Friday, February 06, 2004

Sumpter, Snowden Snow In Hoyas, 75-60

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

For some reason, the basketball gods smile on Villanova at the MCI Center, the glittering downtown-DC home of Georgetown basketball (perhaps some residual goodwill from the 1985 national championship). Villanova also boasts the distinction of winning the first-ever NCAA game at the venue, topping the Hoyas on December 3, 1997, 73-69. The Wildcats followed that up with MCI wins in 2000 and 2001, both by narrow three-point margins. Villanova remains one of just two Big East schools (along with Connecticut) that has never lost at the MCI Center.

Sumpter had a fantastic game, averaging over a point a minute (his reduced
playing time was due to foul trouble) and doing it on 9-11 shooting, after
making only one field goal in 14 attempts against SJU. Allan Ray had a decent
overall game for the 'Cats, scoring 12 points, dealing four assists and (for a
guard) grabbing seven boards, but did so on just 3-10 shooting. Brandon Bowman
led the Hoyas with 18 points in a losing cause. Gerald Riley - who had scored
a career-high 35 points against Miami in his last outing - was effectively
contained, scoring just 12 points on just 5-15 shooting. As a team, the Wildcats
shot well, connecting at a 51% clip. They also pounded the Hoyas on the
glass, finishing the contest with a commanding 38-25 rebounding advantage.

Jason Fraser opened the game with a bang, contributing three rim-rattling
dunks to give 'Nova an early 6-2 lead. But despite Fraser's early heroics,
Villanova led just 32-31 at halftime. They had to rely on a second-half explosion,
cruising past the host Hoyas by a 43-29 margin to breeze to victory. One big
factor: Georgetown's Ashanti Cook scored a dozen points in the first half but
was shut down after intermission. The key sequence was a 19-2 run, fueled by
three consecutive triples from Snowden. The Hoyas had held a 40-37 lead when
Snowden virtually took over the game, and never saw anything close to a lead
again; after falling behind 56-42, they never drew closer than eight points
the rest of the way.

Snowden's playing time in his senior season has been drastically below
expectations, due to injury, his phone-scandal suspension, and the emergence of Mike
Nardi at the point; he had averaged only 11.5 minutes per game prior to
Monday's game against SJU. Snowden is also a defensive specialist, not an outside
shooter, but any offensive punch the bench can provide is sorely needed and
could very well mean the difference between victory and defeat in most games
this year.

In addition to its stellar play at the MCI Center, 'Nova has also enjoyed
considerable success against Georgetown overall in recent years: this was the
Wildcats' fifth victory against Georgetown in its last six tries, as well as its
fifth straight in regular-season play. Georgetown won the last meeting
between the two schools, in the Big East tournament last season. In a genuine
throwback to the 1980s, with Villanova playing stallball thanks to a phone-scandal
depleted roster, the Hoyas emerged with a 46-41 triumph.

Worth noting: Mike Nardi had crafted an impressive free-throw streak,
converting 29 in a row, prior to tonight. Unfortunately, he went only 3-4 tonight,
as he missed his second free throw of the game, shattering the streak at 30.
While he still had quite a journey to undertake to even approach the NCAA
record, held by Gary Buchanan (73 FTs in 2000-01), the fact that it got so far
reflects a fundamental skill and ability to deliver under pressure, both rare in

The Wildcats boosted their Big East mark to 5-3, while improving to 13-8
overall, keeping NCAA hopes alive if they come up with a strong finish. Villanova
already owns two road wins (tonight and Miami) in conference play and is only
halfway through the season.

Georgetown dropped to 3-5 Big East, 12-6 overall. The Hoyas, running off
their customary December winning streak against a high-cholesterol diet of
cupcakes, had impressed some observers with some talk that the program was on the
way back, after starting the season 10-0. But they have lost six of eight since
then, and with such a pitiful nonconference schedule, would probably need to
virtually run the table to have a prayer at an at-large bid. The once-proud
Hoyas were the scourge of the Big East (and the nation) in the 1980s, reaching
three Final Fours and winning a national title (and memorably losing the title
game the following year to Villanova). A partial list of Thompson's
accomplishments would include seven Elite Eights, seven BE regular season titles, six
BE tournament titles, 20 NCAA bids, and 24 consecutive postseason appearances.
It was a tough act to follow.

But despite such a rich legacy, Georgetown has only reached the NCAA
tournament once in the last five seasons, and as a result, coach Craig Esherick was on
the hot seat, until receiving an unexpectedly long (through the 2009 season)
contract extension, after last season. (He still may be on the hot seat, but
it seems unlikely that Georgetown would ever be willing to buy out a contract
of such length, so any departure would need to be mutual).

His record includes a Sweet 16 run in that lone NCAA bid, as well as a NIT
championship and NIT final. His overall record is respectable, but outrageously
padded with December victories over cupcake opponents, which add up over a
five year period. When Esherick's teams have had to face real competition, his
record suffered: Esherick is under .500 in BE play and has only once guided
the Hoyas past the quarterfinals of the BE tournament. Nor has it helped the
foundation of the program that of Esherick's first true recruiting class, three
of the four guys transferred.

Although Georgetown still boasts the occasional tremendous talent, such as
Kevin Braswell or Mike Sweetney, a variety of factors have combined to reduce
the Hoyas to lower-middle-class status in the Big East pack: the 1999 departure
of legendary coach John Thompson, the virtual absence of home games from
campus, and the lowest athletic budget in the Big East (surprising from a school
with such a massive endowment, one far greater than Villanova's). Despite the
opening of the downtown MCI Center, far closer to Georgetown's campus and
offering exponentially more amenities than the dilapidated, Capital Centre/USAir
Arena it replaced, Hoyas attendance remains dismal. Nor does it look better
for the future: the imminent strengthening of the Big East with the likes of
Louisville, Marquette and Cincinnati isn't likely to help this decline.

Villanova will enjoy a rare February respite, after three games in six days;
the Wildcats won't play again until Wednesday, when borderline Top 25 squad
Providence visits the Pavilion. It may be a must-win game for the Wildcats, who
badly need victories over NCAA-bound teams (especially at home) in order to
have a fighting chance of making the tournament themselves. The Friars won the
first meeting on Jan. 21 in Providence, 62-56.

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