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!

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