Providence. The 'Cats are 11-6 all-time at the Pavilion against the Friars, after tonight, and hold leads in the overall series (43-34) and as members of the Big East (25-21). But regardless of venue, tonight's disaster marked Villanova's third straight loss to the Friars, as well as their sixth loss in their last eight battles with PC.

Well, it was good news for Providence fans, anyway. Fresh off celebrating the quasi-hometown Patriots' victory in Sunday's Super Bowl, they have a NCAA run to look forward to amidst dreams of replicating the two Final Fours in the school's illustrious past. The Friars improved to 7-3 Big East, 16-5 overall, and can probably anticipate moving up from #21 in the polls on Monday.

Three Friars broke the 20-point barrier; Ryan Gomes and Donnie McGrath each scored 23 to lead all scorers, with Sheiku Kabba adding 20. McGrath scored 20 in the second half alone, most of which was garbage time. PC shot the Pavilion lights out from beyond the arc, making a stunning 60% (15-25) of those shots. McGrath and Kabba combined to go 10-14 from that range.

For Villanova, only Curtis Sumpter had a strong game. The hope of Villanova's future scored 20 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds unfortunately, Providence didn't miss a lot of shots), although it was marred by seven turnovers (an appalling amount for a forward who doesn't handle the ball a lot). Randy Foye crept into double figures with 11, the only other Wildcat to do so, but all 11 came in the first half. Will Sheridan grabbed eight rebounds, including six offensive, in just 21 minutes, while adding seven points. Coach Wright, probably in a vain effort to change the chemistry, began utilizing an unusual pattern of substitutions. (Wright was assessed a technical foul at one point.) Sumpter was the only player to log more than 28 minutes (and he only had 34), while all of the nine Wildcats who played saw at least 10 minutes, a drastic departure from just a couple of weeks ago.

The game got off to a disastrous start and was basically over before it began. Providence sprinted to a 10-0 run to open the game, while Villanova committed five straight turnovers and didn't fire a shot until Mike Nardi nailed a three, over three minutes into the game. The Wildcats were never competitive. They provided a spark of excitement at the end of the first half, while trailing by 18; Andreas Bloch drained a three, Sumpter pulled off a steal and a dunk, and Bloch blocked a PC shot near the buzzer; if nothing else, it got the crowd interested in the game.

The halftime numbers were about as bad as they could be: a PC lead of 47-33, while shooting 16-24 (67%) from the floor and an almost-as-good 8-13 (61.5%) from beyond the arc. PC had 11 assists, versus nine turnovers, while 'Nova had four assists against ten turnovers.

Despite the positive events that ended the first half, 'Nova quickly collapsed when play resumed and let the game deteriorate into a rout. The Wildcats turned the ball over four more times in the first four minutes, permitting PC to swell its lead to 57-39 on a layup from Gomes. The game was never remotely competitive after that, as 'Nova never got any closer than a dozen. Villanova could boast a couple of statistical accomplishments: despite 20 turnovers, they forced an identical 20 from PC and shot 25-32 (78%) from the line. Unfortunately, that was about all of the silver lining which could be found. The rest of the season may be very revealing of the future of Villanova basketball. Will the team recover from this atrocious outing and right the ship, knock off one of the powers on the road, and give the current VU students (very few of whom have ever seen a VU team in the NCAA tournament) something to cheer about? Or is this game a harbinger of a downward spiral for the rest of the season, filled with blowouts against superior competition?

The Wildcats will next make the notoriously tough trip to Morgantown, West Virginia, for a Valentine's Day matinee against the Mountaineers, whom 'Nova blasted at the Pavilion earlier this season. It will unquestionably be a must-win for 'Nova's NCAA hopes.

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