Tuesday, March 15, 2005

'Nova in NCAAs, Faces N. Mexico on Friday!!!

To the Wildcat faithful-

At precisely 6:28 PM Eastern Standard Time Sunday, Villanova's long, arduous, and often surreal six-year odyssey officially ended, when CBS anointed the Wildcats as the #5 seed in the Syracuse Region on CBS. They will face the #12 seed, the Lobos of New Mexico, tournament champions of the Mountain West Conference, at 2:45 PM on Friday, in Nashville, Tennessee. A large crowd on campus enthusiastically cheered the bid when it was announced...

Should the Wildcats be victorious on Friday, they would face the winner of the game between #4 Florida/#13 Ohio University on Sunday afternoon. Syracuse, the winner of the Big East's automatic bid, as well as departing Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Connecticut will all represent the Big East; the six bids are the highest for any single conference this season, a proud bragging right for the conference in its rivalry with other power leagues.

In a pleasant twist of fate, Villanova fans will have the opportunity to root both FOR Pennsylvania (the only other Philadelphia school to qualify, out of the Ivy League) and AGAINST treacherous Boston College, on its way to the ACC next year, at the same time. The Quakers, a #13 seed, and Eagles, a #4 seed, will face each other in the first round in Cleveland on Thursday.

It was the 26th NCAA invitation in school history, and the first bid for the Wildcats since 1999, when a team led by Howard Brown and John Celestand reached the tournament as a #8 seed. The Wildcats fell to #9 Mississippi in a first-round game in Milwaukee, by the score of 72-70, on March 12, 1999.

The #5 seed was Villanova's highest since attaining a #4 seed during the 1996-97 season, when the team anchored by Alvin Williams, Jason Lawson, and Tim Thomas ventured to Winston-Salem, N.C. Those Wildcats defeated #13 Long Island in the first round, but dropped a 75-68 decision to #5 California in the second round. (Tony Gonzales, now a star tight end with the Kansas City Chiefs, was a member of that Cal team.)

This marks Villanova's 43rd postseason bid in school history, and its seventh consecutive season of reaching postseason play, a more pleasant way of expressing the fact that the Wildcats sandwiched five straight NIT bids (2000-04) between NCAA bids in 1999 and 2005. Nonetheless, it is an impressive accomplishment.

Among all NCAA programs, Villanova now is tied for 11th all-time in tournament invitations. The Wildcats caught Arkansas, which had been in sole possession of 11th place with 26, with Sunday's bid; the Razorbacks did not qualify this season. The Wildcats had previously been tied for 12th place with Temple, also with 25. The Owls were relegated to the NIT, and so 'Nova advances ahead of them.

The Wildcats will be hoping to make a deep run in this year's Dance, as Villanova has not reached the Sweet 16 since 1988. In Villanova's six appearances in the ensuing 16 years, the team has won only three first-round games (1991, 1996, 1997). Two were against substantially lower seeds (a #14 in 1996 and a #13 in 1997), and the 1991 victory was as a #9 seed over #8 Princeton. Many Wildcat fans remember the Golden Age of coach Roland V. Massimino, who reached five Elite Eights and most famously, brought home the national championship in 1985 as a #8 seed. (Massimino's name was formally enshrined in the Pavilion rafters earlier this season, as part of ceremonies honoring that team, during the game against Georgetown.) In 1971, coach Jack Kraft nearly led the Wildcats to an upset of UCLA in the title game against John Wooden's Bruins, the greatest dynasty in NCAA history, in the midst of their 10 titles in 12 years.

Coach Jay Wright has been ubiquitous in the local media, talking up the Wildcats' trip, prior to his departure for Nashville. On Sunday night, he appeared live on both Fox's "Ten O'Clock News" and NBC-10's "Sports Final" (to name just the two I happened to catch) as well as making various radio appearances.

Undoubtedly, the only downside to Selection Sunday, was the fact that Villanova was not assigned to Worcester, Massachusetts, which would have become Main Line North during the Wildcats' games, due to the large alumni base there. Jerry Palm of CollegeRPI.com accurately predicted last week that the top two Big East teams would end up there, as Connecticut and Syracuse will play in Worcester this weekend. Connecticut was a #2 seed; Syracuse was also a #4 seed, but had a much better record (five more wins and one fewer loss) and a head-to-head victory over 'Nova. And since the perfectly logical and admirable goal of the NCAA is to delay potential conference rematches for as long as possible, that precluded Villanova from being sent to Worcester.

But nonetheless, many Villanova fans will be making the 799-mile, 12 hour/19 minute (according to MapsOnUs.com) trek from Villanova to Nashville, some by plane, some by car, some by rented RV (according to one VUSports.com poster). For those embarking on the journey, it will likely be the experience of a lifetime, especially if they go by car.

Fortunately, Villanova is in the Syracuse Region, which means that if the Wildcats are able to reach the Sweet 16, the much more accessible Carrier Dome would be the site for the Wildcats' Sweet 16 and Elite Eight contests, and many more Villanova fans, enticed by the games' increased importance and diminished distance, would be there to cheer the 'Cats on. The top seed in the Wildcats' bracket is North Carolina, whom Villanova would potentially face in the Sweet 16.

Finally, this will be the first-ever meeting between Villanova and New Mexico, in the NCAA tournament or otherwise. Part of the fun of the NCAA tournament is playing different teams from different regions, that we ordinarily don't get to see a lot of; we don't play teams from the Mountain West Conference that often. And if the Wildcats make the second round, the same thing is true: 'Nova has only played Florida twice, and Ohio U. just once - in 1940.

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