Thursday, January 29, 2004
The loss represents a major setback for the Wildcats, as they seek to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Villanova fell to 3-3 Big East, 11-7 overall, in the first game of a three-game homestand at the Pavilion. RU improved its record to 3-4 Big East, 11-6 overall, in the only meeting between the two schools this season. RU is once again rebuilding, this time under coach Gary Waters, in his third season. But the relatively strong start - RU hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 1991 - has generated some positive buzz around the
Knights' program for the first time in many years. In Waters' two-plus seasons, Rutgers has six wins over ranked teams, an impressive accomplishment. This season, they nearly toppled then-#1 Connecticut at the RAC; the Huskies escaped with a 75-74 victory on Jan. 6.
What is particularly frustrating about the loss is that Villanova truly annihilated RU last year, at its intimidating home floor, the RAC. The 110-89 victory represented the 'Cats' best game of the season last year, and it gave some hope for an easy victory once again this year.
Also, RU has a truly dismal history against Villanova. Prior to tonight, Villanova led the overall series 19-5, had won three straight over RU, and eight out of ten from RU, since they joined the BE in 1995-96. Most importantly, RU had come into the Pavilion five times and emerged with five losses. The Knights hadn't won a game on VU's campus since winning at Jake Nevin Fieldhouse in overtime on Feb. 22, 1978 (although that's a bit misleading since the series lay dormant for 16 years, while the Knights were in the Atlantic 10).
Also, it was a game against an opponent that Villanova simply HAS to beat to get to the NCAA tournament this year. The schedule is very steep down the stretch, and if the 'Cats can't scrape up a victory against RU on its true home floor, with the students there...
Villanova was victimized by poor shooting overall, especially from Randy Foye, who regressed after a strong performance in Sunday's victory at Miami. The sophomore guard had a hellish game, scoring 10 points but going just 3-16 from the floor and missing all eight of his three-point attempts (including what would have been an overtime-forcing triple at the buzzer). Point guards Mike Nardi and Derrick Snowden also combined to shoot 0-6 from the floor. As a team, the 'Cats shot only 38% from the floor and an anemic 15% (3-20) from three-point range. In contrast, Rutgers enjoyed a 43% success rate from the floor
and an impressive 48% from beyond the arc (10-21). Ironically, one thing Villanova DID do extremely well was shoot free throws; the 'Cats' astounding 95% accuracy (19-21) was one big reason the game was so close, despite the poor shooting performance. Allan Ray also had a solid night, contributing 16 points on 6-10 shooting. Jason Fraser continued his improved play with 10 points, seven rebounds, and four blocks; Fraser is playing with greater confidence now and is taking some defensive pressure off the guards.
For Rutgers, Ricky Shields led the way with 19 points and seven rebounds; Juel Wiggin had a rare double-double by attaining 10 points with 10 assists. Freshman Quincy Douby, the Big East co-rookie of the week, came up big with 15 points, including three of four free throws in the last few seconds to thwart Villanova's comeback. And Herve Laminzana had 11 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds.
It didn't help that once again, Villanova couldn't get much out of its increasingly disused bench, which combined for only five points, although it did pull in a dozen rebounds, including five from Andreas Bloch (in just nine minutes), who is primarily a shooting specialist. (Rutgers got 20 points out of its bench, including 15 from Douby.)
RU played with a remarkable amount of confidence; they had a 21-11 lead halfway through the first half, on the road. Coach Jay Wright made some adjustments, however, and the 'Cats crept back into it, trailing by just two at halftime, 34-32. Sumpter led the 'Cats at halftime with a dozen points, and if they could just get Foye on track (he had just four points at the break...)
Fraser gave 'Nova its first lead since 2-0 when he dunked shortly after play resumed, making the score 39-37. Both teams traded baskets for a while, before what would turn out to be the knockout blow. It came surprisingly early, when Shields and Douby canned back-to-back threes, around the midpoint of the second half. They gave RU a 51-45 lead, and Wright called for timeout to stop the bleeding. Although 'Nova eventually reclaimed the lead for a brief time, the Wildcats seemed rattled, and those triples were the turning point.
RU held a commanding 64-55 lead with about 3:24 to play, but the 'Cats fought their way back into it, with the Pavilion crowd behind them. However, 'Nova looked all but dead, when RU still held a 68-63 lead with 26.6 seconds to play, but the Knights turned over the inbounds pass to Sumpter, who scored and was fouled. His free throw cut it to 68-66 with 19 seconds left. 'Nova had a fighting chance.
Unfortunately, Douby made three of four free throws (not easy for a freshman on the road, even one who is an 85% foul shooter), in the last 19 seconds. Douby made a pair, Sumpter added another basket, and Douby then made one of two; thus, ultimately, Villanova had the ball and a chance to tie it at 71 with a three, with 5.7 seconds to go. Foye's shot at the buzzer just didn't go in.
The game was also punctuated by some verbiage between coach Jay Wright and Rutgers' Laminzana, but it appeared that whatever was said, it was patched up afterwards.
Villanova will return to action, in what is now an unquestionably must-win game, at the Pavilion against West Virginia on Saturday afternoon.
Sunday, January 25, 2004
To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-
Villanova improved its record to 11-6 overall, 3-2 Big East. Despite the new venue, Miami still has a reputation as one of the most visitor-friendly home courts in the Big East. (Prior to the recent construction of the Convocation Center, home games were played at the NBA venue, the cavernous Miami Arena, and even successful Hurricane squads played to sparse crowds.) As a result, today was one of the easiest BE road games, and thus it was probably a game Villanova HAD to have as it seeks a NCAA bid. The schedule gets very rough down the stretch, and the 'Cats will need to be over .500 in BE play to have a fighting chance of getting in. Miami fell to 13-6, 3-2 Big East; despite having similar records, Miami padded its record with a lot of home-court wins, and so are probably a weaker team. The teams will clash again at the Pavilion on March 2, as Miami is one of only three teams 'Nova faces twice this year, under the new, single-division format.
It was a huge game for Foye, who has struggled since BE play began in early January. Foye turned in a tremendous overall performance, racking up 21 points, but also contributing seven assists and eight rebounds. Foye was also nearly perfect from the foul line, converting eight of nine opportunities, including a big pair in the final minute. Curtis Sumpter, who did not start due to a violation of team rules, came off the bench to score 16 points and narrowly miss a double-double, collecting nine rebounds. Allan Ray added 15 points and five rebounds, as well as a perfect 6-6 from the line. Best of all, Andreas Bloch came up with a significant contribution. Starting in place of the disciplined Sumpter, Bloch played 19 minutes, scored nine points, had three rebounds, and even blocked a shot for good measure. (Although he did have one grievous error, trying to dribble the ball the length of the floor near the end of the first half, during which he was easily stripped by Rice.) As a team, 'Nova crushed Miami on the boards, racking up a 43-28 margin. And another positive trend continued: foul shooting. The Wildcats reached the line reasonably often (27 attempts) and did extremely well when they got there, converting 23 of them, a highly impressive 85%.
In light of the overall numbers, it's somewhat surprising that the 'Cats only won by seven. Villanova shot very well, especially on the road, draining 54% from the floor, while playing with Jay Wright's idealized defensive intensity. Villanova held Miami as a whole to just 33% from the floor, a total which will lead to a victory virtually every time out. All of the pleasant numbers did a great deal to obscure one BIG regression, an appalling 22 turnovers. It was even worse compared to the fact that Miami committed only eight, and was a major factor in keeping the 'Canes in the game.
For Miami, Robert Hite led the way with 21 points, tying Foye to lead all scorers. Rice, a potential All-American candidate, didn't have a BAD game in terms of overall numbers: he had 15 points and also just missed a double-double with nine boards. But the fact remains that he still shot 4-19, less than 25% from the floor, and it cost his team the game. If Rice (the nephew of NFL great Jerry Rice) doesn't have a powerful game on any given day, it becomes difficult for Miami to win. Guillermo Diaz also reached double figures for Perry Clark's club, scoring a dozen points.A VERY positive sign was the liberal substitution pattern used by coach Jay Wright. Today's game reversed a general trend toward neglecting the bench. Against Miami, no fewer than eight players saw at least 13 minutes of action, but more importantly, only Foye logged more than 32 minutes (he had 37). A well-balanced team with a lot of role players is much less likely to be susceptible to cold nights, and the strong bench presence today undoubtedly helped the team to victory. Will Sheridan and Marcus Austin were the only guys who didn't share in the fun; the freshman forward Sheridan managed only two minutes of playing time from Wright, and the junior forward Austin did not play at all.
In the first half, the game seesawed back and forth quite a bit, with a lot of lead changes. Jason Fraser, although he had a solid game otherwise, did commit a bad foul on Hite with 3.6 seconds to play in the half. 'Nova, holding a 35-34 lead, was playing for the last shot, and after Hite corralled a rebound, Fraser fouled him from the floor, stopping the clock. But since it was 'Nova's seventh foul, it gave Hite a chance for a one-and-one, which he promptly converted. Granted, it was only two points, and one should give Fraser credit for aggressiveness, but it gave Miami the psychological advantage of a halftime lead at 36-35. Although Sumpter didn't start, he came off the bench with a vengeance, scoring a dozen points prior to intermission on perfect 4-4 shooting.
After Miami inched out to a 42-41 lead early in the second half, 'Nova embarked on a 13-2 run over the next five minutes, which decided the game. A pair of Foye free throws put 'Nova up 54-44 with about ten and a half minutes to play, and the 'Cats were able to hold on from there - they never relinquished the lead. Miami made it a little scary down the stretch, though, when Diaz nailed a triple with just under a minute to play, cutting the 'Cats' lead to 68-65 and raising the alarming possibility that the 'Canes might steal it at the end. But the 'Cats put out the fire, and ended the game on a high note, literally and figuratively, when Ray dunked at the buzzer.
The win was particularly meaningful, in light of how much Villanova has struggled against Miami in recent years (despite having won the last three contests). This series was entirely fabricated, a direct result of the Big East's football-mad expansion in the 1990s. The schools had never met, prior to Miami's joining the BE in 1991-92. Villanova now leads the overall series, 13-9, but the 'Cats had won nine of the first ten contests. Miami then won eight of nine, before dropping the last three. Ironically, Villanova is now 2-0 at Miami's new Convocation Center, having won its inaugural trip there, 72-67, last February 8.
Miami's signature sport, football, was undoubtedly the big prize in the offseason maneuverings and intrigues between the BE and ACC. Football was what propelled Miami into the BE, back in 1991, when the basketball program was moribund (it hadn't received a NCAA bid in three decades), and it was what got them into the ACC this time. While Miami had enjoyed some success over the past five years in hoops, looking at it from purely a basketball perspective, the addition of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College probably weakens the ACC more than it helps it. However, basketball is not driving the dynamic; football, and its bowl money, is. The ACC wanted to inflate itself to 12 teams, in order to host a lucrative conference championship game in football, the NCAA does not permit a conference to stage a title game with fewer than a dozen teams and refused to grant the ACC a waiver to do so without the minimum. In theory, at least, Miami's bowl money and general prestige will augment ACC football to a degree, that the acceptance of two solid (BC and Miami) and one terrible (VT) basketball program will not offset.
Virginia Tech, of course, is no slouch on the gridiron, but they were NOT the original ACC target; Syracuse, a FAR superior basketball program, was. Virginia Tech only got in because Virginia (whose vote was needed to approve expansion within the ACC) refused to agree to the move unless their fellow Old Dominion institution came in. Ironically, this change weakened the justification for the move even further; it was certainly plausible to argue that adding the defending national champion, as well as two solid programs, was in the ACC's best interest. It's a lot harder to argue that instead, adding two solid programs and a terrible program is the best way for the ACC to go; it helps the football side a lot, but makes basketball significantly weaker.
I also remain skeptical that even leaving aside all other considerations, that any ACC school would end this arrangement with more dollars than it started. For one thing, it assumes that Miami and Virginia Tech will reach a lucrative bowl every year, and that the dollars those payouts bring in, will offset the fact that the pie now needs to be split 12 ways rather than nine. The mere addition of those powerhouses makes it far less likely that your OWN school (i.e., an existing ACC school) will reach one of those bowls, defeating the original purpose - and you have to split the money 12 ways EVERY year, regardless of whether one of those schools got to a bowl or not. Duke and North Carolina refused to support expansion, and one major reason was that they did not want to reduce their share of ACC basketball tournament tickets (a guaranteed source of revenue), in pursuit of this scheme, which may or may not be profitable in the long run.
Nonetheless, while there is no doubt that Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College will be out of the Big East in the near future, there is still an issue remaining as to exactly when. Now, it appears that the timetable for the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East to the ACC is in fact set for next season, with BC still struggling to extricate itself prior to the 2005-06 season. I am reluctant to say "definitively" that Miami will be gone after this year, because there have certainly been enough twists and turns in this soap opera to defy ANY easy categorization. But it does, as of this writing, seem that unless something changes, this season will be the swan song for the Hurricanes and Hokies in their relatively brief Big East residencies.
After a 1-1 split on the two-game swing to Providence and Miami, the 'Cats will return to the Pavilion on Wednesday, to take on a dangerous Rutgers squad.
Thursday, January 22, 2004
As to why Villanova can't win there... for an off-campus venue, it's a tough
place to play. It is regularly rated as one of the toughest home courts in
the Big East, and unquestionably the most arduous of the off-campus arenas in
the conference. Also, Providence doesn't have major-league sports of its own,
and so the already passionate PC students' ranks are swelled by the support of
the community at large.
Villanova fell to 10-6 overall, 2-2 Big East, while Providence improved to
12-3 overall, 3-1 Big East. Providence's Ryan Gomes led all scorers with 27
points, which he attained with excellent numbers: 10-14 shooting, including 5-6
from three-point range. Marcus Douthit (11 points) and Tuuka Kuotti (10
points) also reached double figures for PC. For Villanova, Allan Ray paced the
Wildcats with 21 points on 8-19 shooting. Jason Fraser continued his superb play
of late, achieving yet another double-double, with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Unfortunately, Ray was the only 'Cat to truly pack his "A" shooting game on
the trip to frigid New England. Villanova had averaged a remarkable 85 points
in its three previous Big East contests, but was held to only 56 points at
Providence. The 'Cats once again received literally no help from their thin
bench, who scored no points. And that became fatal when both Mike Nardi and Randy
Foye had bad nights. The pair combined for an atrocious 1-18 from the floor.
Although for some reason, they also combined for a perfect 11-11 from the
line. There's no way to quantify that as a record, but it's pretty rare to see
not one but TWO guys have such a horrible night from the floor, but be
automatic from the foul line. Thanks to their accuracy, Villanova enjoyed a near
perfect 12-13 (92%) foul shooting night (Derrick Snowden was the only guy to miss
a free throw).
It was also Villanova's fourth straight defeat at the Dunkin' Donuts Arena.
The last victory there came on January 20, 2000; prior to that victory,
Villanova had dropped eight in a row there, since winning on January 13, 1990, by a
lopsided 102-74 margin. (Perhaps that game exhausted all of Villanova's luck
in Providence for a decade or so.)
Fortunately, the Wildcats will have another shot at defeating the Friars,
this time on the Main Line, as PC is one of only three Big East squads 'Nova will
face twice this season. Providence visits the Wildcats on February 11.
Providence struggles at the Pavilion, almost as much as Villanova struggles up
there, so it evens out a bit. Nonetheless, this loss still marked another
setback in recent years against the Friars. Regardless of venue, it was Villanova's
fifth loss in its last seven clashes with Providence.
Villanova took a brief 5-2 lead, before PC went on a 11-0 run, taking a
substantial lead, which it wouldn't relinquish until the second half. At the
under-eight-minute timeout, PC held only a 23-17 lead, but was shooting a strong
53% from the floor. 'Nova hung in there, treading water, and managed to stay
within seven at halftime, 34-27.
From one perspective, the 'Cats were fortunate to even be in the game on the
road, as they were shooting only 11-28 from the floor (39%), while allowing PC
to shoot 50%, and had taken only one free throw attempt while also committing
nine turnovers. A strong rebounding edge (17-10) was probably what was
keeping the 'Cats within hailing distance. It also didn't help that the 'Cats were
getting no help from their bench; only four players had scored (led by Ray
with 11) and one of the four, Randy Foye, had only two points. Ryan Gomes had
13 to lead PC.
Villanova made a spirited comeback in the second half, knotting the game at
45 just over the midway point, when Ray nailed a triple at the 9:15 mark. Then
Ray gave 'Nova its first lead in quite a while, with just over seven minutes
to play, at 47-45. Unfortunately, the 'Cats really didn't have an answer for
Gomes, who kept coming up with big shots and pushing the 'Cats back. Ray's
NBA-distance three pulled 'Nova within 55-52 with just over three minutes to
play, but the Wildcats couldn't get over the hump. The coup de grace came when
PC's Donnie McGrath (after struggling ALL night - he was 3-13 from the floor)
hit a huge three with 1:10 to go, putting the Friars up 60-54. The final ended
Surprisingly, in light of Villanova's horrendous decade-plus slump in
Providence, the Wildcats used to win on a semi-regular basis there. All-time,
Villanova is still 8-15 at the Providence Civic Center/Dunkin' Donuts Arena, which
isn't bad given that the Wildcats have only one victory there since 1990.
While the game at Providence is always penciled in as a loss, due to Villanova's
dismal history there, it would have been a good road win and offset the
Wildcats' inability to stop Notre Dame at home in the conference opener.
After all the offseason chaos, it is enjoyable to see the familiar rivalries
again. This was the 76th overall meeting between the schools, and Villanova
now leads the series, 43-33. As members of the Big East, 'Nova holds a 25-20
advantage, but somehow has also won five of six from Providence in conference
Villanova continues its two-game road trip in far more hospitable climes,
zooming south to sunny Miami this weekend in what will likely be its last journey
there for a while, as the Hurricanes will be packing their bags for the ACC
soon. Miami may spend only next season in the Big East, and since Villanova
heads there this year, Miami would probably come back here next season for the
lone game. It's virtually certain that the teams will meet only once next
year, since they play twice this year. The Wildcats will face Miami on Sunday at
Sunday, January 18, 2004
But back to basketball. Five of the youthful Wildcats reached double
figures, with Mike Nardi excelling, racking up 23 points and eight assists, including
a perfect 7-7 from the free throw line. Allan Ray also cracked the 20 point
plateau, scoring 21 points. Curtis Sumpter had 15 points, including two
devastating dunks which really stopped St. John's momentum at key points. Randy
Foye scored 14 points, despite once again struggling with foul trouble, playing
just 24 minutes. But best of all, Jason Fraser had a double-double, with 10
points and 12 boards. For St. John's, Grady Reynolds was the biggest bright
spot with a double-double of his own, recording 16 points and a dozen rebounds.
Also with strong performances were Darryl Hill (20 points, four steals, and
seven assists, although it took him a tough 8-21 day from the floor to do it)
and Kyle Cuffe added 17 points and five boards. 'Nova did well controlling
Elijah Ingram, whose unorthodox jump shot can be effective: Ingram really
struggled from the floor, hitting only two of his 10 attempts.
Villanova improved to 2-1 Big East, 9-5 overall, in winning their only
meeting with St. John's this season. It was 'Nova's second straight conference
victory since falling to Notre Dame last weekend. The Johnnies fell to 0-4 in Big
East play for the first time in school history (and St. John's has been a
member of the conference for all of its 25 years.) It also continued the
school's disastrous overall start, as its overall record is now 4-10, with the heart
of the Big East schedule coming up. SJU has failed to defeat a single
major-conference opponent this year; its four wins are over Holy Cross, Stony Brook,
St. Francis and Niagara. It's a bitter fall for one of the most illustrious
programs in NCAA history, one which ranks among the top five in all-time
victories. And they did, after all, win the NIT last year, in an all-BE clash
against Georgetown. (Villanova has an opportunity this season to achieve a rare
feat: defeating BOTH the defending NCAA and NIT champions in a single year.
They battle Syracuse on February 23.)
Villanova continues to enjoy success against St. John's in the cozy confines
of the Pavilion. The Wildcats have now won seven straight against the Red
Storm there; the last SJU victory came on January 13, 1993, amidst a dreadful
season for Villanova. One of the most memorable wins in the span came on Feb.
27, 1999, when the 'Cats nailed down a NCAA tournament bid with a
nationally-televised upset of the #8 ranked Red Storm on Senior Day.
The game got off to a bit of a sluggish start, with the score only 3-3 at the
first TV timeout; it didn't help the offensive excitement that SJU starters
Ingram and Cuffe had been dropped from the starting lineup for missing a team
meeting (they came into the game after that timeout). VU would end up with two
field goals, against five turnovers, during the first seven minutes. It
picked up, however, and the half ended with a reasonably interesting 31-29 VU
lead. SJU had built a modest 18-11 lead early, but the 'Cats chipped away at it,
with the most memorable play being a Sumpter dunk (on an assist from Ray) on a
three-on-one break at the 5:49 mark. It got the crowd excited and tied the
game at 22. Villanova scuffled to a workmanlike near-draw at halftime, 31-29.
By halftime, Nardi and Ray were already the stars of the game, with 13 and 14
points respectively, although the rebounding numbers (24-15 in favor of SJU)
At the 16:27 mark of the second half, Sumpter threw down another dunk (again,
thanks to Ray) that put 'Nova up 43-37, and the 'Cats were on their way. The
'Cats began grinding down St. John's through the second half, finally taking
command; they extended the lead out to 63-49 by the 9:25 mark, leading to a
timeout from coach Kevin Clark, but the game seemed over. SJU just isn't very
good and while they had put up a gallant effort, it was just going to be
another road loss in an already frustrating season.
Unfortunately, sloppy play, poor floor decisions, and silly turnovers
permitted an outgunned Johnnies squad to fight their way back into the game. Before
you knew it, a game that seemed all but over was suddenly tight. St. John's
showed some gumption: first, as they cut the lead down to 73-68 with over five
minutes to play, as a visibly agitated Jay Wright called timeout. The
Johnnies, thanks to 'Nova turnovers, then crawled back to as close as 74-70, with
4:02 to play. Fortunately, the young 'Cats reasserted control over the game,
running off seven quick points and ending any threat of a comeback, and so the
'Nova faithful weren't required to sweat out the last couple of minutes. After
the lead was cut to 74-70, Sumpter came up with a BIG play at the other end,
though, hitting an outside jumper near the end of the shot clock, pushing the
lead back to 76-70. It was only two points, but it was one of those turning
points, and SJU never mounted another threat after that. After Sumpter's
bucket, 'Nova scored five more points, boosting the lead to 81-70 with just 2:24 to
go; the rest was basically garbage time.
The Johnnies have been in disarray all season, thanks largely to the
unconventional move of suddenly dismissing coach Mike Jarvis in mid-December. Rumors
of SJU's dissatisfaction with Jarvis, in light of his disproportionately large
salary and recruiting difficulties, had been swirling all last season, and
the school's public refusal to extend his contract meant that the handwriting
was on the wall. But nonetheless, it's highly unorthodox to ax a coach in the
middle of the season, unless he's engaged in some kind of serious misconduct.
According to ESPN.com's Andy Katz, the last time a Division I coach had been
fired, absent unusual legal/NCAA circumstances, before conference play began,
was when BYU's Roger Reid was axed in 1996 (and the assistant, Tony Ingle, who
replaced him, won only a single game the rest of the year). Katz believes
that Jarvis was fired due to personal differences between himself and the
university president, Father Donald Harrington.
It's not like Jarvis hadn't had ANY success there; he finished five full
years with a record of 108-57, before being fired after a 2-4 record this season.
It certainly can't be argued that Jarvis was significantly less successful
than either Brian Mahoney or Fran Fraschilla, his immediate predecessors, both
of whom were fired under difficult circumstances. More and more, SJU is
turning into a pit of quicksand for coaches. Jarvis, after all, had won a Big East
tournament and a NIT, among other things. But unfortunately for him, he had
never put together the kind of sustained success that a program like St. John's
So St. John's fell into an even steeper fall, after all the turmoil. Today
was SJU's fourth straight defeat. Assistant Kevin Clark was quickly named head
coach for the time being, which certainly put HIM in an awkward position, in
light of his personal relationship w/ Jarvis. It also meant that Clark has to
carry the load with only one assistant, as Jarvis had put his son on the
staff (and who obviously wasn't going to stay after his father had been fired).
So in light of the above, Sunday's outcome wasn't all good news, though,
because overall, it was a pretty lackluster effort. As noted above, SJU has NO
wins against major conference opponents this year (in the Big East or
otherwise), so a home loss would have been pretty disastrous (as in ending NCAA
tournament hopes, most likely). Of particular concern was that SJU blew the 'Cats off
the boards, 43-31, including 15 offensive rebounds. St. John's is one of the
worst programs (and arguably THE worst program) in the league this year, and
they shouldn't have been in the game down the stretch. But, fortunately, with
the Eagles in the primacy of most 'Cat fans' minds, the team's overall sloppy
performance will likely be forgotten. Villanova was helped throughout the
contest by strong foul shooting, as the 'Cats converted 21 out of 27 free throw
attempts, a 78% clip. Jay Wright's recruits served him well, as for the first
time in his tenure, all of the points were scored by Wright-recruited
players. And so that bodes well for the future.
One of the nice things about the rickety-but-intact Big East is that the
Villanova/St. John's rivalry will be preserved. The schools have been battling
each other since 1923, and except for a fifteen year span between 1939 and 1954,
have basically played each other almost every season since the rivalry began.
The victory today cut the St. John's advantage in the overall series to
58-39, and as members of the Big East to 23-21; the Johnnies have also taken four
out of six from 'Nova in the Big East tournament.
Villanova will return to action in a two-game road swing, to Providence and
Miami. The 'Cats will face the Providence Friars at the Dunkin' Donuts Center
on Wednesday night at 7:30.
Thursday, January 15, 2004
In what is probably their final visit to Conte Forum for many years, Villanova held on by its collective fingernails for an uncomfortably narrow 92-89 victory over traditional on-court - but recent off-court - nemesis Boston College, as BC heads to the ACC for the 2005-06 season and there will likely be only one game next year, at the Pavilion. Thanks in large part to 41 clock-slowing free throw attempts, BC threw quite a scare at the 'Cats down the stretch, but 'Nova was able to preserve its victory. It was the 'Cats' first victory at BC since 1997, as they had dropped four in a row at Conte Forum.
Memories of past Conte Forum second-half meltdowns were undoubtedly dancing in the minds of the Villanova faithful, as the 'Cats have had a painful recent history of coughing up leads down the stretch in that building. But instead of yet another heartbreaking loss in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, the Wildcats will return to the Pavilion clutching a - frankly - necessary victory. Villanova evened its record in Big East play at 1-1 and improved to 9-5 overall; it was also the Wildcats' first victory in 2004, after a loss at Kansas and a pair of defeats at the Wachovia Center last week. Boston College fell to 1-2 in Big East play, 11-4 overall.
Mike Nardi scored 24 points, while Allan Ray added 23, to lead the way for
'Nova. Andreas Bloch also chipped in with 12 points, a welcome surprise. Craig
Smith led BC with 21 points, followed by significant contributions from Jared
Dudley (19 points) and Steve Hailey (18 points). Villanova benefited from
astonishing three-point accuracy, nailing 70% of its three-point attempts, but
kept BC in the game with 22 costly turnovers and all of those free chances at
the line (Villanova shot only 14 attempts, barely one-third BC's total).
It was the 74th meeting overall between the schools, and Villanova now has
added to its commanding 51-23 lead in the overall series, as well as 30-15 in
Big East play. However, BC has dominated the series in recent years. It was
only Villanova's second victory in its last nine games versus the Eagles, and BC
hadn't lost at home to the 'Cats since December 30, 1997, when a rebuilding
Villanova squad beat BC, 83-76. This year also marks the first season BC won't
be coming to the Main Line since the 1996-97 season, the Tim Thomas year.
Under the old two-division format, BC and 'Nova would play annual
home-and-homes, making BC mentor Al Skinner a familiar face on the Pavilion sidelines. But
under the new single-division format, those days are in the past.
Villanova cruised in the first half, with remarkably balanced scoring (I
don't think any Wildcat had more than six points) and building a 41-30 advantage.
Especially welcome was 10 bench points from Andreas Bloch and Chris Charles,
two players whom coach Jay Wright opted to not even USE in Saturday's
disappointing loss to Notre Dame. 'Nova had a plus-ten edge on the boards, and also
held the Eagles to a poor 9-28 (32%) shooting performance from the floor, prior
BC started to make its comeback, due to a massive number of fouls committed
by Villanova. Over a three minute span in the second half (from 15:04 to
12:41), Randy Foye picked up his third and fourth fouls and Curtis Sumpter picked
up his fourth. Over the same span, BC raced back from a 53-43 deficit to pull
within 55-52. Fortunately, Allan Ray replied with no fewer than FOUR
devastating triples, and thus 'Nova was sitting comfortably on a seemingly
insurmountable 80-63 lead with 5:45 to play. BC made a stunning late-game rally,
however; Uka Agbai demonstrated a lot of "heart," so to speak, by scoring with just
under two minutes to play, cutting it to 84-79. (Some of you may remember that
Agbai conspicuously taunted Coach Wright and the Villanova bench in overtime
at the Pavilion, two years ago, gesticulating about they had "no heart.")
'Nova hung on, though, and even overcame a foolish technical foul on Jason
Fraser, who was assessed with 18.1 seconds to play and 'Nova's lead at 90-83.
It made the final seconds uncomfortably close, as BC closed to within 90-87
quickly, but the 'Cats hung on for the 92-89 triumph. (And as any NFL coach can
quickly confirm, nobody remembers those kinds of mistakes unless they cost you
The series, between two private, Catholic East Coast schools with comparable
enrollments and resources, who regularly contend for the same students, will
unfortunately come to a conclusion after next season, in all probability. The
reason is the byzantine politics which convulsed the NCAA landscape over the
offseason and which culminated in substantial changes to at least seven
conferences. Over the offseason, BC, Syracuse and Miami openly flirted with shifting
to the ACC, and most contingency plans on both sides reflected such a move,
with the membership lining up accordingly.
The key issue was the fact that of the nine current ACC members, seven votes
were required to authorize invitations to new institutions. With Duke and
North Carolina staunch "no" votes on expansion, Virginia ended up being the swing
vote - and political forces in Virginia demanded that Virginia trade its
crucial vote to get fellow Old Dominion institution Virginia Tech into the ACC.
As a result, the initial ACC vote, in the spring, offered invitations to only
Miami and Virginia Tech - not BC and Syracuse. The BE, scrambling to save
its very existence, finally got all of its members on the same page on its
collective future, in the face of the defections, and BC was a big part of that, as
one of the schools which had very publicly announced its desire to leave.
So it came as quite a shock when in mid-October, it was announced that the
Eagles (led by former Villanova AD Gene DeFilippo) would be packing their bags
after all for the ACC, a genuinely bizarre decision, even by the addled
standards of big-time college athletics. Never mind the fact that BC had already
reaffirmed its BE loyalties to its fellow conference members, a conference of
which BC is a charter member.
Looking at it from a purely Machiavellian point of view, it becomes even
harder to justify. It was one thing for Miami and Virginia Tech to shift to a
conference whose center of gravity lies in North Carolina rather than Manhattan;
it was quite another for Boston College to do that. Virginia Tech
unquestionably, and Miami arguably, have more in common with the ACC schools
(geographically, demographically, athletically, and financially) than with their
comparatively recent Big East brethren. Essentially, BC decided to walk away from a
conference composed largely on medium-sized, East Coast-Midwest Catholic schools
(i.e., schools very similar to itself) in order to compete in a conference
composed almost exclusively on large Southern public schools. BC will have no
conference ally closer than Maryland, leading to horrendous travel expenses for
ALL of its teams, not just its revenue-producing football and basketball
squads. It also means that they have to create rivalries from scratch. It's bad
enough that conference free agency has led to these 16-team monstrosities and
artificial rivalries for PART of every team's schedule. BC will now have to
explain to its largely Northeastern fan base, alumni and student body, that
instead of the traditional battles against Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova, and
- especially - Connecticut, they now get the fun of the traditional clash
against the likes of NC State and Clemson on a regular basis.
It also will have to serve out a year to two years of lame-duck status in the
Big East, as well as pariah status afterwards. It appears as of this writing
that Miami and Virginia Tech may be able to escape the Big East at the end of
this season, thus meaning that BC will have to serve a year alone as a
lame-duck team, which it won't be happy about. And the bitterness over the move
unquestionably means the termination of rivalries with all of the Big East
schools, including Villanova. The 75th and probably final game in the series will
come next year (except for the off chance that 'Nova gets to play BC twice next
year). So enjoy these last couple of games with BC, while they last...
Villanova will return to action on Sunday at 2 PM, in a must-win game against
moribund, Mike Jarvis-less St. John's at the Pavilion. By a remarkably
fortunate coincidence, the NFL opted to schedule the Eagles' NFC title game clash
at the relatively late 6 PM hour, thus making sure that the 'Cats will have a
full house for its 2 PM clash with the Johnnies (the game will be long since
over by kickoff.)
Saturday, January 10, 2004
In the now-eight seasons that Villanova has played at the Wachovia Center in
Philadelphia, it has lost to a remarkably impressive array of opponents: Duke,
Syracuse, Georgetown, Kentucky, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, St. John's, and
Pittsburgh. But not Notre Dame, which had entered the gigantic building three
times without a victory, the only team to ever lose three games to 'Nova there.
Even more astounding is that in eight tries, ND had NEVER defeated Villanova
since joining the Big East in 1995-96 - until today. After an appalling
down-the-stretch collapse surrendered a five-point lead with 2:50 to play, 'Nova
fell to the Fighting Irish, 82-78, in its BE opener. It was 'Nova's second
loss in five days on that floor, after being pounded by Memphis on Tuesday night
in nonconference play.
It was Notre Dame's first Philadelphia victory over Villanova in 23 years;
not since the Fighting Irish of Digger Phelps pounded 'Nova 94-65 at the
Palestra on January 6, 1981 (Jimmy Carter was still president) had Notre Dame flown
into Philly and flown out with a win over 'Nova. However, it should be noted
that the Irish haven't come in here every year, not even since joining the BE.
This was ND's first trip to Philadelphia in four years, due to the BE's
scheduling quirks; the last game here was a February 8, 2000 Villanova victory.
And the series also lay dormant from 1984 to 1996. Also, Villanova's lead in
the all-time series is now only 13-11, thanks to the Irish domination of it in
the 1970s under Phelps.
Nonetheless, over the last two decades, Villanova has dominated the series
when it HAS taken place, regardless of the site. Prior to today, the Wildcats
had won ten out of their last eleven games against Notre Dame, stretching back
to 1982. That includes a 4-1 record AT Notre Dame, an impressive
accomplishment: the Wildcats last lost at ND in 1984, and have won on their last four
trips to South Bend.
Villanova has yet to win in 2004, falling to 0-1 Big East, 8-5 overall, and
losing its third straight contest. Notre Dame improved to 2-0 Big East, 8-3
overall. For this season, the Big East has abolished its division format after,
among other things, the NCAA was insufficiently impressed with last year's
East Division champion to bother issuing it a NCAA bid. As a result, each team
will play every other one, once, with three opponents appearing twice on the
schedule. Thus, unlike last year, when Villanova losses to West Division teams
(such as Notre Dame) did not mean as much, all losses are equally
disadvantageous this year from the perspective of the Big East standings.
This loss is particularly injurious to the 'Cats, because most observers had
this game penciled in as a victory, given the lopsided history of the rivalry
and the need to win almost all home games (even Wachovia Center ones) against
non-powerhouse BE opponents. To get back on track, Villanova will now need to
steal an additional game on the road in conference play.
The sophomore backcourt tandem of Allen Ray and Randy Foye led the Wildcats
with 18 points each, while Mike Nardi (15 points) and Curtis Sumpter (14
points) also reached double figures. Two players just missed double-doubles:
Sumpter had nine boards, while Jason Fraser had a fantastic game, with an amazing 17
rebounds to go with his nine points and three blocks. Coach Jay Wright, for
reasons not entirely clear, opted to use a short bench. Only seven Wildcats
participated: Will Sheridan and Derrick Snowden were the only substitutes.
Marcus Austin, Chris Charles, and Andreas Bloch never got off the bench. And the
starters logged virtually the entire game: Sheridan and Snowden played only
18 minutes and scored only four points. For Notre Dame, five players reached
double figures, with Chris Thomas turning in a tremendous performance, racking
up 26 points (including 10-12 from the line) before fouling out in the last
few seconds. Chris Quinn (13 points) , Colin Falls (12 points), Torin Francis
(11 points) and Torrian Jones (10 points), also made significant contributions.
Jones hails from Morrisville, Pa., in Bucks County, and had some fans
Despite the adverse outcome, I have to acknowledge that the game was actually
quite entertaining. Both teams hustled throughout, and the momentum swings
were more jagged than usual. Neither team particularly excelled in any one
statistical area, but that, after all, is what makes basketball (or any game!)
exciting. It's a lot more fun to watch when the teams seem evenly matched and
neither side seems to clearly have the upper hand. The box score reflects
among the most similar results you'll ever find:
field goal percentage: VU 26-58 (45%) ND 28-61 (46%)
three-point percentage: VU 9-21 (43%) ND 9-23 (39%)
Meanwhile, both teams' free-throw percentages were identical - 17-26 (65%),
as well as registering 13 assists apiece, and Villanova had only one less
rebound (39-38). While 'Nova coughed the ball up more often (14-10), as you can
see, across the board the numbers basically came out to a draw. So it
shouldn't be surprising that ND won by only four points.
When Villanova seemed to have the game under control, Notre Dame suddenly
revived and snatched it from them, making a strong comeback and going back to
South Bend with a key (and probably unexpected) road victory. It came at a good
time, too, after Villanova sleepwalked through the second half against Memphis
on Monday night. It worked out well, too, that it was a better game, as a
much larger number of them officially came to the game (over 14,000) than
officially came to see Memphis (less than 10,000).
Things looked good for Villanova early on. The 'Cats took a quick 9-4 lead,
and ND's star, Torin Francis, picked up two quick fouls in less than four
minutes, relegating him to the bench for the entire first half. But Notre Dame
out-hustled the 'Cats up and down the floor for the rest of the half -- perhaps
each player felt that he needed to step it up a notch with Francis on the
bench. First, they fought back and tied it at 14. Foye nailed a three to put
'Nova up 17-14, but ND then went on a 15-0 rampage, which didn't end until Wright
called a timeout with 8:17 to play and the 'Cats suddenly facing a 29-17
deficit. It permitted ND coach Mike Brey the luxury of leaving the foul-saddled
Francis on the bench for the rest of the half
But the momentum soon swung back in the 'Cats' favor. Villanova struck back
with a 16-6 run of its own, culminating dramatically when Nardi took an
off-balance, horrible top-of-the-key three-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer with
1:45 to play. When it went in, the crowd went wild and 'Nova trailed by just
one, 35-34. While ND increased its lead to 38-34 by intermission, the 'Nova
faithful had to feel good that the 'Cats had clawed their way back into the game.
For most of the second half, Villanova ran the show - which is why the
outcome is so difficult to take. The Wildcats - who had given up a dozen
second-chance points in the first half - simply began out-hustling the Irish. Villanova
retook the lead early in the second half, after a couple of dunks and some
Ray free throws, and then began building a lead. ND briefly took the lead at
46-45, but 'Nova went on a 10-2 run, thanks to the heroics of Sumpter and a dunk
from Foye with 11:34 to play, pleasing the crowd. 'Nova was up 55-48 and yet
another Wachovia Center defeat seemed imminent for Notre Dame. 'Nova was
able to keep them at bay for a while, and the lead was pushed back to five when
Fraser tipped in a Sumpter miss with 3:07 to go. It made it 74-69 Villanova -
but unfortunately, it was 'Nova's last field goal in the contest. Notre Dame
won the last three minutes, 13-4 - a very difficult thing to do on the road.
It took Notre Dame less than 90 seconds to erase the deficit completely, and
suddenly they were back in the lead after two Quinn free throws made it 76-74
with 1:52 to play. The psychologically devastating play came on Notre Dame's
next possession, after Villanova had failed to score. Playing solid defense
and hoping for a stop, trailing by just two, 'Nova hounded the Irish around for
nearly the entire shot clock. But the Irish guards expertly maneuvered the
ball around and fed it to Francis for a virtually uncontested dunk with 1:08 to
play, just before the clock would have expired. It deflated the 'Cats.
It was surprising that Wright, despite the presence of the three-point
shooter Andreas Bloch on the bench, never sought his help down the stretch.
Granted, Bloch is suspect defensively, but with all the timeouts being called and
fouls committed, Wright could have shuttled him in and out, the way he has done
in the past. But Bloch stayed seated.
Not that ND didn't try hard to help 'Nova come back, committing two amazingly
foolish fouls on Allan Ray on the perimeter, giving him five free throws in
the last 18.9 seconds of a tight game. Trailing 81-75, Ray was fouled
attempting a three-pointer, a taboo for any defensive player, but Ray could convert
only two of three from the line, keeping it a two-possession game at 81-77. ND
had trouble inbounding the ball and 'Nova managed to surround Tom Timmermans,
who called ND's last timeout with 12 seconds to play. After ND successfully
inbounded the ball and converted one of two free throws, 'Nova was faced with a
seemingly insurmountable deficit: 82-77 with just a few seconds left and one
This turned out not to matter, but COULD have been quite interesting. After
missing the first three-point attempt, 'Nova corralled the rebound and got it
to Ray, who heaved it with one second to play - but was fouled. (!) There is
no reason to even contest that shot, with a five point lead.
Theoretically, 'Nova had a way to pull out a miracle at that point:
If Ray could make all three, it would be down to 82-80 and 'Nova could call
its last timeout to set up a press with one second left. ND was out of
timeouts, and if Villanova could force a five second call, they could get the ball
back under the basket and run a play for a layup. (Granted, it's farfetched,
but stranger things have happened.) Unfortunately, Ray missed the first free
throw, rendering the point moot. (For some reason, Wright THEN used the last
(The other option might have been to have Ray make the first two, getting it
down to 82-79, and then intentionally missing the third one, hoping to get the
rebound. However, I think the first option outlined is more feasible because
it doesn't involve the clock moving. Even if Ray could slam the rim hard
enough to get the ball out to the perimeter, it doesn't seem practical that the
rebound could be gotten and the shooter release the ball in a single second.
The major bright spot, naturally, for the 'Cats
Unusual moments: with 4:50 to play, someone (I believe Sumpter) drove in for
a layup, but laid the ball up from behind the glass, so that the ball bounced
up in the air, rolled around a bit and eventually came to a rest not on the
backboard itself, but on the crazy patchwork of wires and lines which supports
the backboard. You could probably TRY to do that a thousand times and not come
close to putting the ball in that precise spot. The game was delayed
momentarily while the officials fired a couple of shots at the ball, trying to
dislodge it before finally succeeding.
Shortly after that, Nardi was banged up in a collision with a ND player, and
had to leave the game while his bleeding was attended to by the staff, and he
returned with a bandaged chin, while wearing a generic #15 jersey (shades of
Malik Allen?) to replace the blood-stained one. (Probably due to the
wooziness, the ordinarily solid free-throw shooter missed a couple after his return.)
The Wildcats will have some time to recover from the three straight losses,
as they don't resume Big East play until Wednesday, January 14 at Boston
College - most likely their final trip to BC's Conte Forum for many years. Boston
College is one of the three schools which opted to bail out of the Big East for
the ACC over the offseason. But BC is held in greater disregard around the
league than fellow departers Miami and Virginia Tech, because:
After the initial ACC flirtation (along with Miami and Syracuse) everyone
thought they were staying, as the ACC opted to extend invitations to only Miami
and Virginia Tech. Everyone in the BE thought that BC and Syracuse were thus
sticking around, until the surprise announcement in October came from BC that
they were leaving after all. And it's possible that the changes may be
implemented as early as next season - but even if they aren't, Villanova would likely
only play BC once next season, and at home.
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
Villanova fans are mightily tempted to vent some frustration after Memphis
mopped up 'Nova in the second half at the Wachovia Center on Tuesday night, en
route to a surprisingly easy 73-57 victory. Elvis himself could have helped
the Wildcats with some outside shooting, as 'Nova plummeted from a hard-fought
29-29 tie at intermission, permitting a 16-1 Tiger run to start the second
half, from which it never recovered. It was arguably Villanova's worst
performance of the season, and a depressing sign on the advent of Big East play. Read
Villanova fell to 8-4 overall, with just one nonconference clash remaining,
against #9 St. Joseph's. Memphis, led by senior Antonio Burks and freshman
Sean Banks, improved to 9-2 overall and looked like a team well poised to return
to the NCAA tournament. The Tigers completed a two-game sweep of the
home-and-home series, as they triumphed at Memphis last season, 72-68. With the pair
of victories, Memphis has chipped its all-time series deficit against 'Nova to
8-4. The most memorable contest came in the 1985 Final Four, when the
underdog Wildcats stunned the Tigers in the national semifinals. Prior to the
revival of the series last season, the teams hadn't met since that Final Four.
Banks and Burks (that has a great sound to it...) each had 22 points, 8-14
shooting, 7 rebounds and 3 steals (a statistical coincidence) to lead the
Tigers. Burks made all four of his three-point attempts; Duane Erwin and Jeremy
Hunt each had a dozen rebounds. For Villanova, it says volumes that not a single
Wildcat had more than THREE field goals. The team as a whole shot only 31%
from the floor (a season-low) and scored only 57 points in a game in which the
tempo wasn't deliberately slowed down, a la Rollie Ball. The Wildcats also
committed 20 turnovers, reversing a trend in which the turnovers had been
Looking for bright spots, Mike Nardi led the team with 12 points, including
6-6 from the line. Derrick Snowden (the only other 'Cat to reach double
figures) had 10, including two back-to-back triples midway through the second half,
when the 'Cats showed a brief pulse on a 12-2 run. Jason Fraser continued his
comeback, playing just 18 minutes, but he prospered on a night when nobody
else had much of anything to offer. Fraser had seven points and six boards in
limited playing time - but most importantly, he looked active and alert on the
floor. Will Sheridan also did well off the bench, playing only 23 minutes but
scoring nine points and pulling down six rebounds.
As for everyone else, ugh. Memphis coach John Calipari obviously saw the
explosive offense of Curtis Sumpter on film and devoted his time to shutting him
down; Calipari succeeded wildly. Sumpter was held to only four points, made
only one of his six shots, and committed five turnovers, by far his worst
offensive output of the year. (Perhaps due to such frustration, he also went only
2-5 from the line.) Allan Ray went 3-10 from the floor - which sounds pretty
bad until you read that Randy Foye went 3-19 (although he did have nine
rebounds). Villanova finished the game even worse from beyond the arc, than from
the floor (28%).
Villanova failed to score at all for the first 4:21 of the game, quickly
falling behind 7-0, which made it all the more amazing that they managed to rally
to tie the game at the half, buoyed by a 13-3 run. Unfortunately, the Tigers
blew the barn doors off to open the second half, and were never seriously
challenged the rest of the way, despite a rally which got the lead down to six at
one point. Coach Jay Wright also prolonged the agony by persisting in fouling
during what I describe as "white flag" situations: for example, down by 10
points, with less than 30 seconds to go. The extended garbage time did have the
beneficial effect of spacing out the traffic in the parking lot of the
"crowd," such as it was, but had little discernible impact on the outcome. It also
got Baker Dunleavy into the game for a cameo, due to Wildcat foulouts.
The game was theoretically attended by 9,528 people. Crowd estimates are
always dicey, but I estimate that only about 7,000 hardy souls braved the
suddenly-chilly winds to witness the contest at the Wachovia Center. With the
students on break, there were entire sections in the lower rim that had no people at
all in them. According to the VU media guide, the average attendance for the
22 previous Villanova games at the Center (12 of which, not coincidentally,
were losses) was 14,876. In light of the fact that tonight's "official"
attendance was only two/thirds of that number, it probably wouldn't be an
exaggeration to say that tonight was the most sparsely attended Villanova contest at the
Center since it opened during the 1996-97 season, and the first in which the
official attendance dipped below 10,000. (Last season's game vs. St. John's
came close, which checked in at 10,017.) Villanova has only sold out the
building twice, both in that first season, when the team's national ranking for
part of the season, and the novelty of the newly-opened building, both helped to
draw in casual fans.
For practical purposes, Villanova has now concluded the nonconference portion
of its schedule, with the February battle against SJU the last matter to be
resolved in that area. Let's take a look at how this worked out, to the sum of
eight wins and four losses:
- Teams that Villanova should have beaten AND did beat: Redlands,Northeastern, Columbia, UNC-Greensboro
- Team that Villanova should have beaten, but lost to: Chaminade
- Games that realistically could have gone either way, that fell in Villanova's favor: La Salle, Penn, Santa Clara
- Games that realistically could have gone either way, that Villanova lost: Memphis, Ohio State
- Team that Villanova should have lost to, but didn't: Temple
- Team that Villanova should have lost to, and did: Kansas
Villanova will return to the Wachovia Center floor on Saturday, to take on Notre Dame at a noon tip-off, in its Big East opener.
Saturday, January 03, 2004
The last time Kansas fell to an unranked opponent at home was on Feb. 10, 1999, against Nebraska. So Villanova was facing an uphill fight in any event, with 16,300 fans screaming "Rock! Chalk! Jayhawk!", et al., at the top of their lungs. Four Jayhawks reached double figures, in their high-powered offense. The Jayhawks' Keith Langford led all scorers with 24 points, including a stunning 14-18 from the foul line. Wayne Simien also finished with 23 points, one fewer than Langford, but was a perfect 9-9 from the line. Blue-chip recruit David Padgett narrowly missed a double-double, finishing with 15 points and nine rebounds and blocked three Wildcat shots. Finally, Aaron Miles struggled from the floor, going just 2-7, but contributed from the line, converting five of six opportunities and finishing with 10 points.
Villanova had a five-game winning streak snapped (the 'Cats hadn't lost since
the Maui tournament at Thanksgiving), and fell to 8-3 on the season. Kansas
improved its record to 8-2 and picked up a good, solid victory for its March
NCAA profile (not that the Jayhawks will need it to get in - far from it - but
the RPI boost from a Big East opponent could help its seeding). It was only
the second meeting ever between the schools: Kansas won the first game, in the
1968 NIT at Madison Square Garden, 55-49.
Ironically, 'Nova had FIVE scorers in double figures, unusual for a losing
squad. Allan Ray had an exceptional game for 'Nova, scoring 22 points, dealing
seven assists against NO turnovers, and pulling down six rebounds. Once
again, Curtis Sumpter had a strong performance: playing all but one minute, Sumpter
scored 18 points (including three triples) while grabbing nine boards. Mike
Nardi scored 16 points, contributing big-time on offense, but struggled
running the point, turning the ball over six times against three assists. And while
Randy Foye reached double figures at 11, he was plagued by foul trouble,
playing just 29 minutes before fouling out and shooting only 4-15 from the floor.
But best of all, Andreas Bloch reached double figures! Bloch had a veritable
offensive explosion, dropping in 10 points (including two three-pointers) in
only 15 minutes of action. (And, as is his wont, he somehow managed to FOUL
OUT, even though he only played 15 minutes.)
Villanova did have a larger than normal (although not exceptional) number of
whistles, getting whacked for 32 fouls in the game: the bulk of them came in
the second half, when the 'Cats were playing from behind and were thus forced
to foul often. Coach Jay Wright used only nine players, but each finished the
game with at least two fouls; Foye and Bloch fouled out, while Fraser, Sumpter
and Ray each finished with four. In the unlikely event that Villanova could
have pulled off the miracle and forced overtime, it probably wouldn't have
done them much good: the attrition from fouls would have made the game less
competitive. Kansas went to the line early and often, taking 41 free throws (and
making an astounding 35 of them, over 85%). In contrast, while the Wildcats
were just as accurate (84%), they took just 19 attempts, converting 16 of them.
(It's kind of a shame that 'Nova couldn't have saved such an awesome
foul-shooting game for some bricklaying Big East contest in February, when it could
have made a difference in the outcome...)
But the chief explanation for the foul disparity was not the officials being
intimidated by the crowd, but the 'Cats' difficulty in containing the
Jayhawks' frontcourt. KU wasn't shy about pounding the ball inside, right from the
get-go. Villanova lacks a big-time scorer in that area this year, and couldn't
counter the tactic effectively. However, in that same vein, 'Cat fans should
take heart by the meaningful appearance from Jason Fraser tonight. While the
injury-plagued Fraser is still a long way from being anywhere near the player
he could be if fully healthy, he made a substantial contribution off the
bench, grabbing nine rebounds and swatting three KU shots in just 21 minutes.
In that fact lies the central problem, however. The 'Cats' bangers
underneath (Fraser, Charles, and Will Sheridan) combined to score 2 points and collect
13 rebounds in 39 combined minutes. Those rebounding numbers are formidable,
but the 'Cats desperately need at least ONE of those guys to develop some
offensive moves and a shot that will go in on a consistent basis. Opponents are
quickly discovering (if they haven't figured it out already) that they can
chase the guards exclusively, without having to guard against passes fired into
the interior. The guard-oriented squad is good enough to beat less talented
teams, and to be competitive against better teams - but it won't beat a lot of
ranked teams without some help from guys scoring in the paint. Villanova was
forced to over-rely on the three-point shot, taking 35 of them in the game (and
making a solid 37% of those attempts).
This was a somewhat odd game, the way it developed in the second half. The
Wildcats had stood toe-to-toe with the Jayhawks the entire first half, after
falling behind 22-12 (and giving up a dunk in the beginning of the game). They
successfully resisted Kansas' attempts to blow it open and actually dragged
the Jayhawks into a first-half deadlock at 38 after Ray nailed a three-pointer
at the buzzer.
Psychologically, Villanova would have benefited enormously from being able to
actually take the LEAD in the second half, but it was an advantage which the
'Cats would never enjoy. They hung around, and trailed by as few as six,
around eight minutes in - but then Kansas just exploded, and I expected at that
point they would blow it open and rout the 'Cats and make everyone forget
forever that it had been tied at halftime. Their superior talent began to assert
itself. Before you knew it, the KU lead had ballooned from 54-48 to 66-48, the
crowd was going crazy and the Wildcats were coming apart at the seams.
But to their inestimable credit, they recovered, outscoring Kansas 31-20 down
the stretch. That's not easy to do in that atmosphere and against such a
powerful opponent. However, it would be a bit of an overstatement to say that
Kansas was ever really seriously threatened with actually LOSING the game after
that big run. 'Nova scratched and clawed its way back to a five-point
deficit, with less than two minutes to play - but never got any closer. And it did
seem clear that KU, had it needed to, could have turned on the jets again and
pushed 'Nova back. (If Kansas hadn't had such tremendous success at the line,
it might have come to that.)
Villanova really did have a chance to help its NCAA cause with a victory,
given that an upset would have illuminated three bumpers (and arguably the most
important three) on the metaphorical NCAA pinball machine: "Road Record",
"Record vs. RPI Top 50", "Win Over Prestigious Opponent in Tough Home Court". But
it was not to be, unfortunately.
Villanova will return to action at the Wachovia (formerly CoreStates and
First Union) Center in South Philadelphia on Tuesday, January 7, against Memphis -
again in front of a national television audience, this time on ESPN2.