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

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