Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Villanova Bids Farewell to Virginia Tech with 80-68 Win at Pavilion, As Hokies Head To ACC Next Season

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Villanova lives and dies with its trio of youthful guards, Allan Ray, Randy Foye and Mike Nardi, and tonight was no exception. The three guards scored 42 of Villanova's 46 first-half points and thoroughly set the tone for the 'Nova triumph. The 'Cats shot the lights out during the first half, connecting on an astronomical 71.5% of its shots on 15-21 shooting, and rode those hot hands to victory, finishing the game shooting 64% from the floor. Ray finished with a stunning 29 points to lead all scorers, with Foye (16 points) and Nardi (12 points) also shooting well in the backcourt. Curtis Sumpter just missed a double-double with 11 points and nine boards. An otherwise solid effort was marred solely by an appalling 23 turnovers, a high number even for a team which has chronically struggled to avoid miscues.

Virginia Tech trailed for virtually the entire game and never really seemed to develop any on-court chemistry, a condition which has dogged it for all four of its years in the Big East. Bryant Matthews, the nation's sixth-leading scorer entering the game, scored 16 points, but was otherwise held in check. He picked up his second foul with 8:21 to go in the first half, but was also hit with a technical, counting as his third foul and exiling him to the bench. Twelve of the 16 points came in the last seven minutes, basically garbage time.

Villanova's flickering NCAA tournament hopes were kept alive by the victory, although given that it was one of the two weakest opponents remaining on the schedule - at home - a loss would have been catastrophic and led to speculation about missing the NIT entirely. The Wildcats snapped a two-game losing streak (as well as a rare two-game skid at the Pavilion) and improved to 6-5 Big East, 14-10 overall. Unfortunately, the schedule suddenly gets a whole lot tougher down the stretch. The Wildcats must travel to Seton Hall, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, and also host nationally ranked Connecticut at the soulless (and likely half-empty) Wachovia Center. The only game in which 'Nova will be favored is Senior Night against free-falling Miami. In order to have a fighting chance at a NCAA bid, 'Nova will need nine Big East wins, which means at least two wins over superior opponents away from the Pavilion. Fortunately, Villanova all but secured its fifth straight NIT bid with the victory. At 14-10, the only way they could miss the NIT would be to lose all of the remaining games, which doesn't seem likely. The Wildcats' 15th win will assure them of being no worse than .500 entering the Big East tournament and thus a de facto automatic NIT bid. It will be Villanova's sixth consecutive postseason appearance.

Virginia Tech fell to 3-8 Big East,10-12 overall, and will likely be heading nowhere at the end of the season, for the eighth straight year.

Of course, Virginia Tech as an institution will be heading to the ACC at the end of this season, meaning the end of the rivalry with Villanova. (Due to the demise of divisional play in the Big East, this was the first year since VT joined the conference that the teams will only meet a single time.) Naturally, Virginia Tech was not brought into the Big East because of its basketball program; it was all about football, Bowl Championship Series bids and the juggernaut gridiron squad which has produced Michael Vick. Nonetheless, even the most favorable spin must concede that VT's four-year stay in the Big East was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for its program. It led to the dismissal of coach Ricky Stokes, after four seasons overall and three years of failing to improve the team's position as the doormat of the league.

In the long run, VT will probably be better off in the ACC, where it will play geographically closer opponents in a conference loaded with football-playing state schools. The move unquestionably didn't make sense for BC and only arguably made sense for Miami, but VT is the one school of the three defectors that looks like it made the "right" decision. (Of course, it was profoundly embarrassing when VT had originally joined in the BE chorus of condemnation of the departees, and then suddenly did a 180-degree turn and became a departee itself.) However, if one looks at it narrowly, in terms of what it means for basketball, they are in serious trouble, as they are likely to be pounded with equal regularity in the ACC.

Ironically, VT enjoyed FAR more basketball success when it was playing BE football and participating in the Atlantic 10 for all other sports. During the heyday of Ace Custis in the mid-90s, VT WON the 1995 NIT championship and reached the second round of the 1996 NCAA tournament, achievements it never remotely approached while enjoying the fruits of Big East membership. (Its accomplishments eerily parallel some of those of Villanova's program, during roughly the same years - 'Nova won the 1994 NIT and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1996 and 1997.)

The advent of VT as the 14th team meant that the Big East would need to depart from the tradition of inviting all members to the end of season party at Madison Square Garden. In an episode of poetic justice, the Hokies has never played in it a single time, as a result of this change.

VT hasn't had a winning record since 2000 (Stokes' first year), and hasn't made a postseason appearance since the 1996 NCAA run. In 2000-01, its first year in the BE, it went 8-19, 2-14 BE; in 2001-02, there was slight improvement: 10-18, 4-12. The coach - a former star at in-state rival Virginia - went out on a limb (although, really, he had no choice in the matter) and publicly declared that the 2002-03 season would be a failure (i.e., meaning his departure) if the team couldn't at least make the BE tournament for the first time. That would not have been a tremendous accomplishment, given that it only required avoiding finishing last in the then-seven team East Division (the divisional format was abolished after last season, after it was proven ineffective in attracting additional NCAA bids for the conference).

Unfortunately for Stokes, the team flatlined and once again missed the New York party, finishing at 11-18 overall and 4-12 in the league, virtually identical to its record the year before. Everyone knew that he would be fired, and he was. Nonetheless, history will record permanently that Stokes does own a shocking blowout victory over Villanova last season, crushing the 'Cats 88-63 at Cassell Coliseum (the only time Villanova has ever lost to Virginia Tech).

Due to the aforementioned division format, Villanova and Virginia Tech were required to clash twice a year. And the series, surprisingly, produced a lot of entertaining basketball, which I will miss. I certainly didn't expect that when this series was created, an Instamatic twice-a-year rivalry with a state-school football powerhouse, that I'd ever miss it when it ended, but I will.

The most memorable game, by far, was on January 17, 2001, when 'Nova overcame a massive deficit - the largest overcome in BE history - and ironically ended up winning the game by a deceptively large 86-74 margin at the Pavilion. But prior to tonight, of the six VU/VT games in BE play, there were four heart-stopping contests: two went into overtime, one was decided by two points, and one was the previously described comeback game. (And best of all, all were Villanova victories.) Villanova has now concluded the all-time series with Virginia Tech with an impressive 9-1 record, unless the teams meet in the Big East tournament.

Villanova returns to action against Seton Hall at the Meadowlands on Saturday

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