Saturday, February 28, 2004

In Overtime, VU Falls to #8 UConn, 75-74, at the Wachovia Center

Add the name Rashad Anderson to the Villanova "enemies list". The Connecticut freshman joins the rapidly expanding list of opponents who have dashed the hopes of Villanova fans: a list which includes BC's Andrew Bryant, Miami's Johnny Hemsley, and Old Dominion's Petey Sessoms. This afternoon, Anderson drained an improbable three-point basket - his only field goal of the game - from the right corner to force overtime, in a game the hated, #8 Huskies went on to win, 75-74.

For 45 minutes on its quasi-home floor at the cavernous Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, Villanova gave Connecticut all it could handle. Even in overtime, Randy Foye had a shot to win the game for 'Nova, driving to the hoop as the buzzer went off, but had the potential game-winner swatted away by national Player of the Year candidate Emeka Okafor. Replays indicated that there was some contact on the final play, but it's possible that the buzzer may have gone off prior to the foul, even if it had been called. (And, of course, there's no guarantee that Foye would have made either or both of the free throws.) But no foul was whistled, consigning the Wildcats to yet another February defeat, their fifth in six games. The 'Cats were trying to pull off a reprise of last season's clash there, where Villanova emerged with a 79-70 victory over the hated Huskies, ranked #23 at the time.

Connecticut is seeking a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament, and remained in the
hunt, improving its record to 23-5 overall, 11-3 BE, and winning their fourth
straight. Villanova fell to 6-8 Big East, 14-13 overall, losing its third
straight. The NIT requires schools to be at least .500 by the end of the regular
season to qualify, so Villanova will need to beat Miami on Senior Night on
Tuesday at the Pavilion, or else take their chances on stopping #4 Pitt on the
road (an unlikely scenario), or some big wins in the Big East tournament, to
continue the school's NIT streak, which began in 2000. A NIT bid would also
mark their sixth straight postseason appearance, beginning with the 1999 NCAA
squad.) But in light of the strong performance put up today, it seems reasonable
that the Miami game should be a win, and thus the NIT bid is all but certain.

The Huskies were led by Ben Gordon, who scored 21 points and always seemed to
be there to take a big shot for UConn when it needed it, regardless of the
distance or Villanova's momentum; he also had five assists to lead the team, as
well as logging 43 of the 45 minutes. Okafor had 17 points, six rebounds and
two blocks, with both coming when it mattered. Freshman Josh Boone scored 11
points, including what turned out to be the winning basket, laying in a Gordon
miss on the Huskies' final possession in OT after nobody boxed him out.
Senior Taliek Brown, the BE leader in assists, had 10 points and four assists and
also logged 43 minutes. Finally, Charlie Villanueva, a Villanova recruiting
target, came off the bench to key Connecticut's first-half offense at a
critical point, helping to keep the game close; he finished with eight points and
four blocks, in just 17 minutes

For 'Nova, the effort was spearheaded by Curtis Sumpter and Allan Ray. Each
went 8-18 from the floor, as Sumpter finished with 22 points and Ray with 20,
and both played over 40 minutes. Foye was the only other Wildcat to reach
double figures, as he recorded a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds, a
highly impressive total for a guard. Trying to keep up with Okafor (a
daunting task) Jason Fraser was hampered by foul trouble and ultimately played just
26 minutes, fouling out halfway through overtime; Villanova's inability to stop
Okafor inside may have made the difference (although, obviously, any one
factor can be isolated in a one-point game). Fraser finished with solid numbers
in light of how few minutes he played (six points, four rebounds and two
blocks), but Villanova really needed to keep him on the floor longer than it did.

Villanova won the game, tactically. That may seem counterintuitive, since
they didn't dominate the stat sheet. Connecticut actually shot for a slightly
higher field goal percentage overall, and a significantly higher average from
beyond the arc, as well as committing fewer turnovers and dealing more assists.
However, it was one of those games where the numbers don't really tell the
whole story. Watching this game, you could see that Villanova played better
overall, than Connecticut. It was arguably the finest game the Wildcats have
played all season, in spite of the fact that it was a loss. The only other
candidates would have been the Midnight Madness victory over Temple and the
competitive game against then-#3 St. Joseph's at the Pavilion. They played better
five-man basketball (something they don't usually do), hustled for loose balls,
and seemed to get to every spot a split-second quicker than the Huskies. Had
I not known anything about the teams, I would have been stunned to learn that
the team in the white throwback jerseys (not seen since the Feb. 2 loss to
St. Joseph's at the Pavilion) was the team playing for pride and a NIT berth -
while the team in the navy blue was in the hunt for a Final Four and a national

Also, the numbers have to be crunched, with an eye on the specific teams
involved. Villanova had only 12 turnovers, a very low number for this team.
Connecticut was leading the conference in rebounding margin, averaging about ten
boards a game MORE than its opponents - but Villanova OUTREBOUNDED them today,

Villanova also seemed poised at various points throughout the game, to
actually pull away and break it open, whereas Connecticut never gave any such signs.
The Huskies generally seemed to be treading water, battling to stay in the
game; they would occasionally burst forward in their traditional transition
game, but only sporadically. They were just trying to hang on, for most of the
contest; it was far from what you'd expect from a nationally ranked team.
Frankly, I expected the Wildcats to be blown out in this game, given that
Connecticut is the most talented team Villanova has faced this season. I was
pleasantly surprised that the Wildcats almost managed to pull a major upset.

Except for the very beginning, Villanova looked great during all 45 minutes.
There were none of the painful droughts which have plagued the Wildcats this
season. They fell behind 5-0 and 15-9, but other wise went toe-to-toe with
the powerful Huskies for the entire 45 minutes. VU took its first lead, 22-21,
with a pair of Sumpter free throws, and held that lead for virtually the rest
of the half. After Okafor retook it with free throws, 'Nova held it till the
32 second mark, when Taliek Brown laid in a basket to put UConn up 36-35, with
32 seconds to play. Chris Charles drew a foul with 0.4 of a second
remaining, and made one of two free throws to give 'Nova a tie at halftime, something
they were certainly eager to take against the #8 team in America.

A remarkable symmetry of halftime numbers:

Both teams shot exactly 13-30 from the floor in the first half (43%).
And 3-7 from three-point range. And a virtually identical 7-8 (VU) and 7-9
(UConn) from the line.

The numbers diverged somewhat when it came to individuals, naturally; Ray led
'Nova with 11 points, while Sumpter had eight and Foye six; Gordon had a
dozen for the Huskies, while Villanueva had eight off the bench.

After a brief flurry by UConn, in which the Huskies boosted their lead to
40-36, Villanova made its strongest charge of the game. Villanova won the next
ten minutes or so by a 21-9 margin, enough to give the Wildcats a substantial
57-49 lead by the under-eight minute TV timeout, the largest lead they would
ever enjoy. At the 15:45 mark, a Sumpter dunk got the crowd excited, and forced
a timeout from Calhoun. About a minute later, Villanueva missed a dunk,
drawing jeers from the crowd, and Sumpter scored at the other end, putting 'Nova
up 47-43; UConn had made only 3 of its 10 second-half shots at that point.
Around the midway point of the second half, back-to-back dunks from Foye and Will
Sheridan put 'Nova up 53-47 and forced another timeout. UConn's shooting had
deteriorated even further, as the Huskies were only 5-17 from the floor since
play had resumed.

After drifting back to a 57-49 disadvantage, Connecticut came back with a 7-2
run of its own, closing the gap to 59-56 with about three minutes left. Then
'Nova kept trying to administer the coup de grace- and Connecticut wouldn't
stay down. Derrick Snowden drained an NBA-length three, but Okafor and Gordon
both replied, Okafor underneath and Gordon with a three with 1:50 to go.
'Nova was clinging to a 62-61 lead.

Eventually, Villanova scored a basket which against most opponents, playing
at home, would have become the memorable play of the game. Holding onto a
64-63 lead with 56 seconds to play, 'Nova held the ball for 35 seconds, and Ray
floated the ball into the basket as the buzzer went off - a psychologically
devastating blow, as the crowd went nuts and 'Nova now held a three-point
advantage with 20 seconds left. And 'Nova had more than just momentum. It had fouls
to give - three to be exact. Logically, Villanova didn't even have to permit
UConn to take a shot. With three fouls to give in 20 seconds, realistically,
Villanova could just keep fouling whenever the Huskies came anywhere near the
basket, and run out the clock.

For some reason - perhaps the rarity of the situation (how often do you play
the entire second half and commit only three fouls?), coach Jay Wright opted
NOT to use this strategy to its conclusion. Only two of the three potential
fouls were committed, and as a result, Anderson had the opportunity to make his
triple with 7 seconds remaining, tying it at 66. Ironically, Foye had a
chance to score over Okafor at the end of regulation as well, but his shot was
swatted away (and the first time, there wasn't any contact). A Villanova putback
attempt went awry, and 'Nova was confronted with its first overtime contest
since Maui, back in November, when the 'Cats topped Santa Clara in overtime.

You know it's a tightly contested overtime, when neither team leads by more
than two, at any stage. The teams kept dueling but neither could build any
kind of a lead, and it seems that whoever would have the ball last would win.
Connecticut appeared to gain the upper hand when Fraser fouled out with 2:46 to
play in overtime, but Okafor also had four fouls and was in danger. (Okafor
also played the entire game while injured to some degree.) After Okafor made
the front end of a one-and-one, with 51.2 seconds to play, giving UConn a 73-72
lead, Sumpter gave 'Nova its final lead at 19.4 seconds to play, scoring to
restore the 'Cats' one-point advantage at 74-73. The Huskies called their last
timeout to discuss the matter.

Gordon took what was intended to be UConn's last gasp, missing a shot - but
Boone, left alone underneath, seized the opportunity to be a hero, putting back
the miss for the winning points with just 5.5 seconds to go. After 'Nova
called its last timeout, Foye made his second effort to overcome Okafor, but

It was a particularly galling loss, because of Villanova's poor record in
close games this season. In games decided by five points or less (in other
words, probably decided in the final two minutes) Villanova is now 2-7, and that
more than any other factor explains why the Wildcats are not on the NCAA bubble,
at the end of February.

The one silver lining, ironically, of Villanova's diminished status this
season is that the razor-thin, adverse outcome today, was less painful that it
would have been, If the outcome had mattered for NCAA purposes. However, the
losses at Seton Hall and Syracuse had already fatally torpedoed any NCAA hopes,
anyhow, so even if the Wildcats had managed to pull off the upset today, it
wouldn't have changed their ultimate fate. Even with a win this afternoon,
Villanova would still have needed to beat Miami AND win at Pitt next week, where
the Panthers will likely have a 41-game home winning streak, AND put together a
strong Big East tournament run, going all the way to the final, and you have
to be realistic.

This marks the first season, since the Big East divisional play started in
2000-01, that the 'Cats and Huskies didn't clash twice a year. With the
abolition of divisional play this year, however, the Huskies weren't one of the three
teams Villanova drew to play twice. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun
undoubtedly likes the Center, as he has brought Connecticut in there six times and won
on four of them. Although Villanova still holds a 29-23 lead in the all-time
series, the vast majority of Villanova victories came before Calhoun's strong
teams developed. Since 1990, Connecticut has won 19 of 27 meetings between the
schools. Over the last six years, the dominance has only increased, with the
Huskies winning 9 of the last 12 and five of the last six games.

Now that another slate of Wachovia Center games has come and gone, it's worth
examining the historical record at the state-of-the-art, but unfortunately
very spacious and distant, facility. This season, Villanova wisely opted to
play just three games there. It is claimed that the Big East mandates that at
least three Wildcat games be slated there, per season. However, it seems more
plausible that it's a vestige of the old days, when Villanova was able to
attract huge crowds to the building. Nonetheless, Villanova's position is that it
would voluntarily play at least three games there, regardless of the
conference requirement, so the point is moot. Losing to Memphis, Notre Dame, and
Connecticut, Villanova failed to win a single game there this season. In eight
years of using that building, that is only the second time that's happened. It's
also the first time, since the rebuilding year of 1997-98, when the 'Cats
lost all four games there, en route to a 12-17 record (the team's only losing
record in the last 11 years). All-time, the Wildcats are now 10-15 there.
Obviously, in an overtime game which was ultimately decided by one point, could the
additional home-court advantage provided by the Pavilion have made a
difference? Absolutely.

What about attendance? Officially, prior to this season, the Wildcats had
averaged 14,876 per game, a laughable figure which isn't remotely close to
accurate. A good rule of thumb is to subtract about three thousand from the
official figure, to determine how many real, live human beings actually made the
trek down to South Philly. Today's game drew a large crowd, officially deemed at
over 16,000, which even adjusted downward, still means a substantial increase
over the Pavilion capacity of 6,500. But Connecticut, due to its perennial
powerhouse status and national fan base, still draws more fans than most of the
opponents Villanova brings to the building. There is no reason to believe
that hordes of casual fans will show up to see Memphis or Penn State, teams
which Villanova has played there in the past.

Seniors Derrick Snowden, Andreas Bloch, and Tom Grace bid farewell to the
Pavilion forever on Tuesday night, when the freefalling Miami Hurricanes make
their final visit to the Main Line, prior to exiting for the Atlantic Coast

Also, best wishes for a speedy recovery, to longtime VU radio broadcaster
Whitey Rigsby, who didn't broadcast the game due to shoulder surgery earlier this

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Turnovers Rule As Syracuse Stops 'Nova, 64-59

In arguably one of the ugliest games of the season, Syracuse managed to
extract itself from a turnover-saturated morass at the Carrier Dome to stop
Villanova, 64-59, as the two schools combined for a shockingly sloppy 38 turnovers. Gerry McNamara connected six straight free throws in the last 1:01 to preserve the Orangemen's victory. The defending national champions, are still not a lock for a NCAA bid despite being the last team out of the Top 25 (with an RPI of 29, they top the also-receiving-votes category this week). They needed this win with a tough schedule coming up down the stretch. But for 'Nova, its 21 turnovers led to yet another loss, its fourth in five games, as it prepares for the Big East tournament, its only meaningful hope for a NCAA bid.

Villanova fell to under. 500 in Big East play, at 6-7, while dropping to
14-12 overall. Villanova would need to sweep its remaining three Big East games,
which seems profoundly unlikely at this point, given that two are against
top-10 teams. (And even that still might not get them into the tournament.) The
Wildcats will likely cruise past Miami at the Pavilion on Senior Night, but
look to be defeated by #8 Connecticut at the Wachovia Center and #4 Pittsburgh,
at Pittsburgh. Syracuse improved to 8-5 Big East, 18-6 overall, and is
well-positioned to receive the opportunity to defend its national championship come

As might be expected when only 59 points are scored, no Wildcat scored more
than a dozen points: Curtis Sumpter led the squad with 12 and posted another
double-double with 10 boards. Jason Fraser had 10 points and eight rebounds
prior to fouling out down the stretch, and Allan Ray scuffled to 10 points. Ray
and Foye combined for a dismal shooting night, combining to shoot 6-25 from
the floor, which spells defeat for 'Nova most nights. (Foye also committed
seven turnovers.) Villanova also finished the game shooting just 7-23 (30%) from
beyond the arc, and for a perimeter-based team that lacks a consistent scoring
option in the paint, that can be lethal. For Syracuse, McNamara and
Philadelphia native Hakim Warrick each scored 18 points, with Warrick playing all 40
minutes and just missing a double-double with 9 boards. The pair combined to
go an outstanding 21-24 from the free-throw line. Two other Orangemen reached
double figures, as Josh Pace added 14 while Louie McCroskey had 10.

Villanova missed 14 of its first 18 shots, and consequently had just 19
points entering the final minute, before a flurry of offense. By the under-eight
minute timeout, at 7:32, Villanova had scored just one field goal in over an
eight-minute span, and was trailing 19-11. Even with four points in the final
minute, Villanova still managed just 23 first-half points, shooting a wretched
33% from the floor and 20% from beyond the arc, prior to intermission. With
0.8 seconds to play, and the ball out of bounds under the Syracuse basket,
Nardi lobbed it to Sumpter, who deftly sank it at the buzzer, while also being
fouled. Sumpter missed the rare free throw on an empty lane (a deceptively
difficult thing to try), but the play gave the 'Cats some momentum heading into
intermission, trailing just 27-23. Why was it so close, in light of Villanova's
struggles from the floor? Fortunately, Syracuse wasn't any better, in terms
of field goal accuracy, as the Orangemen were at an equally wretched 33%.

When play resumed, after falling behind 44-35, 'Nova kept hanging around and
pulled to within 44-40 on a dunk by Fraser at the 8:30 mark, leading to a
Syracuse timeout. The run continued, though, and a triple by Ray gave VU what
would be its only second half lead at 49-48, with 4:50 to play, and another
Syracuse timeout.

However, Syracuse rallied and - due to some beckoning by Boeheim - the
Carrier Dome crowd began to engage itself in the game. The Orangemen retook control
with two baskets and by forcing a jump ball, taking possession and triggering
the under-4 minute TV timeout. They led 52-49 and never relinquished the
lead, going on to score six more unopposed points and extending their lead to
58-49 with under two minutes to play, including the shot that probably decided
the game, a huge three by McCroskey at the 2:34 mark. Villanova, in a late-game
storm reminiscent of their oh-so-close near-comeback at Seton Hall Saturday
afternoon, rallied to cut it to 58-54 with 1:21 to play (on an "and-one" from
Will Sheridan) and even 62-59 with 36.7 seconds to go (another basket from
Sheridan), but Syracuse's steadiness at the line was enough to preserve the
victory for the home club.

Coach Jay Wright opted to use just seven players tonight, with bright spots
off the bench being Sheridan, who finished with eight points and four boards
while playing 20 minutes (including the key baskets at crunch time) and Derrick
Snowden. The senior point guard, relegated to the bench by the
Wright-recruited trio of guards and an injury, played 25 minutes of hard-nosed defensive
basketball and helped spark the comeback. (Nardi played just 15 minutes due to
foul trouble, and eventually fouled out.) Snowden's defense was a big reason
why Syracuse shot a miserable 18% (2-11) from beyond the arc. Andreas Bloch
did not see action, while Marcus Austin continues to sit out due to injury.

Worth noting: Syracuse's Jeremy McNeil managed to foul out, despite playing
only six minutes.

Long-time coach Jim Boeheim, who has been at Syracuse for longer than all
players on the court tonight have been alive, improved to 29-23 all-time against
Villanova. Jay Wright lost to Syracuse for the first time ever, against two
victories, both in his first year at the helm. (Wright was whistled for a
technical midway through the second half.) The teams did not play last year, for
the first time since Villanova joined the Big East in 1980-81, due to the
since-abolished BE procedure of missing three opponents per year. The loss was
'Nova's fifth in seventh games to the Orangemen, after winning both meetings in
the 2001-02 season (one in the regular season and one in the BE tournament).
Syracuse now leads the all-time series, 31-23. Villanova leads in
regular-season BE games by a 20-19 margin, but the Orangemen have topped 'Nova eight
times in 11 games in BE tournament play. Surprisingly, Villanova has enjoyed some
success at the Carrier Dome; the loss tonight put the Wildcats at 10-12 there
all-time, which is probably one of the better records there for any visiting

This long-time BE rivalry would have perished in the off-season, except for
the inherent greed of the ACC schools and internal politics of the Commonwealth
of Virginia. Syracuse was one of the original three schools (along with
Boston College and Miami) who flirted with the ACC during the off-season.
However, Virginia - which held the swing vote in the ACC on the issue of extending
invitations - was forced by the state legislature to tie its "Yes" vote on ACC
expansion, to the admission of in-state Virginia Tech, instead of Syracuse or
Boston College. The ACC originally voted, over the summer, to grant membership
only to Miami and Virginia Tech, but a separate deal announced in October
spirited BC out of the BE and down to Dixie as well. All of which leaves
Syracuse in a somewhat awkward position, as the only one of the four schools which
publicly expressed an interest in leaving the BE, but who now has to stay.
Although for public consumption, the remaining BE members are presenting a united
front, it has to be wondered if Syracuse is not still viewed with some
suspicion as a potential defector to another rival conference down the road.
Obviously, BC also publicly pledged its loyalty to the new-look BE and subsequently
decided to bolt for the ACC.

Villanova will enjoy several off-days, before returning to action at the
Wachovia Center, against #8 Connecticut, on Saturday afternoon. It will not be
crowded, which will be a real shame, given that the 'Cats could use the support
in trying to oust a national powerhouse.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

Seton Hall Pirates Hang on to Narrowly Sink Wildcats, 70-68

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Four Wildcats reached double figures, led by Allan Ray's 18. Ray had a fantastic first half but stalled badly in the second, as he had 14 by the break. Foye's game was the mirror opposite, as Foye - mired in foul trouble - not only failed to score before halftime, but had NO field goals, before the 6:16 mark of the SECOND half - but ended up exploding for six field goals in the last 6:16, and nearly singlehandedly stole the game for the 'Cats. Curtis Sumpter also had 15 points, while Jason Fraser posted a double-double with 12 points (on perfect 5-5 shooting) and 11 boards.

The victorious Pirates relied almost exclusively on their starters, as the original crew played all but 25 minutes and scored all but five points. Andre Barrett led the way with 16 points, while Kelly Whitney had 15, John Allen and Marcus Toney-El a dozen each, and Andre Sweet 10.

The Pirate crew continued to sail ahead to the NCAA tournament, with a dazzling RPI of 19 entering the game and a now solid record of 7-5 Big East, 17-7 overall. Villanova fell to 6-6 Big East, 14-11 overall, and has dropped three of its last four contests. Unfortunately, the loss probably means the end of Villanova's meaningful NCAA hopes this season (at least for an at-large bid). The Wildcats will need AT LEAST nine Big East wins to merit serious consideration. Their RPI ranking stood at 48 entering today and will drop with the loss (only slightly, though, because of Seton Hall's high ranking). With just four games remaining, three are against ranked teams and none of them are at the Pavilion (Pittsburgh and Syracuse on the road and Connecticut at the Wachovia Center). After losing today, Villanova would need to beat free-falling Miami on Senior Night, as well as at least two of the three ranked schools, to get to nine conference wins. While there's always the chance that a miracle might materialize, Villanova probably doesn't have the talent or experience to beat TWO ranked opponents, away from the Pavilion, over the next couple of weeks. Nor would 9-7 even be a guarantee of a bid; Seton Hall had 10 wins last year and didn't qualify.

Also, while the last five and a half minutes were - certainly - tremendously exciting, it can't obscure the fact that Villanova was SOUNDLY beaten in this game. If Villanova had somehow gotten out of the building with a victory, that would have been a grand larceny. It will go into the record books as a narrow two-point loss, but that is VERY deceptive. The Hall had this game in the bag and somehow nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Had this game gone the other way (and had its loss eventually cost them a NCAA bid) this game would have been immortalized for YEARS on the SHU site. After leading by a single point at intermission, the Pirates had begun looting and plundering, hoarding a substantial double-digit lead early in the second half. Their lead remained as high as 65-49 with 5:22 to play and the game was apparently over (and had been, for quite some time), prior to Foye's late-game heroics (he had 14 of his 15 points in the last 6:16!)

Villanova now owns a commanding 54-37 edge over Seton Hall in the all-time series, one of its oldest rivalries. It dates back to 1921 (Villanova's first season), and Seton Hall's program is even older: a floor decal at the Continental Airlines Arena proudly noted that we are in the midst of the 100th season of Pirate basketball.

But most of that 'Nova advantage was accumulated, prior to the P.J. Carlesimo
era at the Hall. 'Nova beat Seton Hall in the first 13 contests as members of the Big East - but since then, SHU has done quite well, winning 17 out of the next 28 from the Wildcats. And it's been even worse at the Meadowlands. Since 1987, Seton Hall has hosted Villanova 14 times, and Villanova has won just three games.

Originally, the game looked like it would be pretty tight, despite Villanova's dismal history in the building. Villanova led 13-11 early, but Seton Hall was matching them at every turn and finally made a charge when the 'Cats went cold. The Pirates took advantage of a severe 'Nova drought, beginning at the midpoint of the first half, going up 27-20. When Sumpter converted a layup with 4:17 to play, it was 'Nova's first field goal since that point. But 'Nova hung on; after Barrett held the ball for the last shot and protecting a 33-30 SHU lead, Sumpter intercepted a misplay by Sweet and was fouled by him on a breakaway at the other end with 1.3 seconds to go; Sumpter's pair of free throws made it 33-32 at the buzzer and gave 'Nova some momentum.

At halftime, Villanova had to feel good about the fact that they had shot 50% from the floor (a strong percentage, especially on the road) and were a perfect 10-10 from the line - but had turned the ball over 11 times already. Ray had 14 points and Sumpter eight, but Foye had picked up two fouls and played just 11 minutes.

It probably helped that Seton Hall does not benefit from much of a homecourt advantage. With no on-campus arena, the Pirate faithful do not turn out in large numbers, even this year, when SHU has a fairly successful team, and as a result, it is arguably the most visitor-friendly building in the league.

Villanova collapsed when play resumed. The Wildcats once again went ice-cold, making just two of their first 15 shots (not a typo) in the second half. The Pirates' lead ballooned to 47-34, then 54-37 (a 21-5 run to start the half). The entire second half appeared to be garbage time, as Villanova seemed to be in a stupor for much of the game play. (At one point, with nine minutes to play, the 'Cats rolled the ball inbounds to save a fraction of a second, perhaps a wise move when you're trailing in the last two or three minutes, but an unpleasantly defeatist display, when you're only down 15 with nine minutes left. And I've always felt that it wasn't worth risking a turnover to do that, anyway.)

Then the inexplicable near-comeback took place, with Foye raining in baskets. 'Nova was still down by as much at 67-52 at 3:49, and 67-54 at the 3:32 mark, before outscoring the Hall 14-3 the rest of the way to nearly sink the Pirate ship, when it appeared to be in a safe harbor.

An NBA 3 from Foye cut the lead to 67-61 with 2:19 to play, leading to a Seton Hall timeout and some serious nerve-wracking moments on their bench. 'Nova got the lead down to 69-68 with 28.8 seconds to go, and after Barrett missed the front end of a one-and-one, had a chance to tie or take the lead, but Foye missed a three, which went out of bounds with 6.8 seconds to play. SHU nearly threw away the inbound pass, but Whitney was fouled with 5.7 seconds left. He made the first one (the really pressure-packed one), but missed the second. Unfortunately, 'Nova had no timeouts remaining and couldn't set up - and although they still would have had plenty of time, the Wildcats couldn't cleanly control the rebound, bobbling the ball. By the time Foye had a chance to fire a badly misguided shot, all the way from midcourt, the shot wouldn't have counted anyhow.

And the schedule only grows more arduous from here. Villanova will return to action at Syracuse's Carrier Dome on Monday night, to take on the defending national champion and 24th-ranked Orangemen. At the same time Villanova was making its comeback, Syracuse survived a shocking scare from ancestral archrival Georgetown at the MCI Center, which required a Gerry McNamara buzzer-beating triple to break a 54-54 tie.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Villanova Bids Farewell to Virginia Tech with 80-68 Win at Pavilion, As Hokies Head To ACC Next Season

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Villanova lives and dies with its trio of youthful guards, Allan Ray, Randy Foye and Mike Nardi, and tonight was no exception. The three guards scored 42 of Villanova's 46 first-half points and thoroughly set the tone for the 'Nova triumph. The 'Cats shot the lights out during the first half, connecting on an astronomical 71.5% of its shots on 15-21 shooting, and rode those hot hands to victory, finishing the game shooting 64% from the floor. Ray finished with a stunning 29 points to lead all scorers, with Foye (16 points) and Nardi (12 points) also shooting well in the backcourt. Curtis Sumpter just missed a double-double with 11 points and nine boards. An otherwise solid effort was marred solely by an appalling 23 turnovers, a high number even for a team which has chronically struggled to avoid miscues.

Virginia Tech trailed for virtually the entire game and never really seemed to develop any on-court chemistry, a condition which has dogged it for all four of its years in the Big East. Bryant Matthews, the nation's sixth-leading scorer entering the game, scored 16 points, but was otherwise held in check. He picked up his second foul with 8:21 to go in the first half, but was also hit with a technical, counting as his third foul and exiling him to the bench. Twelve of the 16 points came in the last seven minutes, basically garbage time.

Villanova's flickering NCAA tournament hopes were kept alive by the victory, although given that it was one of the two weakest opponents remaining on the schedule - at home - a loss would have been catastrophic and led to speculation about missing the NIT entirely. The Wildcats snapped a two-game losing streak (as well as a rare two-game skid at the Pavilion) and improved to 6-5 Big East, 14-10 overall. Unfortunately, the schedule suddenly gets a whole lot tougher down the stretch. The Wildcats must travel to Seton Hall, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, and also host nationally ranked Connecticut at the soulless (and likely half-empty) Wachovia Center. The only game in which 'Nova will be favored is Senior Night against free-falling Miami. In order to have a fighting chance at a NCAA bid, 'Nova will need nine Big East wins, which means at least two wins over superior opponents away from the Pavilion. Fortunately, Villanova all but secured its fifth straight NIT bid with the victory. At 14-10, the only way they could miss the NIT would be to lose all of the remaining games, which doesn't seem likely. The Wildcats' 15th win will assure them of being no worse than .500 entering the Big East tournament and thus a de facto automatic NIT bid. It will be Villanova's sixth consecutive postseason appearance.

Virginia Tech fell to 3-8 Big East,10-12 overall, and will likely be heading nowhere at the end of the season, for the eighth straight year.

Of course, Virginia Tech as an institution will be heading to the ACC at the end of this season, meaning the end of the rivalry with Villanova. (Due to the demise of divisional play in the Big East, this was the first year since VT joined the conference that the teams will only meet a single time.) Naturally, Virginia Tech was not brought into the Big East because of its basketball program; it was all about football, Bowl Championship Series bids and the juggernaut gridiron squad which has produced Michael Vick. Nonetheless, even the most favorable spin must concede that VT's four-year stay in the Big East was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for its program. It led to the dismissal of coach Ricky Stokes, after four seasons overall and three years of failing to improve the team's position as the doormat of the league.

In the long run, VT will probably be better off in the ACC, where it will play geographically closer opponents in a conference loaded with football-playing state schools. The move unquestionably didn't make sense for BC and only arguably made sense for Miami, but VT is the one school of the three defectors that looks like it made the "right" decision. (Of course, it was profoundly embarrassing when VT had originally joined in the BE chorus of condemnation of the departees, and then suddenly did a 180-degree turn and became a departee itself.) However, if one looks at it narrowly, in terms of what it means for basketball, they are in serious trouble, as they are likely to be pounded with equal regularity in the ACC.

Ironically, VT enjoyed FAR more basketball success when it was playing BE football and participating in the Atlantic 10 for all other sports. During the heyday of Ace Custis in the mid-90s, VT WON the 1995 NIT championship and reached the second round of the 1996 NCAA tournament, achievements it never remotely approached while enjoying the fruits of Big East membership. (Its accomplishments eerily parallel some of those of Villanova's program, during roughly the same years - 'Nova won the 1994 NIT and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament in 1996 and 1997.)

The advent of VT as the 14th team meant that the Big East would need to depart from the tradition of inviting all members to the end of season party at Madison Square Garden. In an episode of poetic justice, the Hokies has never played in it a single time, as a result of this change.

VT hasn't had a winning record since 2000 (Stokes' first year), and hasn't made a postseason appearance since the 1996 NCAA run. In 2000-01, its first year in the BE, it went 8-19, 2-14 BE; in 2001-02, there was slight improvement: 10-18, 4-12. The coach - a former star at in-state rival Virginia - went out on a limb (although, really, he had no choice in the matter) and publicly declared that the 2002-03 season would be a failure (i.e., meaning his departure) if the team couldn't at least make the BE tournament for the first time. That would not have been a tremendous accomplishment, given that it only required avoiding finishing last in the then-seven team East Division (the divisional format was abolished after last season, after it was proven ineffective in attracting additional NCAA bids for the conference).

Unfortunately for Stokes, the team flatlined and once again missed the New York party, finishing at 11-18 overall and 4-12 in the league, virtually identical to its record the year before. Everyone knew that he would be fired, and he was. Nonetheless, history will record permanently that Stokes does own a shocking blowout victory over Villanova last season, crushing the 'Cats 88-63 at Cassell Coliseum (the only time Villanova has ever lost to Virginia Tech).

Due to the aforementioned division format, Villanova and Virginia Tech were required to clash twice a year. And the series, surprisingly, produced a lot of entertaining basketball, which I will miss. I certainly didn't expect that when this series was created, an Instamatic twice-a-year rivalry with a state-school football powerhouse, that I'd ever miss it when it ended, but I will.

The most memorable game, by far, was on January 17, 2001, when 'Nova overcame a massive deficit - the largest overcome in BE history - and ironically ended up winning the game by a deceptively large 86-74 margin at the Pavilion. But prior to tonight, of the six VU/VT games in BE play, there were four heart-stopping contests: two went into overtime, one was decided by two points, and one was the previously described comeback game. (And best of all, all were Villanova victories.) Villanova has now concluded the all-time series with Virginia Tech with an impressive 9-1 record, unless the teams meet in the Big East tournament.

Villanova returns to action against Seton Hall at the Meadowlands on Saturday

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Villanova Slides Down the Mountain at WVU, 67-60

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Villanova is now in serious trouble from a NCAA-tournament perspective. After a long string of alternating victories and defeats, the Wildcats have now lost three straight and four of their last five, including Wednesday's catastrophic 100-76 loss to Providence, the worst defeat EVER at the Pavilion, the worst defeat against Providence in a 77-game, 68-year series, and only the second time an opponent had scored 100 points there.

Today's loss dropped their record to 5-5 Big East, 13-10 overall. Of their remaining six games, three are against nationally ranked opponents, and a fourth is at Seton Hall, in the "also-receiving-votes" category. Villanova is only likely to be favored to win, in home dates against Virginia Tech and Miami (soon to be out of the Big East Conference). 'Nova would need to win at least FOUR out of the six to have a
meaningful shot at an at-large bid, to push its Big East record over .500 at 9-7. But given the team's recent string of lackluster performances, that does not seem likely.

West Virginia improved to 6-5 Big East, 14-8 overall. The Mountaineers have been on a bit of a roll recently, having won six of their last eight after a mediocre start, and have moved to the fringes of NCAA consideration.

Villanova now leads the all-time series with West Virginia by a slim 18-14, and as members of the Big East, 6-5, plus two BE tournament victories. The Mountaineers have now won three of their last five games over 'Nova, including the last two at the WVU Coliseum, notorious for being one of the most hostile venues for a visitor in the conference. (Villanova has enjoyed modest success there, however, going 2-3 in that building since WVU joined the Big East for the 1995-96 season.)

For West Virginia, Tyrone Sally carried the banner with 20 points, leading all scorers, and nearly posted a double-double with nine rebounds, while going 8-8 from the line. Kevin Pittsnogle contributed 18 points and Johannes Herber added 11. For 'Nova, only Randy Foye (13 points) and Allan Ray (12 points) reached double figures, although Curtis Sumpter did collect 10 rebounds. Foye had a strong overall game, posting five steals, grabbing eight boards and dealing five assists as well, while committing only a single turnover.

The first half, to put it mildly, was an embarrassment for 'Nova, a mere extension of the debacle against Providence on Wednesday. After grabbing a quick 4-0 lead, the 'Cats crumbled, failing to score a basket for seven minutes. The Mountaineers, egged on by an ecstatic crowd, retook the lead at 15-14, and then exploded.

WVU embarked upon a 22-4 run to close the half with a 37-18 advantage. The final play was typical, as WVU held the ball for the last shot, then fed Pittsnogle for a blind-side three-pointer at the top of the key at the buzzer. (It looked like 'Nova might only end up with 14 at the half, prior
to a brief flurry of scoring at the end.)

The halftime numbers were abysmal. The keys to victory for Villanova, given the three-guard offense favored by coach Jay Wright, is for big games from Foye, Ray and Mike Nardi. At halftime, that trio of guards had combined for a grand total of two points (from Foye). As a team, 'Nova had shot an anemic 7-25 (28%) from the floor, and 1-11 (9%) from three-point range, the chief explanation for why they only managed 18 points for the half. They had four assists
against 11 turnovers (WVU had 10 assists against five turnovers, a disturbing contrast).

Jason Fraser was the team's leading scorer with seven points, while WVU already had Sally and Pittsnogle in double figures at 14 and 10 points, respectively. The game appeared to be well in hand for WVU. There did not appear to be ANY evidence that 'Nova was going to rise from the dead and erase an 18-point lead on the road in a tough building.

However, give the Wildcats credit; they almost pulled it off. After WVU increased their lead to 20 early in the second half, going up 45-25, 'Nova answered with nine quick points, forcing a WVU timeout with 10:02. It didn't seem to help, as they scored five more: all told, an amazing 14-0 run to chop the deficit to 45-39, keyed by a wide-open three from Nardi. After turning the ball over on the next possession, WVU coach John Beilein called another timeout, trying to stem the tide. But 'Nova kept surging: Foye's triple trimmed the lead to 47-42 with just under eight minutes to play, and what would have been a truly stunning comeback seemed possible.

And although the 'Cats got the deficit down to an oh-so-narrow two points on three separate occasions, they could never get over the hump. The last gasp came when 'Nova reduced the WVU lead to 53-51 with 3:40 to play. But WVU got the crowd back into the game, silent during their collapse, and finished the game with a 14-9 advantage to win by seven. With its collective adrenaline perhaps spent by erasing such a huge disadvantage, 'Nova was never able to get the
really big three-pointers that it needed, to drop at crunch time.

Among the many problems on display today, the most serious was the lack of a dominant inside force in the paint. WVU appeared to have the reincarnation of Georgetown's Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo underneath, as D'Or Fischer (a Philadelphia native) and Jamon Durisseau-Collins had half a dozen blocks APIECE, and neither of them played as much as 30 minutes (Fischer had 27 and Collins 24).

'Nova had ONE block for the entire game. Fraser was hobbled by foul trouble (he had four) and played only 21 minutes. While he was on the floor, he played well (seven points and eight rebounds in what amounted to only a single half of action), but Villanova simply can't function offensively, when its shots are being swatted away in such disproportionate amounts.

(Ironically, Villanova enjoyed a 39-32 advantage on the glass, but the blocks were what mattered.)

With Fraser on the bench and Chris Charles playing only two minutes, Wright went with a small lineup for most of the game, but the guards' outside shots just weren't falling (Villanova made only 8 out of 26 attempts, just 31%.) It didn't help that 'Nova once again turned the ball over frequently, coughing the ball up 16 times against nine for West Virginia. Those factors were what limited 'Nova to just 60 points, and scoring only 60 points will get
you beat most games. And making it to 60 was actually a pretty impressive accomplishment today, given that the Wildcats only had 18 at halftime. The 'Cats won the second half, on the road, 42-30, but the original abyss was so deep that they STILL couldn't overcome it.

The Wildcats will return to action at the Pavilion on Wednesday, in what will likely be its last game for many years against Virginia Tech, unless they meet in the Big East tournament. The Hokies, along with Miami will be packing their bags for the Atlantic Coast Conference at the end of the season (Boston College, which is also departing, is hoping to escape by the end of the year as well).

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Providence Hands Villanova Worst Loss Ever At Pavilion, 100-74

The loss may have represented a mortal blow to Villanova's NCAA hopes, which were not insubstantial entering the game. The Wildcats fell to 5-4 Big East, 13-9 overall. Although that is far from a bad record, and the RPI hit from a loss to a formidable Providence team will be minuscule, the psychological impact of a 27 point loss on the home floor will probably be devastating. The simple reality is that NCAA-bound teams generally don't get annihilated (and basically left for dead) on their home floor: especially by teams which ought to be considered their peers, after six days to prepare. Providence, while a good, solid, NCAA-bound team, is not a juggernaut; Villanova nearly upset the Friars on their January trip to Providence.

If this season were a presidential campaign, 'Nova would probably have followed Wednesday's example of retired General Wesley Clark, and folded its tents after tonight's performance, the equivalent of a 27 point loss in a candidate's home state. The previous mark for the worst loss of the season was held by the Jan. 6 loss to Memphis at the Wachovia Center, which was a 16 point defeat. Unfortunately, the schedule grows no kinder the rest of the way. For 'Nova to have a meaningful shot at an at-large bid, it has to finish no worse than 9-7 in conference play (and thus 17-12 overall), and that looks pretty unrealistic right now. The 'Cats still have to go to Pittsburgh, Seton Hall, and Syracuse - all of which look like losses - as well as playing a quasi-home game against Connecticut downtown. 'Nova would need to win home games against soon-departing Miami and Virginia Tech, win at West Virginia (among the most difficult venues for a visitor in the conference) AND somehow upset at least one of the others, to have a shot.

Also, it has to be acknowledged that this performance was probably the worst of the Jay Wright era. The only other loss that was really comparable was the 92-75 debacle against St. Joseph's last year, but that was mitigated by the following facts:

-it's the Super Bowl for SJU every year;
-it was at the Palestra, with SJU controlling a majority of the tickets;
- and after an atrocious 40-9 start, the 'Cats at least got up off the floor and made a game of it.

In contrast: tonight's fiasco was:

- at the Pavilion;
- had no particular emotional significance for the opponent;
- actually grew WORSE as the game progressed.

We would all agree that if a NCAA tournament run is to be made, February is a time when the team should be jelling for it. It is NOT the time for games to take place which can be reasonably described as among the Worst of an Era. And if they are, the odds that the team will suddenly start knocking off nationally ranked teams on the road, are probably not all that favorable. Villanova already has five losses on its home and quasi-home courts this year: Rutgers, St. Joseph's and PC at the Pavilion, and Memphis and Notre Dame at the Wachovia Center. That's probably the maximum quota of home losses, unfortunately,
for the ENTIRE season (and unless you have a team with a real penchant for winning road/neutral games, even five is probably too many). And 'Nova still has two Pavilion contests and a Wachovia Center game remaining.

Villanova has had some substantial struggles with Providence in recent years, although most of the problems have occurred on the road; 'Nova has lost an amazing 12 of its last 13 at Providence. The 'Cats are 11-6 all-time at the Pavilion against the Friars, after tonight, and hold leads in the overall series (43-34) and as members of the Big East (25-21). But regardless of venue, tonight's disaster marked Villanova's third straight loss to the Friars, as well as their sixth loss in their last eight battles with PC.

Well, it was good news for Providence fans, anyway. Fresh off celebrating the quasi-hometown Patriots' victory in Sunday's Super Bowl, they have a NCAA run to look forward to amidst dreams of replicating the two Final Fours in the school's illustrious past. The Friars improved to 7-3 Big East, 16-5 overall, and can probably anticipate moving up from #21 in the polls on Monday.

Three Friars broke the 20-point barrier; Ryan Gomes and Donnie McGrath each scored 23 to lead all scorers, with Sheiku Kabba adding 20. McGrath scored 20 in the second half alone, most of which was garbage time. PC shot the Pavilion lights out from beyond the arc, making a stunning 60% (15-25) of those shots. McGrath and Kabba combined to go 10-14 from that range.

For Villanova, only Curtis Sumpter had a strong game. The hope of Villanova's future scored 20 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds unfortunately, Providence didn't miss a lot of shots), although it was marred by seven turnovers (an appalling amount for a forward who doesn't handle the ball a lot). Randy Foye crept into double figures with 11, the only other Wildcat to do so, but all 11 came in the first half. Will Sheridan grabbed eight rebounds, including six offensive, in just 21 minutes, while adding seven points. Coach Wright, probably in a vain effort to change the chemistry, began utilizing an unusual pattern of substitutions. (Wright was assessed a technical foul at one point.) Sumpter was the only player to log more than 28 minutes (and he only had 34), while all of the nine Wildcats who played saw at least 10 minutes, a drastic departure from just a couple of weeks ago.

The game got off to a disastrous start and was basically over before it began. Providence sprinted to a 10-0 run to open the game, while Villanova committed five straight turnovers and didn't fire a shot until Mike Nardi nailed a three, over three minutes into the game. The Wildcats were never competitive. They provided a spark of excitement at the end of the first half, while trailing by 18; Andreas Bloch drained a three, Sumpter pulled off a steal and a dunk, and Bloch blocked a PC shot near the buzzer; if nothing else, it got the crowd interested in the game.

The halftime numbers were about as bad as they could be: a PC lead of 47-33, while shooting 16-24 (67%) from the floor and an almost-as-good 8-13 (61.5%) from beyond the arc. PC had 11 assists, versus nine turnovers, while 'Nova had four assists against ten turnovers.

Despite the positive events that ended the first half, 'Nova quickly collapsed when play resumed and let the game deteriorate into a rout. The Wildcats turned the ball over four more times in the first four minutes, permitting PC to swell its lead to 57-39 on a layup from Gomes. The game was never remotely competitive after that, as 'Nova never got any closer than a dozen. Villanova could boast a couple of statistical accomplishments: despite 20 turnovers, they forced an identical 20 from PC and shot 25-32 (78%) from the line. Unfortunately, that was about all of the silver lining which could be found. The rest of the season may be very revealing of the future of Villanova basketball. Will the team recover from this atrocious outing and right the ship, knock off one of the powers on the road, and give the current VU students (very few of whom have ever seen a VU team in the NCAA tournament) something to cheer about? Or is this game a harbinger of a downward spiral for the rest of the season, filled with blowouts against superior competition?

The Wildcats will next make the notoriously tough trip to Morgantown, West Virginia, for a Valentine's Day matinee against the Mountaineers, whom 'Nova blasted at the Pavilion earlier this season. It will unquestionably be a must-win for 'Nova's NCAA hopes.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Sumpter, Snowden Snow In Hoyas, 75-60

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

For some reason, the basketball gods smile on Villanova at the MCI Center, the glittering downtown-DC home of Georgetown basketball (perhaps some residual goodwill from the 1985 national championship). Villanova also boasts the distinction of winning the first-ever NCAA game at the venue, topping the Hoyas on December 3, 1997, 73-69. The Wildcats followed that up with MCI wins in 2000 and 2001, both by narrow three-point margins. Villanova remains one of just two Big East schools (along with Connecticut) that has never lost at the MCI Center.

Sumpter had a fantastic game, averaging over a point a minute (his reduced
playing time was due to foul trouble) and doing it on 9-11 shooting, after
making only one field goal in 14 attempts against SJU. Allan Ray had a decent
overall game for the 'Cats, scoring 12 points, dealing four assists and (for a
guard) grabbing seven boards, but did so on just 3-10 shooting. Brandon Bowman
led the Hoyas with 18 points in a losing cause. Gerald Riley - who had scored
a career-high 35 points against Miami in his last outing - was effectively
contained, scoring just 12 points on just 5-15 shooting. As a team, the Wildcats
shot well, connecting at a 51% clip. They also pounded the Hoyas on the
glass, finishing the contest with a commanding 38-25 rebounding advantage.

Jason Fraser opened the game with a bang, contributing three rim-rattling
dunks to give 'Nova an early 6-2 lead. But despite Fraser's early heroics,
Villanova led just 32-31 at halftime. They had to rely on a second-half explosion,
cruising past the host Hoyas by a 43-29 margin to breeze to victory. One big
factor: Georgetown's Ashanti Cook scored a dozen points in the first half but
was shut down after intermission. The key sequence was a 19-2 run, fueled by
three consecutive triples from Snowden. The Hoyas had held a 40-37 lead when
Snowden virtually took over the game, and never saw anything close to a lead
again; after falling behind 56-42, they never drew closer than eight points
the rest of the way.

Snowden's playing time in his senior season has been drastically below
expectations, due to injury, his phone-scandal suspension, and the emergence of Mike
Nardi at the point; he had averaged only 11.5 minutes per game prior to
Monday's game against SJU. Snowden is also a defensive specialist, not an outside
shooter, but any offensive punch the bench can provide is sorely needed and
could very well mean the difference between victory and defeat in most games
this year.

In addition to its stellar play at the MCI Center, 'Nova has also enjoyed
considerable success against Georgetown overall in recent years: this was the
Wildcats' fifth victory against Georgetown in its last six tries, as well as its
fifth straight in regular-season play. Georgetown won the last meeting
between the two schools, in the Big East tournament last season. In a genuine
throwback to the 1980s, with Villanova playing stallball thanks to a phone-scandal
depleted roster, the Hoyas emerged with a 46-41 triumph.

Worth noting: Mike Nardi had crafted an impressive free-throw streak,
converting 29 in a row, prior to tonight. Unfortunately, he went only 3-4 tonight,
as he missed his second free throw of the game, shattering the streak at 30.
While he still had quite a journey to undertake to even approach the NCAA
record, held by Gary Buchanan (73 FTs in 2000-01), the fact that it got so far
reflects a fundamental skill and ability to deliver under pressure, both rare in

The Wildcats boosted their Big East mark to 5-3, while improving to 13-8
overall, keeping NCAA hopes alive if they come up with a strong finish. Villanova
already owns two road wins (tonight and Miami) in conference play and is only
halfway through the season.

Georgetown dropped to 3-5 Big East, 12-6 overall. The Hoyas, running off
their customary December winning streak against a high-cholesterol diet of
cupcakes, had impressed some observers with some talk that the program was on the
way back, after starting the season 10-0. But they have lost six of eight since
then, and with such a pitiful nonconference schedule, would probably need to
virtually run the table to have a prayer at an at-large bid. The once-proud
Hoyas were the scourge of the Big East (and the nation) in the 1980s, reaching
three Final Fours and winning a national title (and memorably losing the title
game the following year to Villanova). A partial list of Thompson's
accomplishments would include seven Elite Eights, seven BE regular season titles, six
BE tournament titles, 20 NCAA bids, and 24 consecutive postseason appearances.
It was a tough act to follow.

But despite such a rich legacy, Georgetown has only reached the NCAA
tournament once in the last five seasons, and as a result, coach Craig Esherick was on
the hot seat, until receiving an unexpectedly long (through the 2009 season)
contract extension, after last season. (He still may be on the hot seat, but
it seems unlikely that Georgetown would ever be willing to buy out a contract
of such length, so any departure would need to be mutual).

His record includes a Sweet 16 run in that lone NCAA bid, as well as a NIT
championship and NIT final. His overall record is respectable, but outrageously
padded with December victories over cupcake opponents, which add up over a
five year period. When Esherick's teams have had to face real competition, his
record suffered: Esherick is under .500 in BE play and has only once guided
the Hoyas past the quarterfinals of the BE tournament. Nor has it helped the
foundation of the program that of Esherick's first true recruiting class, three
of the four guys transferred.

Although Georgetown still boasts the occasional tremendous talent, such as
Kevin Braswell or Mike Sweetney, a variety of factors have combined to reduce
the Hoyas to lower-middle-class status in the Big East pack: the 1999 departure
of legendary coach John Thompson, the virtual absence of home games from
campus, and the lowest athletic budget in the Big East (surprising from a school
with such a massive endowment, one far greater than Villanova's). Despite the
opening of the downtown MCI Center, far closer to Georgetown's campus and
offering exponentially more amenities than the dilapidated, Capital Centre/USAir
Arena it replaced, Hoyas attendance remains dismal. Nor does it look better
for the future: the imminent strengthening of the Big East with the likes of
Louisville, Marquette and Cincinnati isn't likely to help this decline.

Villanova will enjoy a rare February respite, after three games in six days;
the Wildcats won't play again until Wednesday, when borderline Top 25 squad
Providence visits the Pavilion. It may be a must-win game for the Wildcats, who
badly need victories over NCAA-bound teams (especially at home) in order to
have a fighting chance of making the tournament themselves. The Friars won the
first meeting on Jan. 21 in Providence, 62-56.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Unfortunately, #3 Hawks Win Holy War, 74-67

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Unfortunately, the Wildcats were utterly unable to shut down SJU's three

major offensive weapons: Jameer Nelson, Delonte West, and Pat Carroll, who
combined to score 60 of SJU's 73 points. Nelson scored 23 points to lead all
scorers, while West had 21 points and Carroll had 16 (including a perfect 4-4 from
beyond the arc). It was the sixth time this season that SJU had its backcourt
tandem each reach 20 points in a game, and it cost 'Nova the contest. West
reached a double-double with 11 rebounds and also was a perfect 10-10 from the

In light of that fact, it's somewhat remarkable that the game was as close as
it was. Fortunately, the Wildcats received some offensive punch of their
own, with four players reaching double figures. Mike Nardi had an outstanding
contest, scoring 16 points and dealing five assists, to lead Villanova. Allan
Ray added 13, but the best part was the unexpected explosion of offense from
the previously dormant bench. Will Sheridan and Andreas Bloch each came off the
bench to score 10 points, a tremendous contribution from a group whose points
had been anemic in recent games. Bloch, who played just 16 minutes,
singlehandedly kept the 'Nova crowd in the game in the second half, draining shot
after shot. What really hurt 'Nova was the fact that Curtis Sumpter picked a
highly inopportune time to have the worst shooting night of his young Villanova
career. The budding star went a dreadful 1-14 from the floor, finishing with
just 9 points, 7 of them from the free throw line, where he also helped
establish SJU's dominance early on by missing his first three free throw attempts.
Sumpter finished 7-13 from the line, the worst offender in a horrendous
performance in that category by the team as a whole. After going a perfect 10-10 from
the line in Saturday's victory over West Virginia, the 'Cats went just 12-22
(55%) against SJU, a failure which ultimately could have cost them at least a
CHANCE at an upset.

All in all, it was a welcome contrast to the sorry spectacle at the Palestra
last season, when the Hawks celebrated the end of a decade of Holy War
frustration by embarrassing 'Nova, 92-75, in a game that was far more lopsided than
the score would indicate. SJU took a 40-9 lead to start that game, an event so
transfixing in the minds of Hawk fans that one particularly zealous soul even
immortalized it on his Pennsylvania license plate, according to Monday's
Philadelphia Daily News ("SJ40-VU9"). There was a reason for grave concern, given
that 'Nova came into the game with arguably a weaker team than last season,
while the Hawks came in unquestionably stronger. I was hoping that the game
would simply remain competitive and that there would not be a repeat of last
year's debacle.

Villanova dropped to 12-8 overall, 3-1 Big Five, as it concluded the
nonconference portion of its schedule. With the victory, the Hawks improved to 19-0
overall, 2-0 City Series; both the 19-0 start and the 19-game winning streak
are the longest in school history. Over the weekend, the #3 Hawks had a
reasonable chance of becoming #1, due to the struggles of #1 Duke and #2 Stanford on
Saturday. But both the Blue Devils and Cardinal recovered to win on the road,
thus depriving 'Nova of a shot at the #1 team in the country. The 'Cats
remain alive for NCAA consideration, but would have drastically improved their
chances, both from an RPI and perception aspect, had they been able to pull off
the upset. They will likely need a signature victory over a prominent opponent
to get in, most likely against either Connecticut or Pittsburgh in late
February/early March.

All in all, despite the unhappy ending, it was a marvelously entertaining
basketball game. The atmosphere was as raucous as I've heard the Pavilion,
rivaling the February 2002 clash with nationally ranked UCLA (although that game
was probably louder due to the fact that 'Nova eventually WON that game.) I
can't determine this fact conclusively, but SJU at #3 was probably the highest
ranked opponent to take the floor at the Pavilion in a decade, as most of
Villanova's toughest opponents are played downtown. On February 19, 1994, Villanova
topped #1 Connecticut at the Pavilion, which was probably the highest ranked
opponent there prior to tonight. It was certainly far more enjoyable than it
would have been at the Wachovia Center, where the game would have been played,
had it not been for a scheduling conflict.

Well over an hour before the late 8 PM tip-off, fans were streaming into the
Pavilion. When the 60 minute countdown began, at roughly 7 PM, about half the
student section was already full and cheering. A few minutes later, the 350
or so red-clad SJU partisans (their ranks swelled by a few VU ticketholders
who opted to make some money by selling their tickets) arrived, and proceeded to
the top of the North Section (i.e., as far away as they could possibly be
put, the standard visitor's exile at the Pavilion). (Absolute fact: many -
sincerely or otherwise - vocally expressed their disbelief that Villanova would
assign them such poor seats!) Some were wearing cowboy hats with "Wild Wild
West" T-shirts. I was surprised by how little SJU penetration there was of the
building, given the demand for tickets. Out of the 6,500 seat building (and
let's assume that there were actually 7,000 bodies in the place, as it was packed
to the rafters), I would estimate that only about 10% of the fans were
cheering for SJU (I had expected about 25%). Also, outside of the enclave reserved
for them, the rest of them were hopelessly scattered throughout the building,
rendering any noise virtually impossible. A quick scan of the student section
revealed only a handful of red-shirted Hawk fans.

The hour prior to the commencement of the game itself was happily spent by
the fans of the two schools chanting various cheers and insults back and forth,
the way it used to be in the Big Five. Most SJU cheers zeroed in on the phone
card scandal of last season, and Villanova's struggles this season ("12-7!";
"Chaminade Beat You!"). One guy walked in carrying a crudely-lettered sign
reading " '85 Wildcats: Overrated" (!?!) (Later in the game, he would publicly
hoist the sign to the amusement of the SJU enclave, before the sign was
confiscated and destroyed.)

The Pavilion authorities had opted to try to kill the fun, as signs
forbidding any signs or banners greeted fans as they arrived. However, it had little
effect. There were a couple of prominent Palestra-style VU rollouts, the most
memorable being "West: All-American Trainer Beater" (a reference to the
scandal last year regarding a fight between West and the SJU trainer, which broke
right before last year's Holy War).

There was a tremendous amount of electricity in the atmosphere at the
Pavilion, a real sense that this game was going to be quite memorable. The mood was
heightened when 'Nova appeared in throwback jerseys, an attempt to summon the
spirits of the past to help the 'Cats come up with a big upset over a
formidable opponent. (They were really cool and I hope they're used again. In
contrast, SJU came out dressed in their hideous black uniforms.)

In the beginning, it appeared that SJU was going to cruise to a second
consecutive blowout victory. VU scuffled at the line especially, missing five of
its first seven free throws. When a team is struggling to find quality shots
(and Villanova certainly was throughout this game) it's a real momentum-killer
to waste opportunities at the foul line. 'Nova couldn't score, and SJU was
handing it chances to score and they STILL couldn't put it in the bucket. After
Villanova build a very modest 5-4 advantage, the Hawks raced out to a 12-5
lead after a three-pointer by Tyrone Barley, forcing coach Jay Wright to take a
timeout in the early going. It didn't help; it soon became a 18-5 lead, after
a dunk by Dwyane Jones at the 10:30 mark. Consecutive three-pointers from
Dave Mallon and Carroll swelled the lead to 27-8 with 8:22 to go, forcing VU
coach Jay Wright to call another timeout. Except for the Hawk fans, the Pavilion
was silent as a tomb.

'Nova scored six quick points (four of them by Randy Foye) to pull within
27-14, but SJU responded by pushing the lead back out to 34-16. Mercifully, the
under-4-minute TV timeout was whistled here, giving 'Nova some time to
regroup; Wright certainly didn't want to use all of his timeouts in the first half,
but the game was beginning to slip away. Villanova managed to chip away at the
lead, though, scoring five points to end the half, but more importantly,
played quality defense: SJU didn't score again after that timeout, for the rest of
the half. At intermission, the Hawks' lead was down to 34-23.

The halftime numbers reflected the fact that SJU had been dominating play.
VU was shooting only 28% from the floor, 13% from beyond the arc, and 46% from
the line, and had no player in double figures. SJU's numbers in the same
categories were 48%, 63% and 75%; in light of such an appalling contrast, it's
amazing that 'Nova was only down by 11. And quick SJU had seven points off fast
breaks, while the plodding 'Cats had zero.

There was sort of a "wait-and-see" buzz with the crowd, and fortunately,
after play resumed, the 'Cats did give them some stuff worth cheering over.
Villanova would win the second half 44-40, and along the way threw more than one
serious scare into the Hawk fans (both the small number at the Pavilion and the
far larger number in the SJU Fieldhouse watching it) that their undefeated
season might founder on the Main Line.

In the opening two minutes of the second half, 'Nova leapt right back into
the game, going on a 7-2 run to pull within 36-30, and the Pavilion was starting
to make some noise. Unfortunately, Foye was whistled for two quick fouls and
had to sit down with three. SJU responded with six points from Nelson and
West, pushing the lead back to 46-35, the same 11-point margin it had been at
halftime, and in the midst of it Foye picked up his fourth foul. Uggh.

Villanova hung in there, though. The lead was reduced to 48-42, with just
over nine minutes to play, even with Foye on the bench. You never know. Bloch
canned a three-pointer to make it 54-50 with just under seven minutes to play,
and the under-8-minute timeout came shortly after. At that point, the most
stunning event of the night took place.

A fan was pulled out of the audience to take the halfcourt shot for a Land
Rover. With the poise and aplomb of a jaded, long-time performer, he calmly
stepped to the microphone and asked "Jameer who?" and then equally calmly MADE
the halfcourt shot!!!! and won the car. The Pavilion exploded. The guy seemed
reasonably excited, but not QUITE as excited as most people would be in
similar situations (probably out of shock...) Taking a page from NFL wide
receivers, he briskly walked over in the direction of the SJU enclave and made the
universal "I can't hear you" signal by cupping his ear, and took a pom-pom from a
male SJU cheerleader. He was getting a huge hand, and coupled with Bloch's
triple, it appeared that all of the momentum was going 'Nova's way. It didn't
seem out of the question that this guy's winning a car might be the catalyst to
put Villanova over the top, because he really got the crowd pumped with his

But, alas, it was not to be. Pat Carroll drained threes on the next two
possessions, and although 'Nova was scoring, they never retook the momentum. It
was 60-52 after the second three and the dream was slipping away. Despite some
further heroics from Bloch, SJU began burying the 'Cats under free throws.
After Wright had held him out as long as he dared, Foye fouled out with four
minutes to play, shortly after he returned from the bench, and that might have
ended Villanova's hopes. SJU extended the lead all the way back to 69-58 with
2:32 to play and the embers were all but extinguished. Ray made it a bit more
interesting when he nailed a three to cut it to 73-67 with 25 seconds to go,
but SJU would have required a complete collapse at the line to lose, which
didn't happen.

Overall, the Wildcats did quite well, against a clearly superior opponent.
The Hawks demonstrated why they are the #3 team in the nation. This SJU team
is not similar to the Hawk teams that had Cinderella runs in 1997 and 2001.
This team is actually supremely talented, and plays outstanding five-man
basketball, and Villanova was just overmatched. You could sense it, just watching
the ball movement, that Nelson and West have developed a feel for making their
teammates better, that the 'Cats' young backcourt is nowhere near achieving
(which is not their fault, because it's a high standard to reach). Throughout
the game, it was an EFFORT for Villanova to get good looks at the basket, while
SJU was making it look effortless, in contrast. The Villanova guards
(including Derrick Snowden, who had a solid performance in his 14 minutes off the
bench before fouling out) were exerting themselves to the max, just to break the
press when SJU decided to clamp it down. And when they made a mistake, it was
like a mousetrap snapping down. Two points for the visitors. SJU was
running set plays to take advantage of fast breaks that were virtually automatic, to
the point where you recognized that if VU turned over the ball at midcourt,
it would basically amount to a Hawk basket. In short, Villanova was going to
need to play virtually error-free to win, and it doesn't have the skills to
play error-free basketball (yet). And in light of that fact, it's astonishing to
consider that if Sumpter had played anywhere approaching his normal game, or
if the 'Cats had enjoyed a strong game at the foul line, that 'Nova could have

The loss means that Villanova probably will not take the Big Five title this
season; the 'Cats last won it in 2000-01. Although the Wildcats finished the
City Series with a strong 3-1 mark, and SJU is only 2-0, it is not likely that
the Hawks will lose to either La Salle or Temple, their two remaining Big
Five games, and will probably sweep the City Series at 4-0. A shared title with
both SJU and Villanova at 3-1, is a more realistic hope.

Villanova should take some pride in offering as stiff a challenge as anyone
has all season to the powerhouse Hawks. The seven-point victory margin is one
of the closest games SJU has had all year; only victories against Old Dominion
- a scary name to 'Nova fans - by 3 points and California by 2 points were
closer, and nationally ranked Gonzaga also lost by seven (although it was a
neutral court game in New York, with SJU having many more fans there).

The loss trims Villanova's lead in the all-time series to 38-23 overall, and
27-22 as members of the Big Five. Villanova had done so well recently in the
series, that it was the first time in a few that SJU had managed to win two
consecutive games over the Wildcats. Not since winning back-to-back contests in
February 1993 and December 1994 had the Hawks won twice in a row. They
haven't won three in a row since the mid-1960s, when the Hawks were in their
heyday, and so that perhaps can keep some hope alive for next year's Holy War.

It was also SJU's second victory at the Pavilion, in six tries. The Hawks
won their debut appearance, in December 1987, but then dropped four straight,
the most recent being a 102-73 drubbing on January 28, 2002, during Jay Wright's
first year at the helm. (Phil Martelli is still only 2-5 against Villanova.)
For 'Nova, it was only their second loss to a Big Five opponent at the
Pavilion since 1994 (a November 2001 loss to La Salle in overtime). All-time,
Villanova is 12-7 in City Series games there.

From one rivalry to another: Villanova will turn its attention to Georgetown
in a rare Thursday game, when they travel to the MCI Center in Washington to
take on the Hoyas.