Sunday, January 30, 2005

Wildats Massacre Scarlet Knights: RU's Worst RAC Loss Ever

Just a week after crushing #2 Kansas, Villanova handed Rutgers its worst defeat in the 27-year history of the RAC on Saturday, ruthlessly slaying the Scarlet Knights by a 94-61 margin. The Wildcats can bank on a Top 25 appearance on Monday.

It would be best to begin today's article, by noting that Baker Dunleavy and Tom Grace combined to score eight points, with Dunleavy posting a career-high five. For most veteran Villanova observers, that fact alone would probably be enough to communicate the magnitude of the Villanova victory today. Conversely, former Scarlet Knight football player L.J. Smith, now a member of the Super Bowl-bound Philadelphia Eagles, was introduced to an appreciative RAC crowd, RU's fourth sellout of the year. And that single fact effectively begins and ends the positive aspects of today's game, for Rutgers partisans. Literally. (Had he suited up, Smith probably could have helped Rutgers today more than their regular players did.)

Today's list of superlative accomplishments by the Wildcats:

It was Villanova's biggest victory on the road, regardless of opponent, in over ten years. On December 30, 1994, Kerry Kittles and company flattened football archrival Delaware 90-54, at Delaware, a 36 point margin.

It was Rutgers' worst Big East defeat since it joined the conference in 1995-96.

It was Villanova's biggest victory over Rutgers in a series which dates (although sporadically) back to 1932, comprising 26 games. The previous high had been a 23 point victory, a 79-56 triumph at the Pavilion on January 18, 1997 (generally known as the Tim Thomas year, when he joined seniors Alvin Williams, Jason Lawson, and Chuck Kornegay).

It was a season-high 94 points for Villanova.

Finally, as mentioned before, this was Rutgers's worst margin of defeat at the RAC, in the 27 years of its existence. (Ironically, the Villanova feat topped a Big Five rival, Temple. The Owls defeated RU at the RAC, 84-53, in 1988, when both schools were members of the Atlantic Ten.)

Villanova now leads the all-time series, 20-7.

Villanova is playing its best basketball in nearly a decade, as it seeks to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. It seems absurd to say that the Wildcats improved on last Saturday's historic performance against the vaunted Jayhawks - but in many ways they did. This afternoon's game wasn't even remotely competitive. Last week, only the second half wasn't competitive. Villanova took firm control in the early going, making 13 of its first 18 shots. They led at halftime, 44-26, after Jason Fraser banked home a shot at the buzzer off the glass, and never even broke a sweat. Rutgers never got closer than 15 points in the second half - and even when they drew that close, the Wildcats swiftly blew off the doors of the RAC with a devastating 24-3 run. The RAC has a deserved reputation as one of the most difficult buildings in America for an opponent. But Villanova won today, by the greatest margin of ANY Rutgers opponent to ever step into that building.

The Wildcats also avenged last season's NIT quarterfinal loss at Rutgers; it was hard to believe that it was the same two teams playing. And undoubtedly it crossed the mind of more than one dismayed Rutgers fan, administrator, and staffer - "Jay Wright could have been here with these players." (In 2001, when Wright was hired at Villanova, Rutgers came VERY close to snaring him from Hofstra, first - to make a long story short.)

Instead, the Scarlet Knights will play out the string and go home, barring an extremely unlikely Big East tournament run. Rutgers fell to 1-6 Big East and 7-10 overall. Villanova won its third straight game, boosting its record to 4-3 Big East, 12-4 overall. The Wildcats almost entered the Top 25 last week, on the strength of its convincing victory over Kansas on Saturday and the narrow loss at #9 Boston College last week, receiving 77 votes, the highest of any team not to be included. Therefore, Villanova is not only assured of cracking the Top 25 this week, but will likely be considerably higher than #25 (possibly #21 or #22), after defeating a solid Notre Dame squad on Wednesday and annihilating Rutgers, at the RAC, today.

And despite their record, Rutgers isn't awful. The Scarlet Knights came within a sword's length of slaying one of the Big East's perennial dragons, #4 Syracuse, a couple of days ago, finally yielding 86-84.

About the only semblance of bad news after today's stunning performance is the fact that Villanova won't get to play Rutgers again in the regular season. The Wildcats' defense was simply stellar; Villanova permitted RU to shoot a pathetic 29% from the floor, a number which makes one wonder how the Scarlet Knights actually managed to score 61 points. Quincy Douby, RU's top weapon and a guy that's caused problems for 'Nova in the past, was completely whitewashed. Douby had reached double figures in EVERY game this season - and today he didn't even score. Douby played 26 minutes and failed to score a single point, despite taking seven shots from the floor (although he did contribute with six assists). Ricky Shields went 1-7 from the floor and only managed to get to eight points because he went 5-5 from the line. Ollie Bailey, the team's third-best scorer and second-best rebounder, finished with seven points and two rebounds, playing just 20 minutes.

Rutgers coach Gary Waters emptied his bench early, out of vexation - no starter logged more than 31 minutes and only one more than 27. If that sounds familiar, it should. Because it's exactly what Kansas coach Bill Self did last week, and for precisely the same reasons. Virtually every deep reserve in the Big East, as well as St. Joseph's and Bucknell, has likely now circled the Villanova game in red ink on their calendars, as a chance to increase their playing time.

And it's not just the Wildcats' opponents' bench players, who are benefiting from the Wildcats' recent romps. As noted above, Dunleavy and Grace combined to score eight points, but that wasn't all. Dunleavy played for five minutes and even took three shots, finishing with five points, an assist and a foul. Dunleavy had only played eight minutes (and scored two points), during the entire SEASON thus far. The only other time that Dunleavy, in his two-year career, has even played more than he did today, was the bizarre triple-digit victory at the Redlands at the beginning of last season, when the Wildcats faced a run-and-gun opponent with a phone-card-suspension-depleted team. Grace scored three points and played six minutes, more than Marcus Austin. (Which can't bode well for Austin's playing time prospects the rest of the way. It's hard to believe that he once singlehandedly destroyed Rutgers in that building.)

Even Jason Fraser, wounded in action, returned ahead of schedule. Fraser made a significant contribution in just 13 minutes. He demonstrably owned the red paint at both ends of the RAC floor, grabbing seven rebounds, blocking three shots and scoring four points (if you projected that into 39 minutes of action, that's a 21-rebounds, nine-block, 12-point afternoon). And the effort was even more remarkable, since his injured hand was taped up like a NFL lineman's. With Fraser WAY ahead of his expected return and the outcome not in doubt, Wright wisely opted to keep him on the bench most of the game.

It was probably as methodical a destruction as Villanova has ever delivered to an opponent. Four Wildcats reached double figures, and two more just missed it with nine points apiece. The Wildcats shot a phenomenal 64% from the floor and 54% from beyond the arc. Once again, Allan Ray led the way, scoring 21 points on 7-10 shooting. Curtis Sumpter had 16 points and five rebounds on 6-9 shooting. Randy Foye had 14 points and four rebounds, also on 6-9 shooting. Will Sheridan had a particularly impressive game, finishing with a dozen points on 5-6 shooting, half a dozen rebounds, three steals, and two blocks, and he did it all in just 24 minutes. Mike Nardi competently ran the point, finishing with five assists against two turnovers, scoring nine points on 4-7 shooting. Finally, Kyle Lowry, returning from his one-game suspension after punching Kansas's Jeff Hawkins last week, more than made up for it. He played 25 minutes, scoring nine points, four rebounds and three assists. He also had a steal, an embarrassing pickpocketing of a RU player which he then laid in, uncontested- boosting Villanova's lead to 67-44 and succinctly summarizing Rutgers's fate today.

In an unusual manner for a Gary Waters-coached team, the Scarlet Knights just quit today in the second half. Some teams continue to play 100% when they fall behind, and others don't. Today, RU clearly fell into the latter category. Villanova pounded them 44-26 in the first half, and scored MORE points (50) in the second half, despite the fact that a good chunk of it was being played by bench players. 'Nova scored 50 points just after halftime (although it is true that RU lost the second half by "only" 15 points, as opposed to 18.) When you give up 50 points in the second half on your home floor, you've packed it in.

Villanova, riding the giddy wave of unexpected success, will travel to its old nemesis Connecticut, the defending national champions, on Wednesday night - a Groundhog Day showdown. A victory at the #16 Huskies would almost certainly cement a NCAA bid.

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