Monday, November 22, 2004

2004-05 Villanova Wildcats Season Preview

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

As a result, the 2004-05 season will resemble the old Big East more so than in any season in recent years. There will be "only" 12 teams, the fewest the conference has had since Rutgers, West Virginia and Notre Dame joined for the 1995-96 season. There will be only a single division, something which has been rare in recent seasons (the format has vacillated over the years). Every school will face every other at least once.

Moreover, the absence of Miami and Virginia Tech (who have escaped to the ACC a year earlier than BC) also means that Villanova will have more games against its traditional Northeastern rivals like BC, Providence, Georgetown and Seton Hall, all of whom appear twice on the schedule.

It seems only fitting that this would take place on the 20th anniversary of Villanova's miraculous run to the national championship in 1985. On January 15 at the Pavilion, the school vanquished on that glorious night, Georgetown, will make its first-ever trip to that building. And 'Nova will honor the members of that squad in what undoubtedly will be a moving, tearjerking ceremony, complete with former coach Rollie Massimino. The day before, VU will issue a special commemorative DVD of the magnificent run, hosted by CBS/ESPN commentator Bill Raftery.

Villanova will open conference play against West Virginia at the Pavilion on January 5, and conclude its regular season precisely two months later, on March 5 at St. John's. In addition to the four opponents mentioned above, the Wildcats will face Notre Dame - currently ranked #20 - twice (including an ESPN2 tilt) and all other schools once. Villanova will take on defending national champion Connecticut on Groundhog Day at Storrs, Conn., and another conference game to savor will be when nationally ranked Pittsburgh comes to the Pavilion on February 20, when ABC's cameras will be rolling and the Wildcats will hopefully be in the hunt for a NCAA bid.

Another pleasant throwback will be the relative scarcity of games shifted to South Philadelphia. The Wildcats will travel down there only three times this season, with back-to-back contests in late January. They face Kansas on January 22 and Notre Dame on January 26, with ESPN covering the first game and ESPN2 the latter.

Of course, Villanova's schedule is not confined solely to conference foes. The Wildcats will face their traditional Big Five rivals in the full round-robin format once again, and with three of its four games coming at the venerable Palestra. The centerpiece game will be against St. Joseph's on February 7, with ESPN2 in attendance. With the Hawks coming off an Elite Eight season in which they reached the top spot in the national rankings for a week in March, the Wildcats will have an excellent opportunity to impress the Selection Committee down the stretch with a road victory.

Villanova will kick off City Series play with the always enjoyable Big Five Classic on Saturday, December 4, the Palestra tripleheader. Inaugurated in 2001-02, it has proven to be a big hit with the fans and become an annual tradition. The Wildcats will battle the Temple Owls, with SJU facing Drexel and La Salle taking on Penn. The following weekend, the Wildcats will return to West Philadelphia to challenge La Salle. It will be the third consecutive Palestra clash for the two ancient rivals. And on New Year's Eve, the Wildcats will bid 2004 a fond farewell by hosting the Penn Quakers at the Pavilion at 4 PM.

Villanova opted wisely to reduce the difficulty of its nonconference schedule this season; it is arguably the least formidable in recent years. Kansas is the lone non-Big East, non-Big Five opponent of any significance. The Wildcats aren't playing in a holiday tournament this season, most likely due to the complicated NCAA regulations regarding them. It's possible that this has been changed, because the NCAA was re-evaluating this particular policy, but the way it used to be was that you could only participate in (to cite a single example) the Great Alaska Shootout, once every four years, and then wait your turn again. The logic was that it wasn't fair for the big conferences to take all of these spots, and by forcing you to wait four years to participate in each one, it freed up spots for mid-major programs to get neutral-court games against the bigger fish.

However, since the fields are usually drawn up several years in advance anyhow, Villanova probably didn't decide during this off-season not to play in one. It may very well have been that it was just the luck of the draw, that this year they would miss one. Speculation aside, this was as good a year as any for Villanova to miss out on them. The weaker schedule will probably enhance the Wildcats' tournament hopes.

In recent years, Villanova's absence from the NCAA tournament has stemmed primarily from its won-lost record, not its lack of schedule strength. This year will be no exception. In the Big East, Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame are all in the AP Top 25, while Providence and BC are also receiving votes. And of course, Kansas is atop the poll, and the City Series games are always battles. There will be plenty of chances for 'Nova to prove its mettle.

Instead of scheduling a multitude of nonconference national powerhouses, Villanova will feast on a cholesterol-heavy holiday smorgasbord of cupcakes at the Pavilion. In November and December, Maryland-Baltimore County, Monmouth, Fordham, Albany, and Middle Tennessee (Editor's Note: MTSU will be a tough team) will come to the Pavilion and accept their thrashings to improve 'Nova's record and provide valuable playing experience for the bench. (Fordham, as an Atlantic 10 member, might not technically qualify as a cupcake, but the Rams are coming off a 6-22 season and are the traditional doormat of the conference.) Coach Jay Wright's alma mater of Bucknell will also pay a visit in February, providing a brief respite from the trenches of the Big East wars.

While the schedule may evoke memories of a bygone era, the team will actually be quite familiar, as it is virtually unchanged from last season. The Wildcats will add only a single player, in Kyle Lowry, to last year's squad, and lost only two scholarship players, Derrick Snowden and Andreas Bloch - both of whom averaged less than 17 minutes per game last season. And Lowry unfortunately tore his ACL on August 26 and thus his status this season is in question. In an era of coaching carousels, player transfers, and scandals, such stability in a major-college program is almost unheard of.

Moreover, Villanova's young team is long on game experience. Wright's ballyhooed recruiting class of Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser (now juniors) has logged quite a few minutes since they got here, and last year's pair of freshmen, Mike Nardi and Will Sheridan, saw significant playing time as well. Ironically, while the team has only one scholarship senior in Marcus Austin, the squad may very well be among the most experienced in the Big East.

The biggest threat at this point has been injuries. Lowry, a 6-0 guard and graduate of Philadelphia's Cardinal Dougherty High School, underwent successful surgery in September on his knee. He is making progress, but his status for the upcoming season is "doubtful", according to VU. Obviously, Lowry could end up taking a medical redshirt if unable to play this season, restoring his season of eligibility.

Fraser has been plagued with injuries throughout his Villanova career. After enjoying a healthy summer, in October, Fraser's knee began to swell and sidelined him, while he underwent arthroscopic surgery on the 22nd, his third knee surgery and second on the left knee. He has resumed practicing "on a limited basis", but remains doubtful for Tuesday's season opener against UMBC.

Austin underwent surgery in July to rectify problems in his foot, which had caused him to miss virtually all of last season. Apparently he is now back at full strength. But that's not all. Nardi, after suffering a sprained foot, collided with Foye in practice, injuring both players. Fortunately, both returned after a brief three-day hiatus; Foye suffered a mild concussion. Finally, Michael Claxton separated his shoulder, missing three weeks of fall practice; he remains doubtful for UMBC.

Despite all of these injuries, it appears that the Wildcats will have a meaningful shot at returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. The annual pre-season Big East coaches' poll forecast that the Wildcats would be solidly in the middle of the pack, with a seventh place finish in the 12-team league. In other words, squarely on the bubble, where the Wildcats have found themselves so often over the last few years.

Villanova will come into the season with some momentum. The 'Cats staggered into the Big East tournament last season, dropping their last five contests and appearing on the verge of missing postseason play for the first time since 1998. But they emerged with a stunning run, knocking off Seton Hall and Providence before falling to Connecticut (the eventual NCAA champion). The wins were good enough to boost the 'Cats to a .500 record and a chance to go to the NIT for the fifth straight year. They did well in that tournament as well, stopping Drexel and Virginia before being ousted by Rutgers. The NIT wins permitted 'Nova to finish the campaign at 18-17 - one game over .500. (Entering the Big East tournament the squad was 14-15, and if they hadn't made it to .500, they would have spent the postseason at home.)

The nucleus of that squad remains intact, despite the injuries. The heart of the team will be the two players recognized by the conference, Sumpter and Ray, both of whom were named third-team All-Big East after last season. They were promoted to the preseason second-team All-Big East squad in October. Sumpter averaged 14.3 points and 7.1 boards per game last season, while Ray led the team with 17.3 points per contest.

Rounding out the lineup will be Nardi, Foye, and Fraser (if he's healthy). Both Foye and Fraser are enigmatic figures on this squad. Foye shows flashes of brilliance; he was a big part of the team's late charge in the postseason, and hit the shot that beat Seton Hall in the opening round. He averaged over 13 points a game last season. On other nights, he cannot buy a basket. While to a degree, that can be said of any college player, with Foye the streakiness is especially pronounced. As for Fraser, the injuries have really hindered his development. He also began to show substantial improvement in March, and one could see the potential that all the scouts raved about, the skills that made him the top post prospect in America when he was signed - and understand the speculation that he'd be in the NBA by now, after just two years at Villanova.

Fraser still could be a great player, although obviously it's extremely unlikely that he'll be leaving to turn pro after this season. The potential is there - he just has to stay healthy and continue to polish his offensive game. He finished last season with - coincidentally - 7.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest, the latter figure tops on the team.

Nardi had a successful freshman season in the backcourt, and will likely only improve with time. He was flung into the college basketball wars at a tender age, due to the phone-access-card scandal - his first day on campus. Nardi started all 35 games and nearly averaged double figures, finishing at 9.9 pts/game and leading the team with 3.7 assists per contest. His classmate, Sheridan, also contributed significantly to last year's success, rebounding and playing strong defense in the interior. With relatively few players (and even fewer healthy ones) Sheridan's minutes off the bench will continue to increase: he made five starts and averaged 21 minutes a game as a freshman, adding 4.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Worth noting were his 32 blocks, second only to Fraser, and especially impressive in light of his minutes.

Marcus Austin, the lone senior, will try to rebound after a foot injury kept him out of action for all but one game of last season. Rounding out the frontcourt will be redshirt junior Chris Charles, a seven-footer who has come along slowly due to health problems. Charles appeared in 28 games last year and started eight, chipping in some rebounds and blocks. Coming off the bench will be Claxton and Baker Dunleavy, who both played sparingly last year, as well as walk-ons Ross Condon and Tom Grace. Claxton and Dunleavy combined to average less than 10 minutes/game last season, and neither figures to make a substantial impact.

Jay Wright returns for his fourth season at the helm. Wright has been tremendously successful at removing the pall of discontent which had been hovering over the campus like an ominous storm cloud under his predecessor, Steve Lappas (enmeshed in problems of his own at Massachusetts, nowadays). While his critics would note that Wright has yet to take the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament, it should be equally noted that Rome wasn't built in a day.

Villanova has never been a revolving door for coaches, nor should it be. The school has had just five coaches over the last several decades, including Wright. He enjoys sufficient political support, as well as solid standing in the all-important court of public opinion. He's going to be here for quite a while, and hopefully he'll have a lot of banners to hang up in the Pavilion. The off-season was briefly marred by the unpleasant news about the NCAA probation, but it does not appear that there were any serious violations and it should not adversely affect the future of the program. VU did not lose any scholarships or TV appearances.

On the whole, the future looks bright. If the Wildcats can put their talented pieces together and weave into a coherent whole, they have a fighting chance to be celebrating come Selection Sunday. The journey starts Tuesday night against UMBC.

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