Thursday, January 06, 2005

What a '70s Show!!! - Villanova Wallops #21 West Virginia At Pavilion, 84-46

The Afros and leisure suits were out at the Pavilion last night, and the ESPN Classic crew opted to televise the game with 1979-era graphics. Even former long-time VU coach Rollie Massimino was there - but behind the bench, broadcasting the game, rather than in front of it, gesticulating to the officials. If there were any Main Line Rip Van Winkles out there, asleep after a quarter-century's nap, they could be forgiven for thinking they had just nodded off for a moment if they had come to the Pavilion last night. Accordingly, tonight's article will stay consistent with the theme:

On Wednesday night, Villanova took a giant step toward returning to the NCAA tournament, by walloping undefeated, #21 West Virginia, 84-46, in the Big East opener for both teams in "Turn Back the Clock Night" at the Pavilion. The Wildcats relied heavily on that one major post-1979 innovation, the three-point shot, in leveling the Mountaineers, connecting on 10 triples.

Villanova is now hotter than Studio 54 in its heyday, having won seven straight contests. The Wildcats are now 8-1 overall, 1-0 Big East. After experiencing a Three Mile Island-esque genuine meltdown, West Virginia dropped to 10-1 overall, 0-1 Big East.

Allan Ray hit the Mountaineers harder than Sugar Ray Leonard, dropping 26 points on 10-16 shooting, including five three-pointers. The most pleasant surprise came from Mike Nardi, who had been struggling with his shot all season. Nardi exploded for 18 points and canned four triples. Curtis Sumpter, ordinarily in the spotlight, took third place with "just" 13 points and seven rebounds. Randy Foye chipped in with 11 points and four assists. And Jason Fraser was a monster in the lane, pulling down nine boards and swatting three shots, in just 25 minutes of action. Finally, Kyle Lowry followed up his solid New Year's Eve debut with six points and six boards in just 19 minutes.

There really weren't any bright spots for West Virginia, but D'Or Fischer led the Mountaineers with 14 points.

The Wildcats' offensive statistics zoomed upwards as if it really WERE the era of sky-high inflation, as 'Nova hung 84 points on a Big East opponent, after a few days of hostile murmuring about Villanova's cupcake-laden December. The Wildcats shot 54% overall, and 42% from beyond the arc. It was an even more impressive feat in light of West Virginia's formidable defense. Prior to West Virginia's victory over fellow ranked team George Washington, the Mountaineers had yielded 55 or fewer points in their previous five games, including four occasions in which the opponents scored 48 or fewer.

West Virginia entered the night as one of just six undefeated teams remaining in Division I, with three of those coming from the Big East: aside from WVU- #9 Connecticut and Boston College, who played each other last night as well. But West Virginia's unblemished season record fell more swiftly than the Shah of Iran, as Villanova sprinted to a 36-16 lead at the 1:36 mark in the first half, culminating by an "and-one" from Sumpter. The Wildcats took a 38-18 advantage into the locker room and never looked back. The lead actually peaked at 41, when Baker Dunleavy scored in the final minute to give 'Nova a 84-43 lead.

It seemed only fitting that on 1979 night, West Virginia sank into a "malaise", to borrow a term President Jimmy Carter made famous in that era. The Mountaineers had made only 20% of their shots by halftime.

Villanova's defense was more tyrannical than J.R. Ewing, after a day when several oil gushers had run dry - and stingier than the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh. WVU had a potent offense thus far this year, averaging over 76 points a game. The 46 points tonight, matches the fewest Villanova has ever allowed in Big East play, in a conference which coincidentally dates back to 1979. The previous low had been 48 surrendered against Pittsburgh in 1983, a game markedly lacking both a shot clock and a three-point shot. In 2003 and 2002, Georgetown and Connecticut, respectively, both scored exactly 46 points in VICTORIES over Villanova. And the 38 point differential also represented the largest victory margin ever for 'Nova over a Big East opponent. West Virginia finished the game shooting a pitiful 27% from the floor and 20% from beyond the arc, and the numbers would have been even worse if the Mountaineers hadn't scored a meaningless three in the final seconds. WVU had ten turnovers in the first half alone, leading to ten Villanova points - a damning statistic when one considers that WVU averaged fewer than 10 turnovers a game entering the contest.

As for the inside game, I doubt that even Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins - whose famous backboard-shattering feat for the 76ers observed its silver anniversary just a couple of weeks ago - could have been effective in the paint for the Mountaineers tonight. Fraser had eight rebounds in the first half. And there were a lot of rebounds to get, as WVU was shooting just 22% nearly halfway through the second half.

On both ends of the court, the Mountaineers experienced an "energy crisis", of their own. At the same time, Villanova's performance continued to IMPROVE as the game went on, eventually reaching heights previously reserved solely for Barry Gibb's voice pitch.

Fortunately for Villanova, this game advanced their NCAA hopes considerably further, than it would have if the game had been played during the Carter administration. Back then, there were just 40 teams in the tournament, and a great regular-season performance did not mean as much without today's abundance of available at-large bids (there were just a handful then). Plus, the 2004-05 Wildcats don't have to worry about facing Magic Johnson's Michigan State or Larry Bird's Indiana State, who squared off in the 1979 national title game.

Worth noting: In 1979, Villanova meandered to a 15-13 record with the likes of Alex Bradley, Marty Caron, Tom Sienkiewicz, Rory Sparrow, and Aaron Howard. 'Nova was rebuilding, however, after an Elite Eight appearance the previous year. Jay Wright was a senior at Council Rock High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, playing point guard before leaving for Bucknell in the fall of 1979. And none of the current Wildcats had yet been born.

Around the 4 minute mark, the Pavilion crowd began chanting "Overrated". Undoubtedly, the outcome must have come as a profound shock to the WVU faithful. These have been some lean years for Mountaineer basketball. Before cracking the Top 25 this week, the Mountaineers hadn't been ranked since the conclusion of the 1997-98 season, when they finished ranked #23 after a Sweet 16 run and an upset victory over Temple. Although the Mountaineers haven't qualified for the NCAA tournament since that same year, 1998, they had generated a lot of under-the-radar buzz thanks to the early success. This was West Virginia's first 10-0 start since 1959-60, when Jerry West led the squad.

Looking back even further in history, Villanova now leads the all-time series against West Virginia, 19-14. The series actually dates back significantly further than 1979, going all the way back to 1955-56. As members of the Big East, Villanova now leads 10-5, since WVU left the Atlantic Ten in time for the 1995-96 season. WVU is now just 4-10 at Villanova. The Wildcats have done well in recent years, winning seven of the last ten contests.

Villanova will advance 25 years into the future as they prepare to clash with Notre Dame at South Bend, Indiana, on Saturday, in a game that will be televised in Philadelphia with normal graphics and presumably without Rollie's august presence.

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