Thursday, March 25, 2004

Scarlet Knights End Wildcats' Season in NIT

Villanova's season - unexpectedly extended through late March - came to an unfortunately inglorious end on Wednesday night, as the Wildcats were solidly sunk, at Big East rival Rutgers, in the NIT quarterfinals. The 72-60 final did, nonetheless, mark the end of a winning campaign for 'Nova at 18-17. It was the second time in Jay Wright's three seasons that the Wildcats ended up one step short of the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City: two years ago, Temple stopped Villanova at the Liacouras Center in the quarterfinals.

Entering tonight's game, Rutgers was 15-2 at the RAC this season, a place notoriously difficult for visiting teams, and that was certainly an advantage. But it may not have mattered in any event: the Scarlet Knights had already demonstrated that they could beat Villanova this season, having won 71-68 at the Pavilion on January 28. Tonight, the Wildcats simply had no answer for Ricky Shields on the perimeter. His 21 points led all scorers, and most of them came on triples: Shields was a torrid 6-8 from beyond the arc. Three other Scarlet Knights reached double figures: Quincy Douby (18 points), as well as Adrian Hill and Herve Lamizana, who both had 13. Hill tied a career high with his 13 and had four dunks in the first half alone. Lamizana had a fantastic performance overall, as he swatted EIGHT Villanova shots, and narrowly missed a double-double by pulling in nine rebounds, despite playing the game on a twisted right ankle. Villanova self-destructed on the offensive end, committing 20 turnovers and shooting a miserable 52% from the line (over the season, the team had made 73.5% of its free throws). Those miscues offset Villanova's strong advantage on the glass, as the Wildcats outrebounded the Scarlet Knights Curtis Sumpter paced the Wildcats with 15 points, while adding five rebounds. Allan Ray scuffled through a difficult night from the floor (4-13) but managed to finish with 14 points. Best of all, Jason Fraser rebounded (literally and figuratively) from earlier-NIT struggles with a double-double, scoring a dozen points and collecting 13 rebounds.

Well, the basketball gods give, and the basketball gods take away. Villanova was given a new lease on life at the Big East tournament two weeks ago, and the 'Cats made great use of it, winning two Big East games and vaulting into the NIT after being left for dead. And the Wildcats even managed to acquire a pair of NIT victories. But the unexpected postseason ride came to a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion Wednesday night at the RAC at Rutgers. The game was not especially competitive, despite the fact that 'Nova managed to lose by only a dozen. The Wildcats were trailing by a dozen at halftime, and were never in the game, during the second half. RU's lead swelled as high as 68-49 at one point late in the second half, before Villanova rallied itself and won the rest of the game, 11-4. After intermission, the Wildcats shot just 33% from the floor and trailed by double-digits for all 20 minutes. It would have been nice if this game had ended up like the first (and until tonight, only) time Villanova faced another Big East team in postseason play: Georgetown on April 1, 1985, in the national championship. Ironically, along those lines, the coach of that team - Roland V. Massimino - whose tenure at Cleveland State ended after last season, was in attendance tonight. But there would be no miracle, not even with Rollie's presence.

Rutgers improved its record to 19-12 overall and is making its first trip to the NIT semifinals in a generation: the last trip up the New Jersey Turnpike for the NIT was in 1978. For Villanova, their final 18-17 mark represented an impressive improvement from a team that staggered into the Big East tournament with a 14-15 record, and needed to win two games just to assure its participation in the NIT. It was Villanova's first loss at the RAC since 2000, and it dropped their overall NIT record to 24-17, after two victories this season: Villanova won the NIT in 1994.

The game started out exciting enough, with frequent lead changes. There were no fewer than seven lead changes and three ties, while the score reached a 22-22 deadlock. Near the end of that span, we saw a thrilling sequence with shots raining down at both ends. Among the highlights: Mike Nardi went coast-to-coast following a failed Rutgers dunk, while Fraser delivered a monster dunk of his own- but ultimately, Shields made back-to-back threes, putting Rutgers up for good, while Snowden - not to be outdone - nailed his three, the final one of his Villanova career. Unfortunately, Villanova went cold near the end of the half, making just two of their last seven shots. Rutgers took a commanding 43-31 lead into the locker room, which Villanova never even trimmed to single digits the rest of the way.

The Wildcats enjoyed only one second-half spell where they seemed to make a game of it. Around the midpoint of the second half, they embarked on a 6-0 run (two layups from Foye keying it) while Rutgers went cold; the Scarlet Knights scored just two points over a five-plus minute span. But Shields, as he did all night, hit another triple and the 'Cats were back on their heels, and RU's lead ballooned to 18, 68-49, after Douby's three-pointer around the six minute mark. It was all over. The rest of the game was relegated to garbage time.

The game was the last for Wildcats Derrick Snowden, Andreas Bloch and walk-on Tom Grace (who played just three seasons). They finished their Villanova careers as the second class in a row to never participate in a NCAA tournament, but they did play in four NITs. As far as I can tell, the 2003 class and this one are the only Villanova classes who fall into that category: the 1965-68 Wildcats also went to four straight NITs, but freshmen weren't eligible back then. Snowden's final game featured him playing 22 minutes, as Randy Foye was saddled with foul trouble (Foye played just 23 minutes prior to fouling out). Snowden scored three points and added a string of singles across the box score: one field goal, one offensive rebound, one steal, one assist, one personal foul. He also took two shots from the floor (both triples), missed two free throws, and committed two turnovers. Neither Bloch nor Grace received the opportunity, in their final games as Wildcats, to see action. Which disappoints me, because they should have gotten to play during garbage time. If the game had been competitive down the stretch, I can understand Wright not putting them in. But when you're getting thumped late in the second half, and you have seniors that haven't played, they should be on the floor in the final seconds.

It also erases the final vestiges of the Steve Lappas era on the Main Line. Snowden and Bloch were the only Wildcats left to ever actually play a game for Lappas, which they did as freshmen. Marcus Austin, who will be back next season, is the only player remaining who was recruited by Lappas, but never actually played for him. (Chris Charles, who arrived the same year as Austin, was recruited by Wright after he became head coach that spring.) But, obviously, this year was played by Wright-recruited players, who logged the overwhelming majority of the minutes; Snowden and Bloch were bench players. Jay Wright is now 4-3 in NIT play at Villanova; he had two wins his first year, and two this season.

It was a forgettable performance by the Wildcats, but that shouldn't obscure the achievements of the squad this March. Villanova had won four out of five entering tonight. This season may ultimately have turned on Randy Foye making the game-winning shot against Seton Hall, during the first round of the Big East tournament. Had the Wildcats lost that game, they would have disbanded with a record of 14-16, with a 6-10 record in Big East regular season play and a first-round tournament loss (in other words, 6-11 in league play, losing nearly two-thirds of its games against BE opponents). With six straight losses, after staying on the fringes of the bubble for most of the season. A dark pall would likely have hung over the offseason. Instead, the team showed a great deal of heart and desire to keep playing. They have now ended their season with a winning record and four wins out of their last six, against fairly competitive opponents.

Villanova also has youth on its side. With statistics showing that the overwhelming majority (85%-90%) of the minutes and scoring are coming from freshmen and sophomores, the future would seem bright. By the time the illustrious 2006 class of Ray/Foye/Sumpter/Fraser are seniors, they will probably have more actual game experience than any other team in America. Ray and Sumpter are already third-team All-Big East players, and Nardi qualified for the All-Rookie team.

I tend to fall on the side of optimism, and to balance that out, I'll give the other side. It can't be denied that there aren't major problems to fix, for precisely the same reasons cited above. Villanova was one Randy Foye shot from going home with a losing record, for the second straight season. The team still turns the ball over WAY too much. Even by the standards of college players, Foye is maddeningly inconsistent; one night he looks incredible, the next he gets into foul trouble and can't put it in the ocean. And the greatest enigma is Jason Fraser. If he stays healthy, he could be a major wrecking crew in the paint. If he doesn't, Villanova will continue to struggle to diversify its offense, over-relying on its guards and their capacity to have hot shooting hands EVERY night.

It also would help to have two more role players: a stronger presence off the bench and a monster in the paint. Aside from Will Sheridan's solid play, the 'Cats really didn't have anyone this season, who could give them a lift at a key moment. And even Sheridan isn't an offensive catalyst, but instead a rebounder and defender. What 'Nova needs is a guy to play the role similar to that of departed transfer Reggie Bryant: a guy who could come into the game cold and score a couple of quick buckets, and take the momentum back from the opponent. As for the second need, a Chuck Kornegay/Aaron Matthews type (I'm oversimplifying, because those two guys weren't THAT similar, but you get the idea) could be helpful underneath. The guy doesn't need overwhelming offensive skills, but the size to push opposing rebounders out of the way and get to the loose ball. It's possible that Sheridan could develop into that kind of player.

But overall, fortune is likely smiling on the Wildcats and their future. Inherent in the discussion above, is the need for ROLE players. That, by definition, is something positive. The Wildcats already have the major pieces in place - a point guard, outside shooters, and a post player. What they need is better five-man basketball and a couple of extra pieces to get them over the hump.

Let's see what happens next season...

Go Wildcats!

Saturday, March 20, 2004

'Nova Cuts Down Cavaliers, 73-63, in NIT

In a rare morning contest, tipping at 11 AM, Villanova cut down the Virginia Cavaliers, 73-63, at the Pavilion on Saturday. The triumph advanced Villanova to the quarterfinals of the NIT, where they will face a fellow Big East school: the winner of Monday night's NIT contest, in which West Virginia will travel to Rutgers. The victory, the 18th of the season and fourth in the last five games, assured the Wildcats of a winning season, as they are now two games over .500, with only one possible loss remaining. It was the first meeting between the two mid-Atlantic schools since the first round of the 1992 NIT, a tournament which Virginia ultimately won at Madison Square Garden. That game was historically significant as the final game at Villanova for former coaching legend Rollie Massimino.

It's hard to believe that just a week and a half ago 'Nova was limping into the BE tournament; the 18-16 Wildcats now have a fighting chance at winning the entire NIT. The same cannot be said of Virginia. The Cavaliers' season ended with another disappointment for coach Pete Gillen, the former Villanova assistant who has also been head coach at Xavier and Providence. Gillen has just completed six seasons at the helm with a 104-78 record, and has been the focus of criticism in Charlottesville, due to the team's failure to reach the NCAAs since the 2001 season. The Cavaliers, members of the soon-to-expand ACC, finished the season with a 18-13 record, with all 13 losses coming to a squad which ultimately reached either the NCAA or NIT. But the Cavaliers finished 6-10 in the rugged ACC and won only a single road game in conference play. As the school is constructing a new (and by definition, expensive) building to replace the old "U-Hall", Gillen has been coming under fire.

Both of these programs have now been regulars in the NIT. This is, as we all know, the fifth straight appearance for 'Nova, but also the third straight for the Cavaliers and fourth in the last five years. Virginia, which won the tournament not only in 1992 but also in 1980, has now lost in the second round of the NIT, for the second straight season. (The Cavaliers haven't advanced past the second round in any of those last four NITs.)

Randy Foye completed his third straight game breaking 20 points, by pouring in 21 and dealing six assists, but Allan Ray led all scorers with an outstanding game: 23 points and eight rebounds. Curtis Sumpter, despite being saddled with foul trouble, recorded a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Will Sheridan played 31 minutes due to the foul woes of Sumpter and Jason Fraser, and contributed significantly on defense: the freshman forward finished with four blocks and five rebounds. For Virginia, star Elton Brown was shut down completely in the first half, in which he scored no points, and by the time he got rolling after intermission it was basically too late for the Cavaliers. Brown finished with 13 points and six rebounds on just 4-12 shooting. Todd Billet ended his days at UVA on a sour note, going scoreless in 25 minutes of action. Ironically, the Cavaliers were primarily keyed by a pair of bench players: Gary Forbes, who led the team with 19 points on excellent 8-11 shooting, and Donte Minter, who had eight points and five boards in just 15 minutes of action. Virginia's bench outscored 'Nova's, 30-2. The game also featured a cameo by a Philadelphia player, Jason Cain, who played just two minutes.

Possibly due to the early tip-off, and the generally subdued tone of NIT competition, the game was a little sluggish on both sides. Virginia made just three of its first 12 shots. Gillen, who likes unorthodox defenses, opted for a triangle-and-two in the early going. The teams traded baskets for a while, with Sumpter a monster underneath for 'Nova; less than seven minutes into the game he already had seven boards. For UVA, Donte Minter came off the bench to light a spark for in the first half. The Wildcats were hurt when Sumpter and Fraser both sank into foul trouble in the early going. Sumpter picked up his second foul at the 12:12 mark, and the resulting free throw pulled UVA within 12-11. About two minutes later, Fraser committed his second, on Minter and very far from the basket. Minter would give the Cavaliers their last lead at 19-18, with two free throws at the 8:51 mark, due to a foul by Sheridan. It came after one of the most exciting plays of the day, a three from Mike Nardi which came just as the shot clock expired.

Villanova began to pull away a bit, though, after J.R. Reynolds converted an "and one," the result of a one-on-one breakaway against Nardi. That made it 24-22 'Nova, but the 'Cats would finish the half on a 13-6 run to take a 37-28 advantage into the locker room. The big blow was at the buzzer, when after racing up the floor, Ray threw a desperate fling from about 3-4 feet beyond the arc into the hoop.

The halftime stats looked pretty good for 'Nova. Ray and Foye had each reached double figures with 10 each, and the team had held the Cavaliers to just 33% shooting and had outrebounded them 21-15. Best of all, Elton Brown, the Cavaliers' best player, who ranked 9th in the ACC in both scoring and rebounding, had been shut out entirely. Minter, Forbes, and Reynolds all tied for the Virginia lead with eight points apiece.

The second half of the game was delayed shortly, while medical personnel attended to a physically ill individual at the Pavilion. After play resumed, 'Nova quickly inflated its lead to double-digits, starting with a 8-0 run, and the lead peaked at 45-28 less than four minutes into the second half. Villanova began putting it on cruise control, but then a series of mental mistakes and foolish fouls began letting UVA back into the game. Fraser picked up his third and fourth fouls on consecutive possessions at around the 12:18 mark; Sumpter had picked up his own fourth just under the 16:00 mark. With both of them out of the game, Virginia began pounding it inside and enjoying some success doing so. The most egregious sequence came around the eight minute mark, when VU committed a 35 second violation and Derrick Snowden then committed three fouls in less than 90 seconds. The Cavaliers began to chip into the lead, and Wright opted for a 30 second timeout at the 7:01 mark with the score standing at 52-44; UVA was on a 16-7 run.

Fraser returned to the game immediately after that timeout, delivering an "and-one" but then ingloriously fouling out on the next possession, on a bad foul. Thus far in the NIT, Fraser has unfortunately regressed badly after a stunning improvement over three games in New York. He was once again a nonfactor, logging just 13 minutes, scoring three points and grabbing six rebounds before fouling out. While those are good numbers if they were projected over 40 minutes, Villanova really doesn't need Fraser to rev the offensive engine. The three guards and Sumpter can provide the offensive firepower. What the Wildcats need is for Fraser to stay out of foul trouble, keep himself on the floor and intimidate enemy shots in the paint.

Wright was forced to keep Sumpter on the bench as well, and gambled that he could ride out the storm. And the gamble was successful; the 'Cats did so successfully, never letting the Cavaliers get closer than six until Sumpter returned around the four minute mark. The Cavaliers made their final gallant charge with just under two minutes to play, when Brown scored to cut it to four with 1:51 to go. Sumpter was tied up going to the hoop on the next possession, and while VU retained possession on the arrow the momentum was headed UVA's way. But Foye buried the Cavaliers on the foul line, making six in the final minute, and they never got any closer. Sumpter put the exclamation point on the contest by dunking with 7.1 seconds to play, rendering the final score 73-63 - an accurate reflection of Villanova's play. The key stat was rebounding. Despite the long absences of both Fraser and Sumpter (they combined to play just 35 minutes), the Wildcats STILL crushed the Cavaliers on the glass, 49-37. And it didn't help Virginia's cause that they made just one of ten three-point attempts (and the one they made didn't come until less than six minutes to play in the game).

Surprisingly, given the schools' relatively proximate locations (just a six hour drive apart) and status as major conference powers, they haven't faced each other all that often. Today was just the sixth meeting ever, and two of those games have now been in the NIT and thus not voluntarily scheduled. The teams didn't meet until 1981, and haven't met in the regular season since December 1989. Villanova is now 2-4 all-time against the Cavaliers.

This year's Wildcats, Wright's third team, have now matched the mark set by his first team in 2001-02 for NIT success, when the Wildcats reached the quarterfinals before falling at Temple. Last season's NIT ended abruptly at Siena, when a skeleton team, reduced by suspensions, was blown out. It also sets a positive tone for next season, in that this season will now officially go into the record books as a winning campaign, unlike last year, which thudded to a 15-16 mark.

According to the NIT's official bracket, the quarterfinal game between Villanova and the Rutgers/West Virginia winner will take place on Wednesday, March 24, at 7 PM. No site has been officially announced. If one had to bet, it seems more likely that Villanova's quarterfinal opponent will be RU, given that in the teams' only regular season meeting at the RAC, the Scarlet Knights won by 21. But of course, you never know. After all, Villanova was embarrassed by Providence on the Pavilion floor earlier this season but ousted the Friars in the Big East tournament. Either way, Wright's squad will have the advantage of rest and a couple of extra days to prepare, as they await the outcome of Monday's game.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Wildcats Slay Dragons, 85-70, in NIT Opener

Villanova continued its surprising late-season renaissance with a St. Patrick's Day victory, as the Wildcats slew the Drexel Dragons at the Pavilion, 85-70, in the NIT opener for both teams. Villanova has now won all 17 games ever played against its West Philadelphia neighbor, but it was only the second game between the schools since 1990. At Villanova, coach Jay Wright is now 2-0 against the school where he was once an assistant, and 10-9 including his days at Hofstra. It was a deceptively lopsided final score; the Wildcats had to overcome a sluggish start, where they fell behind by as many as ten points early in the second half. They eventually buried the Dragons under a mountain of free throws, attempting 30 in the second half alone, as they won the second half by a resounding 52-31 margin. On Saturday, Villanova will host Virginia for an equally rare morning game (11 AM) intended by ESPN as an appetizer for NCAA action later that afternoon. The victory also boosted Villanova's record to 17-16, ensuring that the squad will finish with at least a .500 record this season, something which looked like a fairly bleak prospect as recently as last week.

St. Patrick's Day has not been kind to Villanova in recent years. The two most notorious defeats of the mid-90s, the early NCAA losses as a #3 seed to Old Dominion and Louisville, both took place on that day, in consecutive years. It's quite ironic, for a school founded by Irish Catholics (as any look at the campus building names, or cemetery, will quickly confirm) to have such dismal luck on that day. But until 1995, 'Nova's St. Patrick's Day history had been OK. The two bright moments were beating Brown in the first-ever NCAAs in 1939, and upsetting #1 seed Michigan in the second round of the NCAAs in 1985, en route to the national title. All-time, Villanova is just 5-6, though, with all of the games taking place in the postseason. In 1978, a team featuring current broadcaster Whitey Rigsby beat Bobby Knight's Indiana in the NCAAs; in 1994, Villanova beat Canisius en route to the NIT title. But 'Nova has lost NIT games to St. Bonaventure (1977), NYU (yes, NYU- 1966), and in the NCAAs to ODU, Louisville, North Carolina (1991) and Billy Packer's Wake Forest team in 1962. (Packer has recently been making news for other reasons.)

Randy Foye and Allan Ray each had 20 points, while Curtis Sumpter had a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, for Villanova. Sean Brooks had a great night for Drexel, scoring a career-high 24 points and dominating play in the first half, when he scored 15 points; in the second half, foul trouble and leg cramps restricted his effectiveness and helped 'Nova pull away. Tim Whitworth had 14 points in his final game at Drexel, while Phil Goss and Jeremiah King each chipped in a dozen.

With the victory, Villanova's record now stands at 17-16 and have now won three of their last four. The loss ended Drexel's season at 18-11, with three straight defeats. But the Dragons appeared in their second consecutive NIT, a tremendous boost for their program. The Dragons were thought to have a fighting chance at the CAA's automatic bid, but were upset in their conference tournament opener by UNC-Wilmington. But Drexel's future looks to get brighter. The CAA is a step up from the America East, their former conference, and in just three seasons at the helm, coach James "Bruiser" Flint has done wonders to rehabilitate his stock, after four rocky seasons at Massachusetts. His tenure at Massachusetts, prior to being replaced by Villanova coach Steve Lappas, was notable only for mounting losses, dwindling Mullins Center attendance, and Flint's consistent appearances on the lists of the "best-dressed coaches in Division I". (Ironically, Lappas has struggled in Amherst far more than Flint had, narrowly surviving an ill-concealed drive to replace him after three disastrous seasons.)

Tonight, Flint may very well have coached his last game at Drexel. With 15 vacancies already in Division I, Flint's name has circulated widely as a candidate for higher-profile positions, including even the new Big East vacancy at Georgetown. Although I'd be pretty surprised if that happened - given Flint's struggles at UMass - Georgetown is in a real cash crunch right now, and Flint could probably be had, relatively cheap. Georgetown's financial woes are further aggravated by the need to buy out Esherick's contract, inexplicably extended through 2009, after last season. As a result, Georgetown isn't in a position to outbid other programs for the "hot" names rising on the coaching carousel, such as Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez. Bruiser's from the Northeast, he's young, personable, and doesn't have any ties with the previous John Thompson/Craig Esherick regime, which might be a plus in the current climate. But even if Flint stays in University City, his future looks pretty bright. Senior Tim Whitworth is the only player Drexel loses from a 18-11 squad, in a conference which may even attract a second NCAA bid next season.

With tonight's victory, the Wildcats have already surpassed last year's NIT phone-access-code suspension-induced disaster, which was mercifully ended in a rout at Siena in the opening round (in the same Albany, NY Pepsi Center where ODU broke 'Nova's hearts in 1995 in triple overtime, a loss which still haunts the program). In 2002, Wright's first season at the helm, Villanova made a nice NIT run, winning two Pavilion games prior to being stopped by John Chaney's Temple team in the quarterfinals.

The key advantage that Drexel enjoyed in this contest was that the game meant far more to them and their fans (many of whom made the trip out to the Main Line) than it did to Villanova. For Drexel, a NIT appearance is a substantial accomplishment; Villanova fans may fret about five consecutive NITs, but at Drexel that would be considered a real blessing. And they played like it; Drexel led by six at halftime but easily could have led by more, having held the lead for virtually the entire half.

Brooks was a monster inside, scoring 15 points. Unfortunately, Jason Fraser regressed from his outstanding performance in New York, which were among the best games of his career. Fraser was dominated by Brooks inside, and quickly sank into foul trouble. Fraser picked up his second foul guarding Brooks at the 14:21 mark and went to the bench; he played just six minutes in the first half and was basically a non-factor. Brooks made one of two free throws to give Drexel a surprising, early 11-4 lead. While Villanova fought back consistently, a DEEP three by Goss (one of his four triples in the game) gave Drexel a 25-18 lead and took back the momentum; Drexel extended the lead to 33-23 after a three by Whitworth with around four minutes to play. The Dragons took a 39-33 lead into the locker room and were brimming with confidence; they had shot 50% from the floor and 45% from beyond the arc, although just four players had all their points. Only Villanova's outstanding foul shooting (11-12 by halftime) was keeping them in the game.

After play resumed, Villanova was still scuffling. Drexel pushed the lead back to ten after a particularly ugly sequence: Fraser committed his third foul, Sumpter missed a dunk, and Fraser then turned the ball over stepping over the end line. When Kenell Sanchez hit a bucket to give Drexel a 45-35 lead with 16:46 to play, Wright called timeout to discuss the situation. It was tough to see why a team that looked so great in New York had deteriorated so sharply. But it was Drexel's last basket for quite some time.

Fortunately, Villanova was spared the fate of having the season end at below .500, with a first-round NIT loss on its home floor. After that low point, the Dragons' fire was largely extinguished in the early minutes of the second half. The chief cause was a remarkably large number of whistles; Drexel fell into the double-bonus less than six minutes into the second half and began racking up fouls on most of their key players. Brooks, who had no fouls in the first half, committed THREE in a two-minute span. Chaz Crawford, their only other center, fouled out with over 14 minutes to go.

In a five minute span, Villanova embarked on a fitful 18-0 run (including eight straight from Ray) to transform the 45-35 disadvantage into a 53-45 lead. It might have been one of the least exciting 18-0 runs in Villanova history, given that most of it was at the foul line, with the prominent exception of a Ray steal-and-dunk. It was impossible for the game to flow smoothly due to the frequency of the whistles. It's highly unusual, obviously, for one team to be in the double bonus with over 14 minutes to play, and the number of free throws reflected that fact. Villanova shot 42 free throws in the contest, and turned in an outstanding performance at the line, making 35 of them (over 83%). And if you take out Fraser's 1-6 from the line, the rest of the team went a near-perfect 34-36. In contrast, Drexel went 16-23 from the stripe. Angered by the disparity, Flint was whistled for a technical, and it was unwise to put 'Nova on the line, as Ray made both of them, of course. Brooks was hampered both by foul trouble and leg cramps, and without him, Drexel just couldn't compete underneath. The Dragons are "munchkins," to use Flint's favorite term when he has to face major-conference competition, and with their best post player struggling they had no shot at an upset. Brooks didn't score for the first eight minutes of the second half, and at that point Villanova had already taken control of the game.

Villanova had the momentum, momentum disproportionate to the actual lead, which never exceeded 11 points until garbage time. The Dragons actually got the lead down to as low as 71-66 around the four minute mark, but Villanova's stellar free-throw shooting saved the day. Every time the Wildcats went to the line, they dropped, which is a real morale killer for the team trying to rally.

Eventually, Drexel collapsed and the Wildcats widened the margin, winning the final four minutes, 14-4.

The final numbers noted that Villanova killed Drexel on the glass, winning the rebounding battle by 18. One reason was a standout game from Will Sheridan, who pulled in five boards in just 18 minutes, while scoring 11 points. The Wildcats also turned the ball over just 12 times. On Saturday, Villanova will face former Villanova assistant Pete Gillen's Cavaliers for the first time since the 1992 NIT. Gillen, a one-time candidate for the head coaching position here, is himself is on the hot seat after several lackluster seasons at UVA, and could unquestionably use a strong NIT run to solidify his position.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

'Cats Fall to #9 UConn, Head to NIT

Villanova's glorious, long-shot Big East tournament run came to an end Friday
night, as the 11th-seeded Wildcats simply ran out of gas against a superior
#9 Connecticut squad, 84-67, in the semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New
York City. Despite the loss to a back injury of arguably the best player in
America, Emeka Okafor, the 2nd-seeded Huskies breezed past the 'Cats to reach
the tournament final, where they will face #6 Pittsburgh, for the third
straight year. But most importantly, Villanova reached the goal it had set when it
arrived in New York: come home with the two necessary wins to assure
qualification for the 40-team NIT. And the Wildcats did.

Villanova finished its season at 16-16 overall, having just reached the .500
record for official NIT consideration, with the pair of victories this week
over Seton Hall and #20 Providence. The hated Huskies improved to 26-6 overall
with the victory. The Huskies will be battling Pitt for the third straight
season in the final; this marks the first time in the Big East's 25 year
history, that the same two teams have met in the final three years in a row. Each
team has won once. Coach Jim Calhoun will seek his sixth tournament
championship, which would tie him with former Georgetown coach and Villanova nemesis
Thompson for the most ever.

Three sophomores - Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser - had
tremendous games for 'Nova, but everyone else had an off-night. Those three scored
54 of 'Nova's 67 points. Fraser, in particular, has shown a tremendous
improvement during this tournament run, in which he has barely resembled the
struggling sophomore he was all season. And that fact, more than any other, made the
run possible. Fraser matched his season-high with 17 points, while recording
another double-double with 11 rebounds. Foye paced the Wildcats with 20
points, while Sumpter finished with 17 points and 7 rebounds before fouling out
with two minutes to play. The Wildcats were badly hurt by a horrible game from
Allan Ray, who had an atrocious night, making just one of ten shots from the
floor and finishing with two points. Ray was saddled with foul trouble and
limited to just 25 minutes, and he still fouled out with over eight minutes to

Even with Okafor out of the lineup, the Huskies demonstrated why they are
among the handful of elite teams with legitimate aspirations to capture the
national championship, with four players having outstanding games. At least, Ben
Gordon may finally be leaving for the NBA. The Connecticut junior, who first
burst into the Villanova fans' enemies list with a shot to beat 'Nova in the
2001 Big East tournament, gave 'Nova fans something else by which to remember
him. Gordon scored a game-high 29 points, some on incredible shots which were
impossible to defend, and added six rebounds. Villanova had nobody who could
guard him- but probably, neither does any other school in America. If Gordon
gets hot, he really cannot be shut down. He also had 29 points in the Huskies'
victory over Notre Dame in the quarterfinals last night. Not to be outdone,
senior guard Taliek Brown also concluded his career against Villanova with a
stellar performance. Brown scored 11 points but also had six rebounds, dealt
10 assists and committed only a single turnover (his performance was marred
only by making one out of six free throws). Freshman Josh Boone had a superb
performance, as he dominated the glass. Boone recorded a double-double with 11
points, 15 rebounds and also swatted six Villanova shots. Finally, Rashad
Anderson had 19 points,

Villanova fell behind early, as Connecticut dominated play for most of the
game. The Wildcats did make a spirited charge, early in the second half, but
the Huskies soon quelled the rally and coasted for the last ten minutes or so
with a comfortable, double-digit lead. It was never competitive beyond the
ten-minute mark.

In summary, Connecticut looked more like a national powerhouse, than the team
which was embroiled in a challenging struggle with Villanova two weeks ago at
the Wachovia Center. In that Feb. 28 contest, Villanova battled the Huskies
- WITH Okafor - right down to the final shot, when Okafor blocked a Foye drive
and arguably fouled him in doing so.

There are some games where you have a gut feeling about the ultimate outcome,
and this was one of those games. Connecticut began pulling away around the
midpoint of the first half, and it was then apparent that this was simply not
going to be the 'Cats' night. UConn was firing on all cylinders, and the 'Cats
were just not playing with the same level of passion that characterized the
games earlier this week. Friday night is when Cinderella traditionally hits
the wall at Madison Square Garden, having played three games while its opponent
has played only two. Villanova had a lot of history to overcome, even to
reach the final, let alone win the tournament and take the automatic bid. Since
1992, the league has instituted byes in the conference tournament, and no team
without one has ever won it. Only twice has one of those teams even reached
the final: Connecticut in 2000 and Pittsburgh in 2001.

After trading baskets in the early going, the Huskies held just a modest
16-13 lead at around the 12:30 mark, before starting their run. Villanova missed
nine straight shots during this span, while Connecticut embarked upon a 10-0
run. When coach Jay Wright finally called a long-overdue timeout at the 8:05
mark, the Huskies had widened the lead to 26-13 and were basically in control
for the rest of the game. Even at their high-water mark early in the second
half, Villanova would never get closer than five. With less than two minutes to
play, Villanova had just 19 points and trailed by 15, before Foye ripped off
five straight points to revive the offense. But Gordon nailed an NBA three
with 40 seconds left to boost the lead back to 13, 37-24, where it remained at

Villanova shot just 28% from the floor in the first half, a percentage the
Huskies neatly doubled at 56%: Connecticut had led the nation in field goal
percentage defense. And even without Okafor, they had a substantial 23-17
rebounding edge. The one thing Villanova did have going for it was an outstanding
turnover count of just three. Gordon had 13 points already, while Brown had 10;
Fraser had nine points (but three fouls) for 'Nova, while Allan Ray was
scoreless, having gone 0-6 from the floor.

The Huskies nearly broke the game open as soon as play resumed, zooming out
to an 18 point advantage at 42-24 and forcing Wright to use another timeout
just 1:20 into the second half. To their credit, the Wildcats fought their way
back into the game, scoring 10 straight. The run culminated with a Sumpter
putback of a Foye miss at the 15:59 mark and a Calhoun timeout to break the run
with the score 42-34.

Villanova's last gasp came when Sumpter scored four straight points to carve
the deficit to 48-43 with 12:09 to play. But Villanova could draw no closer
and soon lagged behind by double-digits, where they remained for the rest of
the game. Over the next five minutes, Connecticut went on a 17-4 run to make it
65-47. At the 7:01 mark, Charlie Villanueva suffered a high ankle sprain,
and play was halted while Villanueva had to be helped off the floor. But even
the delay had no effect on the Huskies' momentum. Their lead peaked at 20
after Anderson drained a three at the 5:41 mark, effectively ending the game -
Wright called another timeout, but it was way too late. The rest of the game was
garbage time. Andreas Bloch made his first appearance of the tournament
immediately afterwards, and converted a traditional three-point play almost as
soon as he took the floor. In a classy move by Wright, reserves Tom Grace and
Baker Dunleavy made a cameo appearance in the final minute. Less explicable was
Wright's decision to keep ordering fouls in a long-decided game. Despite
trailing by 16 points with three minutes to play, Villanova committed seven fouls
in the remaining 2:56, a ridiculous number for a situation in which they
never reduced the deficit to less than a dozen points.

Villanova's next contest, in the NIT, will take place some time next week.
The NIT takes some time after the NCAA Selection Show to determine its field,
and so the answer to Villanova's opponent and site will come some time on
Sunday night. Unlike the NCAA tournament, which uses strict, complex criteria in
creating its brackets, the NIT is not subtle (and can't really afford to be)
about its desire for attractive matchups to generate revenue, fans, and media
interest. With Villanova, Temple, and Drexel all probably in the field of 40,
the NIT would likely put all of them in the same bracket, in order to stage at
least one well-attended game in the Philadelphia area. In 2002, Villanova and
Temple were deliberately put on a collision course for the third round, which
did in fact take place, with Temple winning at the Apollo (now Liacouras
Center) in a close game.

Will Villanova get a home game? Probably, if past history is any indication.
Although the Wildcats usually don't draw well for NIT games, Villanova does
have a strong fan base. In 2002, the 'Cats received two home games before
"traveling" to Temple; last season, the Wildcats did not receive a home game due
to their status as a suspension-depleted team, a consequence of the
phone-access-code scandal (they arguably shouldn't have received a bid at all, under
those circumstances, and it would hardly seem to fair to give them a home game).
They made a quick first-round exit after a desultory loss to Siena in Albany,
New York.

Overall, this impressive New York performance goes a long way toward quelling
the anxieties 'Nova fans have been experiencing over the team's struggles
this season. Four days ago, the most realistic expectation for the conclusion to
this season was a six-game losing skid, a first-round BE tournament loss, and
no postseason bid at all. But in just three days, the 'Cats have turned that
picture completely inside out. Playing with increased confidence, the
Wildcats seem poised to win some more games and make some noise in the NIT, a
tournament the team will be participating in for the fifth straight season.

Friday, March 12, 2004

11th-seeded 'Nova Upsets #20 Providence in Big East Tournament Quarterfinals

One of the many glorious aspects of college basketball is its
unpredictability. Villanova, which, just a a week ago, appeared ready to fold its tents
after another frustrating season, has rejuvenated itself, after winning a second
game in the Big East tournament, for the first time in seven years. The
11th-seeded Wildcats upset #20 Providence - the third seed - 69-66 in Thursday
night's quarterfinal contest. With the triumph, the 'Cats have virtually assured
themselves of their fifth consecutive NIT invitation, and will extend their
streak of postseason appearances to six: the last time they failed to appear was
1998. It has even led to speculation that the Wildcats could capture one of
the most unlikely NCAA bids in school history, by actually winning the Big East

But even if the Wildcats' Cinderella run ends on Friday night, it has already
yielded some benefits, both immediate and historical. The immediate benefits
are the NIT bid and the theoretical possibility of going to the NCAAs with
two more victories. But Villanova has now become the first team in Big East
history to enter the conference tournament with a losing record and still win two
games. And it remains the strongest BE tournament run since 1997, when Tim
Thomas, Alvin Williams and Jason Lawson keyed the top-seeded Wildcats to the
final, where they finally fell to Boston College. Ironically, that was also the
last time Villanova faced Providence in the Big East tournament; they ousted
the Friars in the semifinals.

The victory was particularly sweet in light of the fact that Providence had
humiliated 'Nova at the Pavilion, exactly a month ago on Feb. 11. In that
contest, the Friars handed 'Nova a 100-74 loss, the worst in the history of both
the Pavilion and the 76 game, 68 year history of the series. Providence had
also won at home on Jan. 21, sweeping the season series. But, in general, it's
tough to defeat a talented opponent three times - as Villanova's performance
tonight indicated.

Villanova improved to 16-15 overall, and thus can finish no worse than .500,
even if it loses to #9 Connecticut Friday night in the semifinals. As a
major-conference team at .500 or better, it will receive a de facto automatic bid
from the NIT. Providence is reeling, having dropped three straight games, and
has finished with a record of 20-8 overall. Although their NCAA at-large bid
is 100% assured, their seeding may be adversely affected by a quarterfinal
exit in the first game they were required to play. Also galling to the
Providence faithful is coach Tim Welsh's odd lack of success in the Big East
tournament, where he has fared just 1-6 during his tenure there. This was his first
loss to Villanova in Madison Square Garden.

All-time, Villanova OWNS Providence in the Big East tournament, having now
won six of the seven contests. In fact, the Wildcats have a higher winning
percentage against the Friars in tournament play, than any other BE team (with the
exception of West Virginia, but there have only been two meetings, both won
by the 'Cats.) However, unfortunately, they haven't met much recently; this
was the first time they'd met since 1997, as noted above. In the mid-90s, the
teams clashed in the conference tournament four straight seasons, from 1994-97,
and Villanova won three of those meetings.

All of the hypothetical pieces of the Jay Wright era finally came together
tonight. By far the most important was Jason Fraser, who demonstrated why he
was so coveted as a high school prospect. Fraser had one of the best games of
his career, scoring 17 points and grabbing five rebounds, as he finally
provided Villanova with the interior scoring option it had so badly lacked all
season. And it was particularly crucial because of the way the game was called.
Both teams were mired in foul trouble the entire night. From Villanova's end,
it meant that Allan Ray and Curtis Sumpter, the team's two most important
offensive weapons (both third-team all-Big East players), were forced to the bench
for much of the evening. Sumpter barely played (just 13 minutes) and Ray
played only 26 (after playing all 40 in the victory over Seton Hall the night
before), although he still managed to score 15 points. So someone had to
contribute unexpected offense to replace their usual output. Tonight, it was Fraser.

After his last-second game-winner against Seton Hall, Randy Foye also stepped
up, big-time, scoring 15 points. He also played the lead role in knocking
out Providence down the stretch, when he scored five straight points after
Villanova had fallen behind 58-54 with under four minutes to play, and it appeared
Providence might be pulling ahead for good. And Mike Nardi had a superb game,
scoring 11 points and nailing what turned out to be the game-deciding shot, a
three which broke Providence's spirit in the final minute. With 53.6 seconds
to play, Nardi's triple gave Villanova a decisive 64-58 lead, from which PC
never recovered. Best of all, Nardi played 39 minutes (a huge contribution
with so many guys in foul trouble), dealt seven assists and committed only a
single turnover.

For Providence, Sheiku Kabba was the driving force. Kabba led all scorers
with 24 points on outstanding 9-13 shooting, on a night when most of
Providence's big guns were also hobbled by foul trouble. No other Friar reached double
figures, as Ryan Gomes (a first-team all-Big East selection) and Rob Sanders
each finished with just nine points - both were plagued by fouls. Sanders
played just 23 minutes, prior to fouling out with nearly seven minutes to play in
the second half.

The game was entertaining to watch, although the frequent whistles did mar it
a bit. Both teams were hustling after every loose ball and showed some
spirited character as the lead swung from side to side. The closest either side
had to a decisive lead came near the end of the first half, when a Kabba three
extended the Providence lead to 28-19, the largest it would ever be. But Ray
answered immediately with a three of his own, and Villanova trailed by just one
at halftime, 33-32. Ray's 13 points led 'Nova, while Kabba already had 14
for Providence. The teams were also about as evenly matched on the stats as
they could be.

In the second half, Fraser exploded; he had only three points at halftime but
scored 14 afterwards. The game began to resemble a war of attrition, due to
all of the fouls, as Wright and Welsh began shuttling players in and out to
try to shield them from being fouled out. But neither team could get the upper
hand and neither led by more than five, until Villanova surged ahead during
the final minute. There were a large number of ties and lead changes throughout
the game.

After Foye's five straight points had put 'Nova back on top, 59-58, with 2:31
to play, Sumpter scored his first field goal, pushing the lead up to 61-58,
and setting the stage for Nardi's triple, which ended the game. Thanks to
Nardi's shot, which made it 64-58, Villanova was able to survive both Ray and
Sumpter fouling out in the final minute, as PC never drew closer than four until
a deep (as in three feet behind the NBA line) three at the buzzer cut the
final margin to three, at 69-66.

The key statistic tonight was turnovers; Villanova committed a shockingly low
number of eight, while PC committed 15, undoubtedly one of the rare games
this season (and perhaps the only one) where 'Nova forced nearly twice as many
turnovers as it committed. Kudos must be given to the whole team for this
accomplishment, but the guards, especially.

On Friday night, Villanova will take on #9 Connecticut, the tournament's
second seed- but will probably have the unique advantage of not having to face
Emeka Okafor, the shot-blocker extraordinaire and arguably the best player in
America. Okafor has been struggling with back spasms, and did not play in
Connecticut's victory over Notre Dame earlier today. All indications are that
Okafor will be rested for Connecticut's putative deep NCAA tournament run, and
will not play against 'Nova. Villanova played arguably its best game of the
season in a breathtakingly close loss to the Huskies on Feb. 28.

Worth noting: a Villanova footnote to the demise of #1 St. Joseph's unbeaten
season, which was decisively ended by unranked Xavier this afternoon:

The Hawks' debacle of a defeat, also ironically erased one of Villanova's
many NCAA distinctions. Prior to today, Villanova's 1990 victory over #1
Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, by the score of 93-74, held the distinction of being
the most decisive defeat of a #1 team by an unranked team in NCAA history. But
Xavier's 20 point victory today, 85-65, has eclipsed that mark, by a single
point. And for some reason, that 1990 game didn't even qualify for the VU media
guide's list of the top 21 greatest games in school history.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Villanova Scores Just 45 in Loss at #6 Pittsburgh

The 45 points were a season-low for Villanova; the last time the Wildcats scored
so few points were in last year's Big East tournament against Georgetown, in a
46-41 loss. Villanova jumped out to a shocking 17-3 lead in the early going,
but the Panthers roared back on Pitt's Senior Day. Pitt won the rest of the
game by an equally astonishing 56-28 margin - and three of those VU points
came on Randy Foye's meaningless triple at the buzzer. Not that it was
reasonable to expect a victory - Pitt has only one loss at the Petersen Events Center
in its two-plus years of existence. Until falling to Syracuse last week, the
Panthers had won 40 straight there. And 'Nova has just helped Pitt begin a new

The loss fixed 'Nova as the #11 seed (that's REALLY painful to write) out of
the 12 Big East tournament qualifiers (two of the 14 conference members don't
qualify for the trip to Madison Square Garden). Although Villanova will play
at 9 PM (in reality, more like 9:30 PM) in Wednesday's final contest, its
first-round Big East tournament opponent has yet to be conclusively determined.
It will be the #6 seed, either Seton Hall or Notre Dame, depending on other
games throughout the weekend. Unfortunately for Villanova, both of those teams
rest precariously on the NCAA bubble and desperately need a strong Big East
tournament showing to impress the Selection Committee. If the 'Cats survive
Wednesday, they would move on to face #3 seed Providence in Thursday's
quarterfinal game.

It's extremely unlikely, although theoretically possible, for Villanova to
win the Big East tournament. Since the byes for the top seeds (of varying
were created, following the entrance of Miami as the tenth member in
1991-92, no team which lacked a bye has EVER won the tournament. (Granted, the
primary reason for that, is the best teams are the ones which receive the byes, but
the bye is a huge advantage, in a tournament where you have to play three or
four days in a row).

Villanova finished its regular season at 6-10 Big East, 14-15 overall. It
wasn't that long ago - at the close of January - that they harbored notions of
knocking off then-#3 St. Joseph's. As the calendar changed to February, the
Wildcats were sitting at a respectable 12-7 overall, 4-3 Big East and were on
the NCAA bubble. 'Nova has won only two games since then. This afternoon's
loss was Villanova's fifth straight and seventh in their last eight games.

For #6 Pittsburgh, in contrast, the future seems glorious. With budding
superstars like Chris Taft, a sparkling new building, state-school money and
plenty of recent success, things can only get better. Today, the Panthers set a
school record for victories with 27, as well as bidding farewell to the
winningest class in school history. A laughingstock and BE doormat as recently as
five years ago, the Panthers guaranteed themselves the #1 seed in the BET as well
as least a share of the BE regular-season championship for the third straight
season. Pitt finished its regular season at 13-3 Big East, 27-3 overall -
the third straight 13-3 mark in league play for the Panthers. Connecticut,
which won three straight regular-season titles from 1994-96, is the only other BE
school to match Pitt's mark of winning or sharing the league title three
straight years. And Pitt did it this year despite having to play probably the
league's most difficult schedule, facing Syracuse and Connecticut twice, while
having to travel to Providence and Seton Hall.

Villanova now clings to a 27-24 advantage all-time over Pittsburgh, but that
does not appear likely to survive the next few seasons. Pittsburgh has now
won the last three and four of the last five. (Worth noting: in 51 games
against Pitt, today's 45 points matched the all-time low for 'Nova offense against
the Panthers, equaled only by the 45 scored in a 47-45 loss on Feb. 11, 1984- a
game which featured no shot clock OR three-point shot.) 'Nova was hoping for
a repeat of last year's finest hour, the 56-54 miraculous, near-upset at the
then-First Union Center. With the squad decimated and distracted by the
newly-broken phone access code scandal, a skeleton Wildcat team played stallball,
and as a result, nearly pulled off a shocking upset of Pittsburgh in front of a
CBS audience.

It seemed, at least in the beginning, that Villanova might have yet another
miracle in them. Last year's final regular-season game was also against a
highly-ranked Pitt team, on national TV - who knows? And this season, 'Nova would
actually have the right to use ALL the players against Pitt....

Allan Ray was the only Wildcat to have a standout performance. The team's
most consistent weapon, Ray poured in 24 of 'Nova's 45 points (well more than
half) and was the only factor even keeping 'Nova in the game during the
disastrous second half. Taft played the same role for Pitt. Scoring eight straight
points after Pitt had fallen behind 17-3, the freshman - likely to be named BE
Rookie of the Year - finished with a double-double: 16 points and 11 rebounds.
However, Ray's prodigious scoring must be balanced by the fact that he shot
only 8-23 from the floor. Chevon Troutman actually led Pitt in scoring with
17 points and added seven boards, and Carl Krauser reached double figures with
11 points, despite shooting an anemic 1-9 from the floor - he went 9-10 from
the line.

Jason Fraser, who had been showing steady improvement as he recovered from
his injuries, badly regressed in this game. Playing just 11 ineffective minutes
due to foul trouble, he scored just two points while finishing with four
fouls (although he did have four rebounds). Foye shot 2-9 from the floor, with
one basket coming when the game had been decided. Curtis Sumpter logged 31
minutes but finished with just two points. With Fraser on the bench, Chris
Charles saw some increased playing time but struggled with fouls as well, finishing
with four fouls in 18 minutes.

As depressing as the context was, I have to say that the game itself WAS
quite entertaining and unpredictable. The Wildcats cowed the sellout crowd at the
Petersen Events Center into silence by opening up a 17-3 lead DEEP into the
first half. When Mike Nardi drained a three at the 8:34 mark, pushing the lead
to 14 - that was the deepest deficit that Pitt had confronted - at any point,
during the entire SEASON. However, despite such unfamiliarity with playing
from behind, Pitt has successfully found its way out of the woods before.
Earlier this season, it trailed at Notre Dame by 13 - and won. At Georgetown, by
13, and won. And against William and Mary, by 10 - and won.

Still, 'Nova had totally dominated play up until that point. When the
under-eight timeout was whistled at 7:57, there had been three TV timeouts and an
equal number of Pitt points. When your scoring output corresponds to the number
of media timeouts, you're usually in big trouble. Pitt had missed 11 of its
first 12 shots, while Villanova went 6-16 from the floor. And coming out of
the under-eight timeout, Pitt was forced to call timeout - its third of the
game just 12 minutes in - to avoid a five-second call. The team resembled the
inept Panthers of the late '90s, far more than it did a national powerhouse and
contender for a top NCAA seed.

When Taft finally scored to cut the deficit to 17-5, the crowd cheered
derisively, as it marked the first Pitt field goal in about ten minutes. But he
didn't stop there. In less than three minutes, Taft singlehandedly brought the
Panthers back into the game, scoring eight straight points. The Wildcats,
which had been playing with confidence - if not technical precision - up until
that point, began to crumble, scoring just five points in the last eight minutes.
That span included two 35 second violations on consecutive possessions. The
second of these was particularly egregious, which came after the ball was
tipped out of bounds with one second left on the clock. Ray accepted the
inbounds pass and seemingly indifferent to the shot clock, did a pump fake and put
the ball on the floor before the buzzer sounded. Villanova would commit 18
turnovers to Pitt's seven, a figure Pitt exploited to Villanova's detriment: Pitt
scored 23 of 59 points off turnovers, compared to Villanova's ten.

Nonetheless, Villanova managed to protect a 22-17 lead by intermission.
Holding the #6 team to 17 points on the road has to be considered a major
accomplishment. Despite the flurry at the end, 'Nova had held Pitt to just 7-24
shooting (29%) and outrebounded Pitt - a strong rebounding team - 18-12. Seven
Wildcats had scored; Taft had eight of Pitt's 17 points. But Pitt had been down
this road before; they already had four wins when they had been held to 50-59
points. So it was far from over.

This fact was clearly illustrated as soon as play resumed, when Pitt grabbed
control of the game and Villanova sank into the collective fog which has so
often clouded their play this year. On the opening possession of the second
half, Ray scored to make it 24-17. Villanova wouldn't score again until the
13:08 mark, on a technical foul. In the meantime, Pitt embarked on a 16-0 run.
They had once trailed 17-3 but were soon up 33-24 - a 30-7 advantage over a 15
minute span, from the eight minute mark of the first half to the 13 minute
mark of the second.

Julius Page was hit with a technical, probably for excessive celebration when
Jay Wright called timeout to halt the run at the 13:08 mark. The technical
seemed to turn things around for 'Nova, as unusual a benefit of a timeout as
has ever been seen. Ray began hitting, finally getting 'Nova back to within
37-36, as he had all 12 of 'Nova's second half points. Nardi tied it at 38, with
a free throw at the 8:12 mark and the teams seemed ready for a dogfight down
the stretch.

Unfortunately, Villanova fell back into its funk and let Pitt dominate play
for the final eight minutes. The 'Cats scored just four points the entire rest
of the game, excluding Foye's final three, which came at the buzzer when the
'Cats were already down by 17. The key play was, ironically, another
technical, this one on Coach Wright. Protesting an out-of-bounds call, he was teed
up, and it sparked a Pitt rally - a 14-0 run which put the game out of reach and
demonstrated why they are the #6 team in America and a legitimate national
championship contender. The technical came at 6:59; 'Nova didn't score ANY
points until the 1:36 mark, when Ray hit a three, but the game was already
hopelessly lost at that point. The triple cut it to 51-40, and the game had been
over for a long time at that point.

Pitt shot free throws on four consecutive possessions, as Wright insisted on
ordering fouls in an already decided game, and the lead swelled to 58-40 at
one point. The only genuinely interesting moment came with 39 seconds to go,
when first-year Pitt coach Jamie Dixon motioned to Toree Morris to return to the
game. Morris, a one-time starter who lost that role this season, started the
game due to Senior Day but came out almost immediately. The crowd had been
chanting his name, and given that the outcome had been a foregone conclusion
for a while, it was odd that Morris hadn't been put back in the game.

Well, Morris refused to go in, deciding to show up Dixon in front of
thousands of people. In the continuing struggle of power between college coaches and
college players, each party holds the upper hand at various stages - but the
coach unquestionably holds the supreme power: what Dick Vitale describes as
"PT, baby!" The almighty minutes. Whatever antics might go on off the court,
players go in the game when told, and come out of the game when told. Public
refusal to do so is considered an act of rebellion against Coach by the player,
and usually carries severe, if unofficial, consequences for the player. Not
that Morris cares, tremendously, at this point. It's a coach who didn't
recruit him - Dixon's predecessor and former superior, Ben Howland, is scuffling at
UCLA right now in his first season. And Morris is a senior, anyway, and
probably felt that it was a good chance to strike back at Dixon for whatever
slights Morris has felt he's suffered this season.

As noted above, Foye hit a meaningless three at the buzzer, his first basket
of the second half, to make the final a bit more respectable at 45.

It seems ludicrous, when 'Nova was sitting on the NCAA bubble at 12-7, to
wonder about qualifying for the NIT - but the bid is in serious trouble. The NIT
officially requires participants to be at least. 500, but they have been
known to quietly take major-conference teams IF their conference tournament loss
drops them below .500 for the year (a strained rationalization, to be sure, but
it increases the money into NIT coffers). Villanova currently sits at 14-15.
Even to have a SHOT at NIT boundless compassion, and sneak in at one game
under .500, 'Nova would have to win the first game against Seton Hall or Notre
Dame, when those teams have everything to play for. Nearby Seton Hall would
also probably enjoy some fan support in the building. To ASSURE themselves of
reaching .500, they'd have to beat Providence, too, after the Friars had come
off a bye. Villanova hasn't failed to reach postseason play since 1998, when a
rebuilding team went 12-17, but it looks more likely than not that the streak
- and the four-year NIT streak as well - is coming to an end.

But that's all 'Nova fans have left at this point to hope for. The Wildcats
have demonstrated this season that they can contend with anyone in the nation,
and they simply have to come to New York on Wednesday, turn the ball over
less than 15 times and play solid defense. If they can do that, they'll have a
shot at getting that NIT bid and continuing the season, and building for the

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

NIT Streak in Jeopardy as 'Cats Fall to Miami on Senior Night at the Pavilion, 59-56

Villanova's once-promising season now rests in ashes, as the freefalling
Wildcats were embarrassed by an imploding, lame-duck Miami squad on Senior Night -
of all nights - 59-56, at the Pavilion Tuesday night. After a strong start
this season, the Hurricanes had lost 10 in a row, the last four by double-digits. They had absolutely nothing to play for, beyond inflicting some more emotional turmoil on Villanova fans in the final meeting between the schools. Villanova is in serious jeopardy of posting a losing record and thus missing postseason play, for the first time since 1998, and its streak of four consecutive NIT bids is in trouble. 'Nova has now dropped four in a row and six of its
last seven, bearing little resemblance to the gallant squad which nearly upset #8 Connecticut on Saturday. Was tonight's contest closer than John Kerry versus John Edwards, the "other" battle going on at the same time? Absolutely. Was the ultimate outcome basically the same? Yep.

Darius Rice, a thorn in Villanova's side since the day he arrived in South
Florida, scored 20 points to lead the Hurricanes. Villanova was highly
effective in containing Rice in the first half, when he scored just three points.
However, Rice exploded in the second half, scoring 17 points and virtually
singlehandedly turning the tide. Rice's accuracy helped Miami shoot 58% from the
floor, in the second half. Armando Surratt and Gary Hamilton each added ten
points to help the cause. For Villanova, the anemic 56 points meant that only
two players reached double figures. Allan Ray scored 27 points to lead all
scorers, with Mike Nardi chipping in 14. But Nardi's scoring output was
undermined by the fact that he had no assists while committing half a dozen turnovers.

Miami improved to 4-11 Big East, 14-15 overall; they had been 13-5, 3-1, at
one point. Villanova fell to 6-9 Big East, 14-14 overall. The Wildcats will
probably lose at #6 Pittsburgh on Sunday, dropping under .500. Unfortunately
for Villanova, the Panthers had their 40-game home winning streak snapped by
Syracuse on Sunday, and will likely be out for blood as they return to the
Petersen Events Center for the first time since that game. The NIT has been known
to take a team which falls under .500 as a result of the conference
tournament, so it would seem that 'Nova could still sneak into the consolation tourney
WITH a single win in the Big East tournament. One win and one loss would get
them to 15-16 and the NIT has been kind in the past - but even winning ONE game
in New York seems far from automatic. Likely finishing at just 6-10 in
conference play, the Wildcats are going to draw a powerful opponent in the first
round, something which they had hoped to avoid - and odds are that opponent will
be a NCAA bubble team with far more at stake than what 'Nova has to play for.

Thanks to 18 turnovers, Villanova relinquished a 29-21 halftime lead, being
outscored after intermission by a 38-27 margin. When play resumed, the
Hurricanes opened the half with seven quick points to get right back in it. Rice
finally gave the Hurricanes their first lead at the 4:28 mark, 52-51. Miami
secured the lead for good at the 2:23 mark, when Surratt drained a triple to give
the Hurricanes a 57-54 lead. Villanova failed to score a field goal the rest
of the game, as a pair of free throws from Ray were the team's only points.
Even Miami's final minute turnovers provided no window for Villanova to retake
the lead at the end. It's a shame, because Villanova shot very well from
three-point range (11-25, 44%) and logically should have scored a lot more than 56

This game brings a certain end to the Villanova/Miami series, as the
Hurricanes will be swirling out of the Big East and into the ACC next season. In the
final season, the teams split the two meetings; Villanova won, 76-69, at Miami
on January 25. Villanova holds a narrow 13-10 advantage in the all-time
series, which did not begin until Miami joined the Big East in the 1991-92 season.
(Worth noting: the teams never faced each other in the Big East tournament.)
'Nova won nine of the first ten games in the series, but Miami started
catching up in the late 1990s, when it won six straight and eight out of nine,
against 'Nova at one point. Tonight's loss marked Villanova's ninth loss in its
last 13 games against the Hurricanes. The most famous (or infamous) game in
the series took place on Jan. 17, 2000, at the Pavilion, when Miami's Johnny
Hemsley hit a controversial buzzer-beater to send 'Nova down to defeat, 67-66.
After replays indicated that time did in fact expire before the shot was
released, the NCAA made a rare mid-season rule change, authorizing officials to look
at replay monitors in similar situations. Villanova ultimately missed the
NCAAs that year by a single game.

I would like to give full credit to Eric Watkins, who noted some interesting
facts in his article, namely the last time Villanova had:

a) a losing record at home;
b) six wins or fewer, in BE play.

I would like to confirm Eric's suggestion that it was the 1992-93 team,
Lappas' first squad, which finished 8-19 overall, which previously held the
distinction of being the last 'Nova squad to post a losing record on home floors AND
winning six games or less in BE play. That group of Wildcats went 5-6 at the
Pavilion and 0-2 at the old Spectrum (excluding two Big Five losses at the
Spectrum against Penn and St. Joseph's, which were technically neutral-court games
under the then-Big Five agreement), for a total of 5-8. It also went 3-15 in
Big East play.

Some Senior Night observations on Villanova's departing seniors, Derrick
Snowden, Andreas Bloch, and Tom Grace:

Although this was unquestionably the first Jay Wright year, in the sense that
his own recruits for the first time played the bulk of the minutes, it also
represents the last vestiges of his predecessor, Steve Lappas. (Lappas is now
embroiled in a far more disastrous situation in Amherst, Massachusetts, than
the one which he departed on the Main Line three years ago. Rumors are
swirling that he'll be fired at the end of Massachusetts' season.) Snowden and
Bloch's departure basically means the end of Lappas-recruited players, despite the
fact that Wright is only finishing his third season at the helm. Marcus
Austin, who can possibly be redshirted due to his injury this season, and thus
retain an extra year of eligibility, will be the last Lappas recruit left after
this season, regardless of when he ultimately leaves the program. Of the last
Lappas recruiting class (i.e., the ones recruited in 2000-01, his final season
here), Austin was the only one who opted to stay after the news broke that
Lappas was going to Massachusetts to replace James "Bruiser" Flint, now the coach
at Drexel. Brennan Martin and Kyle Wilson, the other recruits, opted to
follow Lappas there. Chris Charles, who arrived the same year as Austin, was
actually recruited by Wright after he came to Villanova from Hofstra.

The class will unfortunately bear the distinction, first blazed by the 2003
class, of being yet another rare Villanova class to graduate without ever
playing in the NCAA tournament. When the 2003 class of Gary Buchanan, Ricky
Wright, and Andrew Sullivan failed to do so, it was the first time a Villanova class
had done so since the late 1970s. It's now occurred twice in a row.

As now happens regularly in college basketball, the class didn't make it all
the way, intact. (And transfers are even more likely when there is a switch
in head coaches.) The class also included Reggie Bryant and Jair Veldhuis
(remember him?) Both left after - and quite probably as a result of - the
coaching change. Bryant was a slasher and offensively gifted player, who suffered
from a chronic injury which limited his playing time. He saw the handwriting on
the wall, after Wright recruited Allan Ray and Randy Foye, and decided to
transfer after his sophomore year of 2001-02. Bryant is now at St. Louis
University, where he has become their star player. He's leading the Billikens in
scoring, pouring in 17 points a game, and has started every game. At 15-10, SLU
will certainly end up in the NIT or (with a strong push down the stretch)
possibly the NCAA tournament. Veldhuis left even earlier, opting to transfer to
Nevada, immediately after the fall 2001 semester concluded. However, he never
played in a game for the Wolf Pack. In December 2002, the Las Vegas
Review-Journal reported that Veldhuis had been dismissed from the team (no specific
reason was given) and had returned to his home in Holland. (And does not appear
to have returned to Division I college basketball, anywhere.)

Snowden was one of the grittiest players over the last decade at Villanova, a
tenacious defender who always seemed to give his all every time he took the
court. He was one of the few holdover players who totally bought into the Jay
Wright way of doing things, with the renewed emphasis on defense and
rebounding. While he never posted eye-popping numbers, Snowden was a solid citizen
four years here and ran the offense for a good portion of that time. His
senior year playing time was fatally damaged by the arrival of the
Wright-recruited Mike Nardi, his knee injury over the offseason, and the
suspension which began the year. After averaging nearly 30 minutes/game last
season, Snowden has seen his playing time cut in half, averaging just over 15
minutes/game this season. By the time Snowden was ready to play, Nardi had
basically ensconced himself at the point, and Snowden was relegated to coming off
the bench. But he embraced the role with enthusiasm and provided key lifts
as a reserve, throughout this season.

Bloch, on the other hand, was one of the most enigmatic players of the modern
era at Villanova. A talented but one-dimensional player, Bloch would have
fit perfectly into Lappas' system, which relied heavily on screens and the
three-point shot. Bloch's forte is three-point shooting, at which he might have
become a tremendous weapon had he been given the opportunity to play. His
bright shining moment came as a freshman, when he helped the Wildcats upset
Connecticut by nailing four triples at the then-First Union Center. Unfortunately
for Bloch, he only got to play for Lappas as a freshman, and he was totally
unsuited for the Wright system, which emphasized penetrate-and-kick, defense, and
rebounding, none of which he was very good at. As a result, Bloch spent
virtually his entire sophomore and junior years on the bench. By the conventional
wisdom of contemporary college basketball, he should have transferred after
his sophomore season. He has no discernible ties to Philadelphia; he's from
Germany, and he went to high school in California. The coach who recruited him
left, and the new one didn't fit his style, and he wasn't playing. At all.

But for some reason, Bloch didn't transfer. Ironically, he has played far
more as a senior, indicating that perhaps he and Wright have arrived a form of
mutual coexistence with his disinterest in playing defense. As the poor guy
who never got a chance to play, he's emerged as a bit of a fan favorite, with
"Bloch! Bloch! Bloch!" chants not uncommon from the student section. To
everyone's surprise, Bloch has seen his playing time more than triple this season,
swelling from the 4 minutes/game he played last season to nearly 13
minutes/game this season. And he's helped to win some games. On balance, he has to
considered a bright spot and a pleasant surprise in an otherwise disappointing

Grace has been a walk-on, making the contributions of all walk-ons: practice
players who get no credit for their efforts, save for the occasional cameo
appearances at garbage time. Due to the suspensions, however, Grace actually did
get his day in the sun: the chance to play meaningful minutes in a meaningful
game. Back in November, at the University of Redlands, Grace logged 14
minutes and scored three points, as he helped shorthanded Villanova triumph in a
114-103 barnburner. For Grace, who had played only 21 minutes in two seasons
prior to this year, it was a career high in floor time.

Naturally, I would like to extend best wishes to all three seniors, as they
leave Villanova. All have played well, overcome adversity (injuries,
benchings, and lack of playing time), and reflected well upon Villanova's basketball
program and community during their time on the Main Line.

But back to the more unpleasant topic of salvaging something out of this
season. In front of a national ABC audience on Sunday, Villanova will do its best
not to get crushed on Pitt's Senior Day. While the Wildcats demonstrated
last Saturday against Connecticut that they can hang with anyone, they
demonstrated rather conclusively tonight, that they can also get beaten by almost