Monday, February 28, 2005

Hoyas Hit "Bump" at MCI Center, as Villanova Triumphs 67-56

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

#23 Villanova continued its surprising dominance on Georgetown's home floor, the MCI Center, on Sunday, winning 67-56 behind a 14-point, nine-rebound, three-steal performance by Will "Bump" Sheridan. The Wildcats have never lost at the MCI Center in five appearances, since debuting there in December 1997.

Villanova has certainly had more of its share of problems with phone calls and cards over the years, ranging from Kerry Kittles' notorious suspension to the 2003 scandal. It may be fitting, then, that the basketball gods have decided that the only Big East building named after a phone company be one where Villanova is destined never to lose.

Sheridan's day amounts to a career-high, although technically it wasn't. His official career-high was the 23 points he scored against the non-Division I Redlands in November 2003, playing against a run-and-gun opponent on a phone-card suspension-depleted team. In essence, this was Sheridan's career-high under normal circumstances; a defensive specialist, he had never scored more than 13 points in any other contest.

The victory was the fifth straight for Villanova, which is continuing its cruise into the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are now 9-5 Big East, 19-6 overall, and are assured of a winning record in conference play. With two games remaining, the 'Cats are now in the driver's seat for one of the five byes in the Big East tournament.

The loss was devastating for the Hoyas, who desperately needed a home victory over a ranked team to bolster their NCAA at-large hopes. Georgetown's RPI ranking is only 49 and their record fell to 8-6 Big East, 16-9 overall. The Hoyas will require a very strong showing in New York City to reach the NCAAs for the first time since 2001.

The victory avenged the most bitter loss of the season, the 66-64 loss the Hoyas dealt 'Nova on Jan. 15, the day the glorious 1985 national championship team was honored at the Pavilion - and they did it by the same score, by which Villanova defeated Georgetown in the national title game.

Villanova now trails the all-time series by a 34-25 margin, which dates back to 1922. However, with the decline of Georgetown's program in the 21st century, 'Nova has had more success against the Hoyas. Villanova has now won six of the last eight meetings.

Sheridan scored a season-high 14 points and grabbed nine boards in leading 'Nova to the victory. Kyle Lowry, once again pressed into service at the point due to the ankle injury to Mike Nardi, once again came up big. Lowry finished with a dozen points, five rebounds and seven assists. Allan Ray finished with 18 points, but struggled with his shot, finishing a dreadful 5-17 from the floor. Curtis Sumpter just missed a double-double with 11 points and nine boards.

It was important that four starters reach double figures, because Villanova received almost no help from the bench, effectively playing with only six players. The five starters played almost the entire game (all but 22 minutes). Jason Fraser came off the bench to score four points and add four rebounds in 16 minutes. No other bench player took a shot and they combined for only one rebound. All of this means that Mike Nardi's return would be quite welcome. (Reportedly, Nardi was available today if absolutely necessary, and may return against Seton Hall on Wednesday.)

For Georgetown, Brandon Bowman scored 22 points to lead the Hoyas, before he fouled out during garbage time in the final minute. Of more consequence, however, was that super-freshman Jeff Green was held to just five points, tying his season-low. Bowman was the only Hoya to reach double figures.

As usual, 'Nova won its victory in the Big East trenches. The Hoyas were limited to just 35% field-goal shooting, took only ten free throw attempts, and were flattened on the boards, 41-31. It was the main reason why the game didn't tighten until the last couple of minutes, and even then 'Nova wasn't seriously threatened. The Wildcats also walloped Georgetown on the specialty stats of second-chance points and points off turnovers, easily outpacing the Hoyas in both categories. 'Nova permitted just 17 Georgetown points in the first half and had little trouble thereafter. The Hoya starting backcourt of Ashanti Cook and Jonathan Wallace combined to shoot just 6-24 from the floor.

'Nova sprinted out to early leads of 18-7 and 27-11 and wound up the half up 29-17. The Hoyas briefly showed a pulse during garbage time, after trailing by double digits for much of the half. They trimmed the deficit to seven with 1:24 to go and to six with under a minute left, but it was really too late to affect the outcome, which was never seriously in doubt. Georgetown's offense, now headed by the Princeton disciple John Thompson III, is not designed to score points in bunches.

Understandably lost in the uproar over the St. Joseph's/Temple game on Tuesday, was the fact that Villanova claimed at least a share of the Big Five title with the Hawks' victory. The Wildcats, 3-1 in City Series play, were assured of at least a tie for the championship when Temple fell to 2-1. If La Salle defeats a John Chaney-less Temple team next week, Villanova will win the title outright at 3-1.

Poll Watch

The Wildcats' standings will improve in both polls when they are updated on Monday, thanks to victories over #3 Boston College and Georgetown. The Wildcats are currently ranked #23 in the Associated Press and #24 in the ESPN/USA Today poll. Of the teams closely ahead of them, both #18 Pittsburgh and #20 Wisconsin may go a-tumblin'. Pitt lost twice this week, and Wisconsin fell to #9 Michigan State. 'Nova will likely leapfrog both.

March Madness Monitor

The Wildcats' NCAA seeding, thanks to all of these victories, could range as high as #4-#5. Villanova's rating as of last Sunday was up to #18, and with two victories, including one over third-ranked Boston College, that ranking will continue to rise. will create a new bracket on Monday; it currently has 'Nova as a #7 seed facing Miami (OH) in Nashville. Joe Lunardi, the bracketologist for, currently places the Wildcats as a #7 seed facing #10 Georgia Tech in Nashville, but notes that the 'Cats' seed is "rising".

Of more immediate interest is the Wildcats' seeding for the upcoming Big East tournament. With St. John's on probation, all 11 other Big East teams will qualify for the Big East tournament, with the top five receiving byes. The Wildcats cannot mathematically finish among the top three teams. However, the Wildcats can assure themselves of no worse than the #4 seed - and hence a bye - by defeating Seton Hall and St. John's this week, two of the worst teams in the conference. They currently reside in fourth place, with a one-game lead over Pittsburgh, Georgetown, and Notre Dame, all 8-6. The Wildcats would win tiebreakers over Pitt and Georgetown but would lose one to the Irish.

The Wildcats will next face Seton Hall on Wednesday, Senior Night, at the Pavilion, and attempt to sweep the Pirates over a two-week span. 'Nova won at the Meadowlands, 66-52, on February 17.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

#23 Wildcats Avenge Defeat Against Treacherous #3 BC

#23 Villanova bade a fond, fitting farewell to treacherous Big East rival Boston College, late Wednesday night, stunning the #3 Eagles, 76-70, in BC's likely final visit to the Pavilion. Jubilant students stormed the court for the second time in four days, as the victory removed any lingering doubts that the 'Cats will return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.

It was a stirring end to an old rivalry, as BC and Villanova have played each other every year since the 1968-69 season. Villanova's record now stands at 8-5 Big East, 18-6 overall, with regular season games remaining at Georgetown and St. John's, as well as Senior Night against Seton Hall. They could easily afford to lose them all, be KO'd in the first round of the Big East tournament, and still relax on Selection Sunday. 'Nova now owns wins over #2 Kansas, #3 BC, and #17 Pittsburgh, and is assured of a .500 record in Big East play. It's over. (It was probably over before tonight, but it's 100% over now.) Villanova will be in the field of 65 come mid-March by a country mile.

The Eagles entered play tonight with a 22-1 record overall, 13-1 Big East. They are ranked 5th in the RPI ratings and #3 by the Associated Press, and are shooting for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, where they hope to be assigned to nearby Worcester, Massachusetts, for the first two rounds. They now drop to 22-2 overall, 13-2 Big East, and will no longer be ranked #3 come next Monday.

The victory was even more impressive, because the Wildcats were without the considerable services of Mike Nardi, who sprained his ankle in practice on Monday. He warmed up, but did not see action. And Curtis Sumpter was not 100% either, throughout the contest. After rocking the Pavilion in trademark style during the first few minutes, he was involved in a collision which sent him to the locker room during the first half. Although he returned immediately, Sumpter limped noticeably for much of the evening.

As a team, Villanova shot extremely well from beyond the arc, finishing at 47%, one of the three keys to the victory. The others were outstanding free throw shooting and dominating the glass. The Wildcats finished the game at 88% (36-41) from the line, while outrebounding BC 32-22.

Randy Foye carried the Wildcats, scoring 23 points, grabbing five rebounds and dealing four assists, while playing 38 minutes. Sumpter, despite the bad leg, had no statistical erosion: 20 points, eight rebounds, and three steals. (Imagine if he had been healthy...) And the most important player to the 'Cats tonight was Kyle Lowry, pressed into immediate service at the point due to Nardi's injury. The freshman played 39 minutes, scoring 11 points, grabbing five rebounds, dishing three assists, making three steals, and shooting 8-10 from the line.

Coach Jay Wright's hands were tied by his limited bench options and the injuries. He used only seven players, including Marcus Austin, who played only five minutes - in which he didn't score or collect a rebound. Jason Fraser came off the bench for an effective 27 minutes, scoring nine points and pulling down eight rebounds, while blocking a pair of BC shots.

The 'Cats also were reasonably effective in containing Jared Dudley, who had shelled them at Conte Forum, finishing with a career-high 36 points and singlehandedly winning the game. Dudley finished with 15 points and six rebounds, a solid performance but not quite enough to send BC home with yet another victory. He also struggled from the floor, making just four of his 11 field goal attempts. Craig Smith scored 18 points and also had half a dozen rebounds for the Eagles.

The game had an inauspicious start. The crowd was rocking and rolling with anticipation, but BC swiftly took the fans out of the game by scoring the first seven points. Sumpter answered the call, however, and got 'Nova back into it - and then he got hurt.

Sumpter entered play tonight with 993 career points, needing just seven to become the third Wildcat to reach the millennial milestone this season. He achieved it early in the first half, and it was a good thing, too - as the collision over a loose ball happened right afterward. Classmates Allan Ray and Randy Foye also attained the milestone earlier this season. (By the way, nobody else will be hitting it for a while. Mike Nardi is only a sophomore, and Jason Fraser is only around 500 points or so).

What would, shockingly, be BC's last lead of the contest came with over 11 minutes to play in the first half, after Jermaine Watson hit a pair of free throws to give BC a 18-16 advantage. The score was later deadlocked at 27, when the Eagles went cold. 'Nova ripped off a dozen straight points to go up 39-27, and then basically hung on for dear life for the rest of the game. Wright, playing not only with a lead but with one key player injured and another now banged up, wisely opted for stall-ball, taking long possessions. The 'Cats managed to take a 43-36 advantage into the locker room, thanks largely to their 70% shooting from beyond the arc. However, eight of BC's 22 wins this season had come, after they had trailed at halftime.

'Nova enjoyed a double-digit lead for most of the first nine minutes of the second half. But then BC made its charge, after Villanova had pulled to a 61-49 lead with 12:21 to play after free throws from Lowry and Allan Ray. It was the Wildcats' turn to go cold, as 'Nova didn't score another basket until there were less than four minutes to play (overall, a nine-minute, plus span between field goals). In the meantime, Dudley had completed the 15-3 run by cutting 'Nova's lead to one at 65-64 with just over four minutes left. The crowd was quite nervous, remembering what had happened at Conte Forum in January.

But hang on the 'Cats did. The central play came with the 'Cats desperately clinging to a 70-68 lead with about a minute to play and fervently wishing that the game would hurry up and end. 'Nova ran down the shot clock, and Foye made an incredible shot in which he skyed the ball, it hit the top of the backboard, and dropped in. After a brief conference by the officials, they correctly ruled that the ball was in play, as it hit the front of the top, and they counted the basket to put 'Nova up 72-68. The play deflated BC and they never got any closer after that. The Wildcats made seven of eight free throws down the stretch, and outhustled BC for the loose balls, and fortunately, it was enough to win.

Villanova had dropped a heartbreaking 67-66 loss at Conte Forum on January 19, in which the 'Cats ceded a 66-63 lead in the final minute. BC's Jared Dudley had an incredible night, finishing with a career-high 36 points, including 4-5 from the line in the final minute to lift the Eagles to victory and sustain their then-undefeated season.

Until tonight, the Eagles' sole loss this season was a 68-65 loss at Notre Dame on February 8. Even more impressively, BC entered tonight having won 30 of its last 32 regular-season contests, dating back to a home victory over Notre Dame on February 4, 2004. Overall since that point, they were 33-4. When BC won its first nine Big East games, it set a school record for the best start in BE play.

Sights and Sounds

It was among the most rollicking atmospheres in Pavilion history. The late tip-time of 9 PM helped undoubtedly, giving the students more time to party. Everyone was already in an exuberant mood after the upset of #17 Pittsburgh on Sunday. National television on ESPN2 meant that there were lots of signs, and the student section was packed to the brim. Some sign samples (and this is a small list):

Sign of the Year:

A large rollout during the second half which read:

"Benedict Arnold: BC Class of 1763"

(Historical note: Kudos to the intelligent Villanova students who created that sign: as it turns out, the infamous, traitorous Revolutionary War general was in fact born in 1741. And in New England, actually - Norwich, Connecticut.)

Second Place:

Jayhawk logo, Eagle logo, caption: " 'Nova - Two Birds, One Stone"

Tied for Third Place:

"(E)ven (S)kinner (P)icks ('N)ova (2)Night"
"Foy(E) + Fra(S)er + Sum(P)ter + Alla(N) Ray = (2)nd Loss"

To future Wildcats: "Gerald + Wayne - 'Nova Wants You" featuring Uncle Sam

"BC Students are (E)gotistical (S)nobby (P)retentious (N)erds"
"BC: Before Christ - Jesus Is On Our Side"

Two female students were wearing T-shirts reading on the back, respectively: "I Party With Nardi" and "K. Lo's Ho".

Probably the most unusual incident of the game, from a fan's perspective, came late in the first half. The non-student sections are notorious, obviously, for not cheering. However, a fellow about a dozen rows off the floor, sitting in the last seat, closest to the student section, began cheering, dancing, and gesticulating to the student section. He was dressed in what appeared to be a referee's shirt, although it seemed to have dark blue stripes rather than black. He drew the student section's attention with his antics, and they began an impromptu serenade in return, chanting, "That guy's awesome!"

When you come right down to it, about the only thing that went wrong tonight was the fact that simultaneously (and rather inconsiderately!) the 76ers decided to make national news by trading for Chris Webber tonight, thus stealing some of 'Nova's well-deserved thunder in the local media and also bumping 'Nova off the lead story on "SportsCenter". (The trade ironically included former 2001 'Nova standout Michael Bradley, who had an All-American season the only year he played here). This was doubly unfortunate, since the Eagles' Super Bowl appearance had consumed most of the ink through most of 'Nova's stellar season thus far.

Poll Watch

The Wildcats jumped two spots in the Associated Press poll, improving from #25 to #23 on Monday. The Wildcats also returned to the ESPN/USA Today poll, at #24, after being unranked last week.

The Wildcats will travel to Washington, DC, on Sunday to take on the resurgent Georgetown Hoyas at the MCI Center. The game was once meaningful for the Wildcats, but now is primarily about Big East and NCAA tournament seeding.

The imminent departure of Boston College for the ACC, next season, and the acrimony which surrounded their October 2003 decision, likely means (although not necessarily 100% certain) that BC has made its final trip to the Pavilion, for the foreseeable future Which is a shame, given that the schools often compete for the same students and it is a natural Northeastern rivalry. Here's a look back at a rivalry which ended all too soon:

Villanova began its basketball program in 1920-21, but surprisingly, BC did not appear on its schedule until a quarter of a century later, in 1946. On January 10 of that year, 'Nova won the first-ever meeting, traveling to BC and defeating the hosts by a 38-34 margin. Four years later, in 1950, BC traveled to the Palestra and topped 'Nova 64-61. But that was BC's last victory for many years. The schools faced each other sporadically over the next two decades, with the Wildcats winning 13 straight, most of the games being at the Palestra.

Beginning in the 1968-69 season, the teams faced each other annually, which they have done to the present day. The series evened out some during the 1970s and early 1980s, but beginning in 1986, Villanova began to dominate it again. The Wildcats won 13 out of 14 contest from BC from 1986-92. During the transition from Rollie to Steve Lappas, BC started winning, taking five straight, before the pendulum swung again and Kerry Kittles-led teams began crushing BC. 'Nova won seven straight before BC triumphed in the BE tournament final in 1997. In the early 2000s, BC improved, taking six straight from the 'Cats.

Entering tonight, Villanova led the all-time series by a resounding 51-23 margin, but just 20-15 as members of the Big East, in regular season play. The teams met six times in the Big East tournament, splitting the games.

Monday, February 21, 2005

#25 Wildcats Hang On By Claws,Top #17 Panthers

In an exhilarating contest, #25 Villanova survived a late charge by #17 Pittsburgh, to pull off an 80-72 victory at the sold-out, packed-to-the-rafters Pavilion Sunday afternoon, in front of ABC's cameras. Joyous students stormed the court afterward to celebrate the triumph.

Barring a complete collapse down the stretch, the victory all but assures that Villanova's name will be called - for the first time since 1999 - on Selection Sunday. Villanova now boasts a record of 7-5 Big East, 17-6 overall, and a RPI ranking of 19 prior to winning three games this week (and thus the rating will rise). All that is now needed should be two victories in their final four games, most likely against bottom-feeders Seton Hall and St. John's, and it's a done deal with a winning record in Big East play. (Villanova would have a fighting chance at a bid even if the Wildcats LOST every remaining game, including the first round in New York, at 17-11 overall, 7-9 Big East, because their RPI is so strong. But two more wins would render any doubt nonexistent.) The Wildcats won for the eighth time in their last 10 games, and are riding a crest of momentum into Wednesday's showdown with #6 Boston College at the Pavilion.

#17 Pittsburgh fell to 8-4 Big East, 18-5 overall, and with a much weaker RPI - 51. Nonetheless, it was wholly appropriate for the Villanova students to storm the court after the game. (And it provided great visuals for the news stations to use as a hook for viewers - "tremendous excitement on the Main Line, when we return..."). There have been precious few opportunities to do so over the last few years. Generally, as long as the team you beat is better than you are, and/or the game ends in exceptional fashion, and/or it's a key rivalry, it fits the moment. And Pitt, by any standard, is a higher-stature team than 'Nova - at the moment, at least, if not historically. They had a better record (both overall and in conference), a higher ranking, and far more success over the last three seasons. (There were a surprisingly high number of Pitt fans there, some sporting the old-school, puffy gold script "Pitt" shirts.)

ABC clearly thought very highly of the Villanova/Pittsburgh matchup, as today's Big East clash was the "true" national game. ABC had three games - Villanova/Pittsburgh, DePaul/Marquette, and Georgia Tech/Florida State. Obviously, Villanova/Pittsburgh went to the Northeast, DePaul/Marquette went to the Great Lakes states, and Georgia Tech/Florida State went to the South - but there was still the entire rest of the nation, everything west of Missouri. And ABC honored the Villanova/Pittsburgh game by sending it to ALL of those viewers, from Seattle to San Diego to San Antonio.

The game was well-played by both teams, and although it didn't come down to dueling buzzer-beaters, it was as memorable a contest as Villanova has recently played. The 'Cats fell behind early, fought back to tie it, surged ahead in the second half, seemingly had Pitt knocked out, leading by double-digits with five minutes to play. But then they had to withstand a heroic charge from the Panthers, who had the momentum going down the stretch and the advantage of facing a four-guard Villanova lineup thanks to the foulouts of Curtis Sumpter and Will Sheridan. And hang on the Wildcats did, securing the victory.

Allan Ray was once again outstanding, finishing with a game-high 23 points on 7-16 shooting, including 5-11 from beyond the arc. Ray's performance helped key the Wildcats' success in a critical area: three-point shooting. The Wildcats snowed in the Panthers like tonight's Philadelphia-area storm, finishing with a stellar 52% (12-23) from three-point range. And they smothered the Panthers in the same area, as Pitt managed just 31% (4-13).

Curtis Sumpter completed his day with 18 points, including three triples, before he unwisely fouled out with over three minutes to play - Sumpter was limited by his foul trouble to just 29 minutes. Randy Foye had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists for another fine performance. Mike Nardi had 13 points, including four three-pointers, to go with four rebounds and four assists, while logging a team-high 37 minutes (no other Wildcat had more than 29). Finally, Kyle Lowry came off the bench and was arguably the catalyst for victory, as good things always seemed to happen when he was on the floor. The cat-quick freshman weaved his way at will through the slow, plodding Pittsburgh defense, giving 'Nova the offensive spark it desperately needed with Sumpter on the bench. Lowry finished with seven points and four rebounds in just 22 minutes.

For Pittsburgh, Carl Krauser led the way with 16 points. The most memorable three of those came just before halftime, when he made a literal desperation heave which was not intended to score, but instead to draw a foul on whomever was covering him. Krauser was literally just over halfcourt when he threw a soaring ball in the air - and while he didn't draw the foul, it went in. The genuine star, though - in the first half, at any rate - was Aaron Gray, a 7-0 center who came off the bench to score a career-high 15 points, 12 of them in the first half, on 7-8 shooting, and did it all in just 15 minutes of action. Chris Taft also reached double figures with 11 points and eight rebounds.

Villanova snapped a three-game losing streak to the Panthers, and increased its narrow lead in the all-time series against Pittsburgh to 28-24. It was Pittsburgh's first visit to the Pavilion since January 19, 1999, when Villanova crushed an overmatched and depleted Panthers team, 86-65. That contest was chiefly notable for the Pitt players who engaged in a jewel robbery gone awry at the Radnor Hotel, where the team was staying. Then-coach Ralph Willard suspended the players involved, leaving just a skeleton team to face the 'Cats that night. Equally memorable was when the basketball gods turned the tables on that situation two years ago. The Wildcats were implicated in the phone-code-access scandal just before Pittsburgh's trip to the Wachovia Center at the end of the season. Jay Wright was permitted a skeleton crew to face the mighty Panthers on national television. But by playing Rollie-style, stallball the team came within a whisker of pulling off a stunning upset, finally succumbing 56-54.

The 80 points today were particularly impressive, since in each of Jay Wright's three previous losses to Pitt (he had never beaten them) the 'Cats had scored 59, 54, and 45 points respectively. However, it didn't look good in the early going. After VU took a 2-0 lead, the 'Cats wouldn't lead again until near the end of the half. Pitt took a 19-11 lead halfway through the opening session and was methodically grinding down the 'Cats, particularly in the interior. Villanova took the lead back for the first time at 32-31 in the final minute, and were poised to take a 34-33 into the locker room. But then Krauser made that incredible halfcourt shot, and Pitt had the all-important halftime lead at 36-34.

Gray had been flattening the 'Cats inside, with 12 points in 10 minutes. Whatever Jay Wright did at halftime to neutralize the guy, it worked. Gray was a nonfactor the rest of the way, scoring only three points in five minutes. Pitt had pushed its lead to 43-40 after a three-point play by Taft, but the Wildcats embarked on a 17-2 run, culminating in a Ray three to make it a 57-45 contest with just over 12 minutes to go. It was a stunning turn of events, and from that point forward the collective feeling in the Pavilion was transformed to "Can the 'Cats hang on?"

They almost didn't. The lead remained steady, and the Wildcats were in great shape after Foye buried a triple with just 5:41 to play, giving 'Nova a seemingly insurmountable 71-58 advantage. The crowd was really getting into it and the 'Cats had all the momentum. Then Pitt counterattacked. While 'Nova didn't score for over four minutes, missing eight shots, the Panthers reeled off 10 straight points, pulling to within 71-68 with two Krauser free throws with 1:38 to go. On that play, Sumpter fouled out, and since Will Sheridan had fouled out shortly before, 'Nova was running out of frontcourt players. Wright opted to go with four guards, plus Jason Fraser, the rest of the way, and it paid off. 'Nova made its free throws and Pitt never got any closer.

During the final minute, there were a lot of timeouts and fouls, giving the loud and raucous student section lots of opportunities to show off to the ABC cameras, a few brandishing "A" "B" "C" signs. The most unusual chant was probably "It's Only Pitt", and then followed by the standard "We Want" (in this case, BC, coming in Wednesday).

Poll Watch

After a sensational week, the Wildcats' poll numbers come Monday, will be the envy of every politician in America. Villanova's stock will skyrocket in both polls. The Wildcats entered the week #25 in the AP and unranked (#30) in the USA Today/ESPN poll. They certainly will return to the latter after the victory.

But how high? Well, the odious #25 Texas Tech Red Raiders, coached by Bob Knight, will probably be gone after sustaining a 29-point drubbing at the hands of Oklahoma State. #24 Florida had a loss to LSU and that's probably curtains for them, too. I would peg 'Nova as #24 ESPN.

As for the AP, it will likely be the same, as most of the teams ahead of Villanova, also won their games this week. The only exception was #22 Maryland, which had a tough week, getting crushed by 19 against NC State and then struggling to defeat Virginia by three. 'Nova could leapfrog the Terrapins.

So I speculate that 'Nova will be #24 in both polls tomorrow.

March Madness Monitor

I didn't want to jinx it by beginning this feature too early, but it appears safe to begin speculating about Villanova's destination, in the NCAA tournament field. Jerry Palm of, the leading bracketologist in the field, currently places the 'Cats as a #7 seed, facing #10 Miami (OH) in Nashville, Tenn. I think he's about right, although I'd put 'Nova as a #8 right now.

The Wildcats will have the chance to knock off a ranked team again come Wednesday, when the treacherous #6 Boston College Eagles swoop into the Pavilion for probably the last time, since they head to the ACC next year. BC has but one loss, and 'Nova nearly handed them a second one at Conte Forum earlier this year. To accommodate ESPN's cameras, the game's tip-off has been shifted from 7:30 to 9 PM, which will likely help Villanova by revving the crowd up even more.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Sumpter Staves Off, Locks Out Pirates, As Villanova Sinks Seton Hall

The #25 Wildcats held off a second-half rally by Seton Hall, righting the ship quickly enough to sink the Seton Hall Pirates, by a comfortable 66-52 margin. Curtis Sumpter fired the critical shots which sunk the Pirate ship, singlehandedly halting their rally and finishing with 23 points and a formidable defensive performance as well, helping to force 23 Pirate turnovers.

The Wildcats lifted their record over .500 in Big East play, as they are now 6-5 with five games remaining, all of them potential losses other than the trip to St. John's. Their overall record is now 16-6, obviously good enough for the NIT even if they lose all their remaining games, but still not quite certain of a NCAA bid if they lose four of the last five and wind up at 7-9 in the conference (even at 8-8, they're not guaranteed a berth).

The Pirates, a Big East bottom-feeder this year, share their home floor with the NHL's New Jersey Devils, and for once the CAA's basketball court hasn't needed to be laden out over ice for every game, due to the ongoing NHL lockout. But their season is not looking particularly more lifelike than the Devils' right now, even after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman canceled whatever was left of this season on Wednesday. The Pirates have collectively walked the plank this season, dropping to 3-8 Big East, 11-11 overall. However, all Big East lower-echelon teams caught a break this year: since St. John's is ineligible for postseason play, they won't be participating in the Big East tournament. So, for the first time in many years nobody will stay home from Madison Square Garden other than them. Thus, the Pirates still have a remote chance of making the NCAAs by winning it. Nonetheless, even the lesser goal of qualifying for the NIT appears to be out of reach. They need to finish at least .500 or better and the odds of that don't look good right now, since the Pirates still must travel to the Pavilion, Boston College and West Virginia.

And that fact is as clear to the Seton Hall players and fans, as it is to any of us. The Pirates, by and large, played that sort of running-in-quicksand style of an overmatched team playing out the string, one that knows its season will evaporate as quickly as the melted snow come early March. It was a rare Thursday night contest, a night usually conceded by major-conferences (except the Pac-10), to the succulent allures of the TV networks' heavy ratings artillery.

And not without good reason, as tonight's game amply illustrated. The Continental Airlines Arena, nee Meadowlands, has always been too cavernous for the Pirates' small fan base. And on a Thursday night, during February sweeps-month, with the Pirates' season having foundered long ago - well, you do the math... Clearly, the Seton Hall faithful were more enamored of the blandishments of "Survivor"'s Jeff Probst, "The Apprentice"'s Donald Trump, and "The OC"'s Mischa Barton. Attendance was 9,611, not a few of whom were rooting for Villanova, which has a substantial fan and alumni base in North Jersey, obviously.

Seton Hall is arguably the weakest home court in the Big East, with only Georgetown as a potential competitor for that distinction. And surprisingly, this was Villanova's first victory at the Continental Airlines Arena, in a decade - Seton Hall had beaten Villanova six straight times there. The last Wildcats team to return home from the jaunt up the New Jersey Turnpike with a victory, was the 1994-95 squad, led by Kerry Kittles, Alvin Williams, and Jason Lawson. Ten years and six days ago tonight, February 11, 1995, they won there, 81-67. It is one of Villanova's oldest and most frequent rivalries, as tonight was the 93rd game in the series, which Villanova leads, 56-37. Seton Hall will travel to the Pavilion for a rematch on Wednesday, March 2.

Curtis Sumpter, was, in a word, awesome, just missing his career-high in points and canning four triples on six attempts. In addition to the offensive power, He was also a terror on defense, grabbing seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks as well, prior to fouling out with just under two minutes to play. Mike Nardi had a superb overall game, finishing with 10 points, five rebounds, three assists, and five steals, his effort marred only by four turnovers.

Of course, foremost on the minds of 'Nova fans was the appearance of Randy Foye, who left Tuesday night's annihilation of Bucknell early due to a hard foul from behind as he skyed for a dunk. Foye appeared to have suffered no ill effects from the injury, as he played quite well. He scored 10 points and had four assists and four rebounds, as well as two steals and a block. Foye did suffer the bad luck of colliding his head directly with Seton Hall's Kelly Whitney during the second half, as they both strove for a loose ball. But there didn't appear to be any adverse reaction from that one, either, as Foye logged 34 minutes. For Seton Hall, Andre Sweet came off the bench to score 13 points and pull down eight boards, while Kelly Whitney had 10 points and four rebounds in just 25 minutes. But they finished the game shooting just 33% from the floor and with only 52 points. It didn't help that J.R. Morris, the Pirates' third-highest scorer, was suspended, prior to the game, in order to fulfill academic requirements. He is not a star player, but Seton Hall was outgunned even with his presence and was that much weaker in his absence.

Villanova dominated play in the first half, due to forcing 16 Pirate turnovers. To put that in context: Seton Hall committed almost as many turnovers (16) as it had points (21) in the first half. It's actually quite amazing, that they were only down by a dozen at intermission, 33-21.

Villanova's second half lead expanded to 49-31, and the Wildcats appeared ready to go home and start getting ready for the huge week ahead. But then they went cold, and let the Pirates back in the game. The Wildcats missed a dozen consecutive shots, and suddenly Seton Hall was down just 49-43, a 12-0 run in less than a four minute span, culminating on a three-pointer by Justin Cerasoli. The small crowd was beginning to get involved. Fortunately, the Wildcats, led by Sumpter, quickly recovered and reasserted control. Sumpter then outscored Seton Hall 7-2 and the game was effectively over, with the 'Nova lead back to 56-45 with 5:22 to go. The Hall never got closer than eight the rest of the way, and the Wildcats' lead was in double-digits throughout the final three minutes, before finally winning by 14.

Poll Watch

With two blowout victories this week, the #25 Wildcats have already made a case for remaining in the AP poll, even if they lose to #17 Pittsburgh on Sunday, particularly if that game turns out to be a narrow defeat. Should they defeat the Panthers, though, they could expect to vault up a couple of spots.

Villanova will return home to the cozy Pavilion, for two critical contests against nationally ranked opponents over the next week. On Sunday afternoon, #17 Pittsburgh arrives at the Pavilion for the first time since 1999, when a jewel heist disrupted their roster, for an ABC game. Treacherous, #6 Boston College pulls in on Wednesday night.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Dunleavy, #25 Wildcats Trample Bison of Bucknell, Coach Wright's Alma Mater

Providing an unexpected thrill to the Pavilion faithful, reserve Baker Dunleavy scored a career-high nine points, including back-to-back triples, and grabbed four boards in just seven minutes: the perfect exclamation point to #25 Villanova's near-perfect 89-51 trampling of the visiting Bison of Bucknell on Tuesday.

Yesterday, the news came that the Wildcats would remain in the prestigious Associated Press poll for the third consecutive week, although dropping from #22 to #25 after a highly unattractive home loss to #9 Syracuse on Saturday. (Unfortunately, the 'Cats dropped out of the less-important ESPN/USA Today poll, tumbling all the way to #30.)

In terms of victory margin this season, the Wildcats even surpassed the outstanding effort at Rutgers, where they thrashed the Scarlet Knights by 33 in RU's worst RAC loss ever - winning by 38 tonight. As a team, the Wildcats were awesome at virtually every aspect of the game. They shot a near-perfect 16-17 from the line (94%). They crushed the Bison on the glass, 37-23. They shot 52% from beyond the arc and held Bucknell to an anemic 18%, just 3-17. They clamped down vigorously on the Bison's leading scorer, Kevin Bettencourt, who came in averaging 14 points a contest and didn't even score, missing all seven of his field goal attempts. Bucknell coach Pat Flannery, with the score not being close, yielded quickly, using 13 players, with none seeing fewer than four minutes, and no starter playing more than 29 minutes.

For Bucknell, Chris McNaughton was the only bright spot. He scored on his first five shots and kept Bucknell in it briefly, with the score knotted at 17, before Villanova took firm control via a 18-2 run and easily pulled away; after the 'Cats made 21 of their first 33 shots, it was a laugher in the second half. McNaughton finished with 17 points on 8-13 shooting in only 26 minutes. Charles Lee was his only teammate to reach double figures, as he finished with 11.

The only fly in the ointment was an early injury to Randy Foye, which Villanova could ill-afford at this juncture in the season. Foye was attempting to convert a breakaway dunk, and while skying, he was fouled from behind by the aptly named Abe Badmus (sounds like a movie villain, and Badmus was dutifully booed for the rest of the game). Foye went down hard and play was halted for several minutes, while his injury was dealt with, and he was helped off the court by his teammates. The junior guard did not return to action. Preliminary reports were unclear as to the severity of the injury, whether Foye's absence was due to the injury or the lopsided score, and whether Foye would miss any future games. Meanwhile, an intrepid and courageous photographer at courtside snapped an incredibly vivid photograph of Foye in midair - complete with his OK-this-is-probably-gonna-hurt-when-I-come-down expression - which certainly deserves to be in Sports Illustrated next week. Try to find it online.

The Bison were a formidable opponent, owning wins AT Pittsburgh, AT St. Joseph's, and entering the game with an impressive 17-7 record. (The win against Pitt was Bucknell's first against any current Big East school since 1975.) But they were no match for the Wildcats, who rendered them virtually extinct, beginning midway through the first half. After leading by "only" 15 at intermission, the Wildcats literally doubled the Bison's scoring output in the second half, winning it by the remarkable score of 46-23.

Villanova finally completed nonconference play, finishing with a near-perfect 10-1 mark against non-Big East opponents; the only loss came to Temple, back on December 4 at the Palestra. The reasons for the impressive record: a soft December schedule, the absence of a holiday tournament, and its shocking upset of then-#2 Kansas. The victory also boosted its overall record to 15-6, as the Wildcats gear up for the stretch run in the Big East, where their record is just 5-5. Bucknell dropped to 17-8, as the second-place Bison continue to pursue Patriot League leader Holy Cross for the conference's single NCAA berth.

All of the dozen Wildcat players saw action in the uncompetitive contest, as no Wildcat played longer than 33 minutes. Allan Ray continued to excel, dropping a game-high 23 points on 7-15 shooting, including 4-7 from beyond the arc. Mike Nardi and Curtis Sumpter each finished with 14 points: Nardi took all nine of his shots from three-point range, connecting on four, and Sumpter added six rebounds.

The 'Cats will be playing a lot over the next few days, and with the outcome not in doubt, Coach Wright obviously opted to rest the starters and give the bench some badly needed minutes. For undoubtedly the first time, Dunleavy's nine points meant that he outscored both Randy Foye and Jason Fraser in a single game. Fraser came off the bench for another strong game, scoring seven points, grabbing eight boards and swatting two shots. Foye was limited to just three points in six minutes due to his injury. Chris Charles got some more time, logging eight good minutes in which he scored four points and collected four rebounds. Kyle Lowry took over most of his time, coming off the bench for 30 minutes of action, in which the freshman scored nine points, and also had seven assists and a pair of steals.

Jay Wright is an alumnus of Bucknell, the undoubted reason the Bison appeared on the schedule. It is unusual to face a minor-conference team this late in the season, and I speculate that difficulty in arranging a mutually acceptable date back in December, was the main reason why it was pushed forward so far. The series between the two Pennsylvania schools dates back far, to March 10, 1927, when the Wildcats hosted Bucknell and triumphed, 27-20. It was quite a competitive rivalry throughout the 1930's and '40s, with the teams meeting 17 times, but died abruptly after the 1947-48 season, well before Wright was born. The teams did not play again for over a half-century, until Wright took over at Villanova in 2001-02. Remarkably, tonight's 38-point margin victory was not the largest in series history; the series finale on February 27, 1948, featured a 80-41 Villanova victory - that was a lot of points for 1948, and Wildcat legend Paul Arizin probably scored a good number of them. The series was revived on December 1, 2001, with Villanova winning easily, 67-44- and again tonight, with another lopsided 'Nova victory. The Wildcats now lead all-time, 12-8. Wright played hoops at Bucknell for four years, including serving as co-captain as a senior in 1982-83, and he completed degrees in economics and sociology. Wright is now 3-0 against his alma mater, with two wins at Villanova and one at Hofstra.

(What Bucknell lacked on the floor, they made up for in interesting names. In addition to the aforementioned Abe Badmus, they also had a freshman named Rob Thomas (the same name as the one-time Santana collaborator/frontman in the band "matchbox twenty") who was reasonably "Smooth", as he scored five points in only seven minutes. Off the end of their bench, they also have Tarik Viaer-McClymont).

The Wildcats continue their busy week, in which they play four times in eight days, including a rare Thursday night contest. The next stop is a quick jaunt up the New Jersey Turnpike to face Seton Hall at the Meadowlands (Continental Airlines Arena), where the 'Cats haven't won since 1999, the last time they appeared in the NCAA tournament.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Warrick, Mac Help Syracuse Wipe Out #22 Villanova, 90-75

It was Lincoln's Birthday, and to paraphrase the words of the great 16th President at Gettysburg: The world will little note nor long remember what basketball was played here. And for that fact #22 Villanova should be grateful - because it was a game that was horrible. For Villanova, at least. The 8th-ranked Orangemen played superbly and looked awesome, and for their plentiful fans, it was probably a tremendous experience.

The Wildcats turned in their worst performance - by a comfortable margin - of the season, as Syracuse breezed to a pitifully easy, 90-75 road victory over a ranked opponent at the sold-out Wachovia Center in South Philadelphia. Villanova's five previous losses this season had all come by six or fewer points. Today, they lost by 15, and it was a highly decisive 15-point loss, one that could easily have been by 20-25 points had Syracuse wanted it to be. The Orangemen led by as many as 24 in the second half and scored an appalling 26 second-chance points.

Lincoln also once famously remarked that "A house divided against itself, cannot stand." He was right almost 150 years ago, and he was right again today. The Wachovia Center, ostensibly Villanova's home floor, was unquestionably a house divided this afternoon. Many in the sold-out crowd had come to see two Syracuse players, Hakim Warrick (from Friends' Central in Philadelphia) and Gerry McNamara (from Scranton). They weren't disappointed. Warrick turned in one of his best performances ever at Syracuse, scoring a career-high 32 points, many on dunks, and collecting 12 rebounds in a sensational, dominant effort. Warrick's presence indicates why the Orangemen are a legitimate Final Four contender. And the legions of "McNamara's Band" - who came by the busload, 120 miles or so down the Northeast Extension - came away satisfied, too. Their hero scored 18 points and dealt seven assists. And senior Josh Pace exploded for 21 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

The combination of local heroes (or relatively local, at least), surprisingly balmy February weather, and recent Villanova success meant that the Center was sold out for a Wildcats home game for the first time since the 1996-97 season, the inaugural year for the building. The last sellout had come in February of that year, when a packed house had seen Villanova turn away Notre Dame. It's just a shame that the Wildcats couldn't take advantage of that rarest of all phenomena - a potential home court advantage in South Philadelphia.

The Orangemen boosted their record to 9-2 Big East, 22-3 overall, and continued to make a potential case for a #1 seed, if they win the Big East regular season title and/or tournament. Coach Jim Boeheim now needs just two wins to reach the storied 700-victory plateau, all at Syracuse, where he will have 24 NCAA appearances in 29 seasons, including this year. (Worth noting: His 100th career victory came against Rollie Massimino's Wildcats during the 1979-80 season.) The Wildcats fell to 5-5 Big East, 14-6 overall, and remain on the NCAA bubble, although barring a complete collapse down the stretch, the 'Cats will probably make it for the first time since 1999.

It was Syracuse's sixth victory in the last eight contests against 'Nova. Syracuse loves the atmosphere at the Wachovia Center, as the Orangemen are now 4-1 there, their only loss coming on February 27, 2002. The Orangemen now own a 32-23 advantage over the Wildcats in a series which dates back to 1946, although the teams - surprisingly - met only three times prior to the formation of the Big East.

Probably the most significant statistical achievement for the Wildcats today was that two players - Randy Foye and Curtis Sumpter - managed to foul out, and three others finished with four. This was a consequence both of Villanova's miserable overall performance and Jay Wright's inexplicable decision to fight to the death, including ordering fouls with less than fewer than 30 seconds to play, and exhausting all of his timeouts in a game that was over halfway in the first half.

Foye led the team with a respectable 18 points on 6-14 shooting, but the ordinarily skilled rebounder didn't grab a single board. Curtis Sumpter scored 13 points on 5-11 shooting. Mike Nardi added some garbage-time points to finish in double figures with 11, on 4-13 shooting. After scoring six points in the early going, Allan Ray scored just six more the whole rest of the way to finish with a dozen on identical 4-13 shooting.

Ray opened the game by hitting two NBA-range triples for 'Nova's first six points and only lead of the game, 3-0. But the contest went swiftly downhill from there, from a Villanova perspective. After the final tie, at 20, Syracuse took firm control of the game with a 21-5 run halfway through the first half and never looked back. Villanova never drew closer than double digits the rest of the way, playing in a state of torpor.

Syracuse played the entire game in its signature defensive set, the boring 2-3 zone perfected by Boeheim over 698 victories. The Wildcats looked befuddled throughout the contest, bearing an eerie similarity to the befuddlement suffered by Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid in last Sunday's Super Bowl, and for largely the same reasons. Villanova scuffled to a 40% shooting percentage, a total which also improved due to 'Nova's garbage-time baskets, and finished the game just 31% from beyond the arc. And even when there weren't any Orange defenders, it didn't matter. The Wildcats shot a dismal 52% from the line, far worse than normal, and in a close game might have made the difference between victory and defeat.

In contrast, Syracuse cruised, shooting 57% from the floor. The Orange, which had been badly outrebounded in their last three contests, also dominated the glass, winning 42-34.

Gerry Mac effectively ended the game at the 13:34 mark with an absurdly athletic play, drawing Foye in the air and looping the ball in for an and-one. He followed it up at 12:50 with a 3 pointer, and his not scarce orange-clad partisans from Scranton cheered lustily. (He was removed ceremoniously with 1:01 to play amid great applause.)

At 9:04, Warrick put in a sick reverse dunk while barely noticing the gallant efforts of Sumpter to defend him, boosting the lead to 65-45 and leading to another Villanova timeout. Warrick gesticulated joyously to his many orange-clad fans in the meantime. He repeated the feat at 7:55, making it 69-45, although no Wildcat suffered a similar indignity of being dunked over.

The stretch run was uneventful except for disqualifications. Sumpter fouled out with 2:26 to go, finishing with 13 points. With 1:57 to go, Syracuse's Craig Forth fouled out after a monster defensive performance, finishing with 8 points, 10 boards, two blocks and a steal. (Although it was almost worth it to hear the PA announcer have to tread carefully around the potentially Abbott-and-Costello-esque fourth-foul-on-Forth.)

Poll Watch: This depends. At #22, with a decent road victory at crosstown rival St. Joseph's on Monday and a "good" loss (at least in the rankings) to Syracuse, the Wildcats could easily stay in, particularly if other teams on the cusp don't do well this weekend. I would bet that the 'Cats will stay in the AP poll at least; in the less-reliable ESPN/USA Today poll, they are just #25 and might drop out.

Celebrity sightings: Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (D) emerged from his post-Super Bowl mourning long enough to take in the action. As did New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards, a permanent figure in Philadelphia sporting annals due to the "Miracle at the Meadowlands" in 1978, when then-Eagle cornerback Edwards scooped up a Joe Pisarcik fumble and streaked into the end zone for a shocking victory over the New York Giants. 17 NBA scouts also joined the action, as did former Syracuse standout Billy Owens. Ironically, Owens was there to witness Warrick knock him off SU's all-time Top 10 scoring list; Warrick now has 1,862 points (9th) to Erich Santifer's 1,845 (10th) and Owens' 1,840 (11th).

One of the few positive aspects of today's debacle, was that at least the Wildcats won't have to play Syracuse twice this season. The Wildcats also played marginally better in the second half than in the first. The 'Cats shot just 8-18 from the line in the first half and were outscored 11-5 on second-chance points (although that would later balloon to 26 at the end). They also shot just 31% from the floor while yielding 63%, both numbers which improved slightly as the game progressed (if "progressed" isn't too strong a word to use for a game like this. It progressed, in the sense that every second that ticked by made it closer to being over.)

Fortunately, the Wildcats will have an opportunity to quickly forget about this disaster. Jay Wright's alma mater, the Bucknell Bison, will thunder into the Pavilion on Tuesday night. It will not be a typical Big East/Patriot League massacre, as the Bison are possibly headed to the NCAA tournament with an automatic bid, and they boast a 16-7 record.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Donovan Who? Villanova Wins Holy War LXII, Stopping St. Joe's at Pavilion

Donovan Who? Less than 24 hours after the Eagles' demise in Super Bowl XXXIX, the #22 Wildcats were making their case as an alternative for grieving Philly-area fans, hanging on at the historic Palestra for an ugly 67-52 victory over St. Joseph's in Holy War LXII.

It was the 62nd meeting in the Holy War, a series which dates all the way back to Villanova's first season, 1920-21, and it was Villanova's 39th victory in it. Granted, it did not feature Charlie Daniels, Alicia Keys, Sir Paul McCartney, two former Presidents, VU alumnus Howie Long, or Freddie "The Sultan of Slot" Mitchell. (Come to think of it, Sunday night's spectacle almost didn't feature Mitchell, either. But that's another story.) It did not attract 86.1 million viewers on ESPN2.

But there were some plus sides as well. You didn't have to pay $5,000 to see it, or fly to northeastern Florida, and there was surprisingly balmy February weather in Philadelphia. The Palestra was packed. There were no drunken hordes of Eagles fans, chanting six particular letters incessantly. And in many ways, it was morbidly entertaining.

But most importantly, compared to Super Bowl XXXIX, it had a much more satisfying ending. Villanova snapped a two-game losing skid to its crosstown rival, in a contest which was once again part of ESPN's "Rivalry Week" promotion and aired nationally on ESPN2 for the fourth consecutive season. Villanova completed Big Five play with an impressive 3-1 record, and improved its overall mark to 14-5. St. Joseph's, just a year removed from a #1 national ranking and 4-0 City Series sweep, fell to 1-2 City Series and 11-9 overall. As a result, the Hawks are likely headed to the NIT come March unless they win the Atlantic 10 tournament.

The Wildcats now have a great chance at winning or sharing the Big Five crown thanks to their three wins. At this point, it's all in the hands of Temple, currently 2-0 and the only city team to defeat the Wildcats. If the Owls defeat both St. Joseph's and La Salle, they win the title outright; if they split, the Owls and Wildcats share the crown; if they lose both, Villanova captures it.

Jason Fraser was the clear-cut star of the game for Villanova, coming off the bench to score 14 points, grab 14 rebounds, and block two shots in 29 minutes of action, despite still playing with a heavily bandaged hand. Curtis Sumpter scored a team-high 15 points on 6-13 shooting and had seven rebounds to go with them. Allan Ray added 14 points and five assists, while Randy Foye narrowly missed a double-double with 13 points and nine rebounds (albeit on dreadful 3-15 shooting).

For St. Joseph's, Pat Carroll ended up as one of the two highest scorers of the game, despite missing his first 13 shots. Carroll finished with 16 points and nine rebounds, but did so on horrible 4-19 shooting from the floor. Chet Stachitas was the only other Hawk that managed to score more than five points; he matched Carroll's 16. Four different Hawks each ended up with five points.

Nobody would confuse this game, with one that was well-played, as the teams combined to commit 44 personal fouls, 22 each.. Particularly in the second half, it seemed impossible to go longer than a minute without a whistle. There was nothing wrong with the officiating, it was just an ugly game with a lot of bricks, producing short rebounds with tussling under the hoop - and consequently, many fouls called. Will Sheridan fouled out with over seven minutes to go, playing just seven minutes and failing to score. Of Villanova's seven key players, only Kyle Lowry finished with less than three fouls.

The Hawks were hopelessly inept in the first half, scoring just 16 points and finishing the half shooting a pitiful 16% from the floor. Not from beyond the arc, from the FLOOR - they had just four field goals on 25 attempts, and as noted above, Carroll, their best player, missed his first 13 shots. 'Nova easily built a 25-16 lead at the break.

Villanova seemed on the verge of a blowout, similar to the 2002 game at the Pavilion when the Wildcats handed the Hawks a historic 102-73 defeat. The Wildcats padded their lead to 34-16 shortly after intermission, and then increased it to 41-20 on a layup by Ray, in what would be their largest lead of the game. The Hawks and their fans, were as deflated as the Eagles and their fans, around 10 PM Sunday night.

The Hawks, however, did make the game unpleasantly interesting as the second half continued. The largely pro-SJU crowd, which had sat on its hands for most of the game as the Hawks missed shot after shot, began to assert itself. After trailing by 21, SJU actually carved the deficit down to eight in less than five minutes. Carroll hit a three-pointer and two free throws and reduced the 'Nova lead to just 47-39 with 7:02 to play. It might not sound that impressive, but SJU had been playing in quicksand for the entire game up until that point and was having to move boulders just to score. The Hawks had only 20 points with less than 13 minutes to play in the GAME, up until that point, and then they scored 17 in less than five minutes.

It was quite hot in the Palestra, due to the unseasonably warm temperatures and the large crowd. And soon the volume began to match the temperature. The fans, which were about 80% for SJU, began to roar as if the Hawks were AHEAD. A visitor who had just walked in at that moment, would never have believed that the home team was eight points down. Or that they had been abysmal, for the vast majority of the game. The parity-inducing, upset-minded ghosts of the Palestra's glorious past appeared ready to awaken, and potentially destroy Villanova's tournament hopes with a stunning loss after being up by 21 in the second half. (Villanova has benefited from them, before, of course, but this time the Wildcats were expected to win and so it was best that they stay quiet.)

Fortunately, the Wildcats quelled the uprising, pulling away after letting the Hawks hang around for another minute or so. Over the next six minutes, Villanova went on a 14-4 run, and suddenly the Hawk fans found themselves looking up at the wrong end of a 61-44 reading on those awesome, old-school black scoreboards at either end of the building. The Hawk fans made for the exits - it was over.

Probably the most entertaining event of the contest took place during that span. During one of the timeouts, both sets of cheerleaders came out to do the "hold-the-cheerleader-up" competition. In the meantime, the Hawk and Wildcat began a beak-to-whiskers confrontation. After the two mascots ended their mock battle, the cheerleaders for both sides were still up. Then the players from both teams emerged from the timeout and tried to resume play. Still up. Finally, the officials had to intervene and ask that the cheerleaders voluntarily stand down so that the game could continue. The VU cheerleaders immediately complied, but the SJU crowd mistakenly thought that they had actually won the competition and began cheering again in raucous fashion.

I thought that there would be a certain quiescence to the crowd, almost like a coma, after the painful loss on Sunday. Essentially, that it would be a wake, but one that just happened to have 9,000 visitors all come at once, dressed not in dark suits, but in varying shades of crimson, navy blue, and midnight green.

But the crowd was more spirited than I had expected, after the Super Bowl outcome. Of course, I thought that many fans would come dressed in Eagles gear, as a final gesture of defiance, but midnight green/silver/black attire was surprisingly minimal. One fan chose to represent, by displaying both loyalties - he appeared in a Villanova #20 Brian Westbrook jersey, to honor 'Nova's favorite Eagle. Phil Martelli and Jay Wright, both Philadelphia natives and Eagles fans, had reportedly agreed not to practice on Sunday, so that everyone on both sides could enjoy the game in peace.

Another pleasant aspect of the timing of this game, was that the Philadelphia media - engorged for two full weeks in the round-the-clock Eagles coverage, flying to Jacksonville, and trying to read T.O.'s X-rays - had literally no opportunity to criticize Villanova for its collective sins in the usual pre-Holy War fashion.

But unlike the media, the fans weren't at all quiet, on either side. The Hawk fans also brought no fewer than six rollouts; their offerings were:

"Jay Wright: Best Dressed Coach in the NIT" In another difference between the Super Bowl and tonight's Holy War, it is unthinkable that the dapper Villanova coach would ever suffer a "wardrobe malfunction" of any kind.

"Rocky VI: Starring Kyle Lowry" Lowry was ejected, for firing a left jab to Kansas Jayhawk Jeff Hawkins in the glorious annihilation of then-#2, undefeated Kansas two weeks ago, and served a mandatory one-game suspension.

"Nova's Still Hiding Osama" At the last Palestra game, two years ago, the Hawk fans had suggested that Villanova was harboring the fugitive al-Qaida leader, somewhere on campus. Tonight, the 20% Villanova portion of the crowd chanted, "U-S-A", in response.

"Rollie, Lappas, DuPont - 'Nova Legends"

This was a bit puzzling, as it's tough to see how bringing up Rollie's name would be much of an insult. The genuinely legendary Roland V. Massimino won 357 games at Villanova, including a national championship, five Elite Eights, 11 NCAA bids and 20 tournament victories from 1973-1992. Daddy Mass also beat St. Joe's regularly, as Villanova won 12 out of 18 meetings with the Hawks during his 19 years at the helm. (Granted, the vast majority of those wins came before current SJU students were born.) And even the much-maligned Steve Lappas, now at Massachusetts, went 4-2 against SJU while he was here. (For those of you who did not arrive on campus till after the Clinton era, the final name is a reference to one John Eleuthere DuPont. He was a bizarre millionaire, the wealthy, murderous, military-tank-riding, former namesake of the Pavilion, who made Howard Hughes look like an easygoing, relaxed fellow, when it came to keeping the germs away and enjoying life. In 1996, DuPont attained infamy for killing a former U.S. Olympian on his Pennsylvania estate, leading to the removal of his name from the Pavilion in 1997.)

"One Team, One Coach, One Week in the Top 25" For those of you who have moved out of town, a reference to the Eagles' ubiquitous "One" slogan - "One Team, One City, One Dream"- for the ill-fated Super Bowl. It is already out-of-date, as the AP actually saw fit to ELEVATE Villanova to #22, from #24, despite just a 1-1 week.

and the standard "The Hawk Will Never Die".

Another sign attempted to get the network's attention with "(E)very (S)nob (P)lays (for) ('N)ova."

Of course, there were some diehard references to the events of the previous night in Jacksonville. During the halfcourt shooting contest, the SJU student was given three tries at the goal, and the guy came pretty close on the first two, hitting the rim twice. Prior to his third attempt, he ostentatiously stood on the ball with one foot at center court and paid homage to Terrell Owens, flapping his arms like an Eagle (as opposed to a Hawk) to the loud approval of the crowd. The SJU band, after the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt, played "Fly, Eagles, Fly".

And naturally, this game will always be remembered by Philadelphia fans, as "The Game After the Super Bowl"; it won't be remembered as a classic for the 44 fouls or the lackluster final four minutes.

After two games in three days, the Wildcats will enjoy some time off, before facing #8 Syracuse at the Wachovia Center on Saturday. It was bad luck that Syracuse had a tough loss to #19 Connecticut tonight, and will likely be looking to take it out on someone.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Good Omen: Villanova (Philly) Beats Providence (New England)

Well, maybe it's a good omen for the Super Bowl, as at least one Philadelphia-based team will take home a victory over a New England foe this weekend. #24 Villanova survived a late scare from Big-East-winless Providence, as well as superstar Ryan Gomes' incredible career-high 32 points and 8 rebounds, and sweep the Friars for the first time since 2000, winning 89-81

Villanova improved its record to 13-5 overall, 5-4 Big East (although they are still mired in a sixth-place tie in the 12-team conference). Providence continued its dismal season, as the Friars are now a shocking 0-8 in Big East play, 10-12 overall. With the victory, Villanova took another step toward qualifying for the NCAA tournament, as they entered the game with a 22 RPI ranking and the 14th-strongest schedule in Division I. PC entered Big East play as a possible bubble team, but now will be fighting just to get into the NIT. The Wildcats now lead this series 46-34, against one of their most ancient rivals; the series dates back to 1936.

Barring an unlikely matchup in the Big East tournament, the Wildcats have seen the last of Gomes. Arguably the finest player in the conference, neither Jay Wright nor the Pavilion faithful will be sorry to see him leave PC and ascend to a highly lucrative NBA career. Gomes was a big part of last season's debacle at the Pavilion. What a difference a year makes - last year, PC humiliated 'Nova, handing the Wildcats their worst defeat in the history of the building, 100-73. In that game, Gomes scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. In the first game last season, at the Dunkin' Donuts Center, Gomes did even better, scoring 27 points and pulling down eight boards, for a grand total of 50 points and 20 boards in two games - both Villanova losses.

Curtis Sumpter rebounded from a rare subpar performance in the disappointing loss at #23 Connecticut on Wednesday. Sumpter finished with a team-high 24 points and game-high 13 rebounds and three blocks. He was also nearly unflappable at the foul line, getting there early and often: he converted 14 of his 16 opportunities. Allan Ray was once again superb, completing his night with 20 points on 7-17 shooting. Randy Foye made a strong contribution with 19 points and seven boards, while Mike Nardi also reached double figures with 10. Of some concern, however, was the dreadful perimeter shooting: as a team, the Wildcats shot just 17% (3-18) from three-point range. Instead, Villanova relied on interior play: dominating the Friars on the glass (they won 47-35) and going to the line (VU went to the line 44 times compared to PC's 20, after taking just 10 free throws against Connecticut).

Also troubling, was the conspicuous near-absence of Jason Fraser from the contest. Fraser logged just five minutes and was a non-factor, as he did not score and had a single rebound and blocked shot. Marcus Austin played quite well in his absence, though; in just 11 minutes, Austin finished with four points, five rebounds and two blocks. If Austin can do that on a regular basis, it would give Jay Wright some more options in the Wildcats' thin frontcourt, especially if the injured Fraser may be ground down from the Big East wars.

For PC, Tuukka Kotti and DeSean White each chipped in 10 points. Donnie McGrath, who did not play in the first VU/PC game due to the flu and whose absence resulted in 30 PC turnovers, did suit up for this one. Ironically, the point guard finished with four turnovers against one assist (as well as nine points).

Providence is unquestionably the most talented and dangerous winless team in Big East history (by a huge margin, in fact). They just thrashed a decent Virginia team, coached by former PC coach Pete Gillen, by 19. (Donnie McGrath also tied a NCAA record by going a perfect 9-9 from three-point range in that contest, in which he scored a career-high 27 points.) Nonetheless, 'Nova has no margin for error with home games anymore, not with nationally ranked Boston College and Syracuse still coming to town. So a loss tonight could have been potentially ruinous to 'Nova's tournament hopes.

And conversely, 'Nova would not be receiving much credit for a victory. So - bottom line - it was a game that Villanova was expected to win, and it did so. Villanova students displayed more bravado than wisdom when they chanted "oh-and-eight" at the Friars, given that the game was still quite close just a minute before. PC didn't just creampuff its schedule, either - the Friars are currently deemed to have the second-toughest schedule in Division I, with seven losses against ranked teams (and they'll get to have more since they still have some left on the schedule). Nonetheless, these facts are undoubtedly not of much comfort to Welsh, as he wonders how he's going to feel in March about having Ryan Gomes and possibly not even making the NIT.

The Wildcats won an overtime contest at Providence in early January, at a place which has traditionally been a house of horrors for them - winning there for only the second time since 1990. Also, it was only the second two-game regular-season sweep of the Friars since that same year. (Granted, there have been years in the interim where Villanova won a single game during the regular season, and/or won a tournament game at Madison Square Garden against PC.)

Of course, the chief memory of that January contest, for those souls unfortunate enough to be on that trip, was the genuine scare the traveling party received on the way home, when they were told by the pilot that they would be crash landing in water and Wright was asked to poll the team to ask which players could swim.

'Nova was actually on cruise control for much of the contest, before it got interesting down the stretch. The Wildcats breezed to a 43-32 halftime lead by taking advantage of PC miscues. Villanova had 15 points off turnovers by halftime, as compared to zero for Providence.

As the second half progressed, the Wildcats increased their lead, and Villanova led by as much as 16, 70-54, with less than seven minutes to play. For the vast majority of Pavilion fans, it was time to resume thinking about those OTHER adversaries from New England: namely, the Patriots. But Providence rallied, and got as close as four with less than two minutes to play, before four big free throws were made for 'Nova to ice the game.

Coach Jay Wright sported sneakers, in light of the public plea from Coaches vs. Cancer to wear sneakers to heighten awareness of their activities. (It wasn't quite as vivid as the blue fingertips at the State of the Union address on Wednesday, but it was substantial.) However, Providence coach Tim Welsh opted for normal dress shoes. (Ironically, Coach K's unfortunate collapse while wearing the sneakers - and his facetious attribution of the incident to wearing them - probably did maximize the degree of national media attention on them. Fortunately, he's OK.)

An interesting question will be whether Villanova manages to retain its hard-won national ranking, when the new poll comes out on Monday afternoon. Obviously, the focus of the nation (including the voters in both polls) will be on the newly concluded Super Bowl, instead of the 'Cats' national ranking. Nonetheless, that's actually quite a tough call. Villanova went 1-1 over the week, with the loss being at #23 Connecticut, the defending national champions, by a close margin and so certainly that ought not to hurt them all that much. On the other hand, it's still a loss.

Also worth noting: Former Wildcats superstar Kerry Kittles took in the game, and women's coach Harry Perretta was most deservedly lauded for the milestone of his 500th victory.

Wildcat Flashback: It was easy to remember another February, Saturday night Pavilion contest against Providence, back on February 20, 1999. 'Nova was in a dogfight for a NCAA berth, but that game didn't have a happy ending, as PC's Jamel Thomas singlehandedly crushed 'Nova's hearts by leading the Friars to an overtime, 90-84 victory that at the time appeared to fatally wound Villanova's tournament chances. Fortunately, the 'Cats sealed the deal by upsetting nationally ranked St. John's a few days later. It was their last appearance in the NCAA tournament - a team led by Howard Brown and John Celestand.

Villanova will now turn its attention to winning or sharing the Big Five title, as the annual Holy War will take place against St. Joseph's on Monday night at the historic Palestra. It won't be easy, though. After going 3-6 to start the year, the Hawks have now won eight of their last 10 and have returned to the NCAA bubble. If the Eagles win on Sunday, it will take place amidst general jubilation, from both schools, probably rendering the outcome of this particular clash less important. Everyone's attention will be zeroed in on the upcoming Eagles victory parade on Tuesday. The petty partisan differences of Villanova/St. Joe's will be temporarily submerged in the overall spirit of goodwill. All Philadelphians will unite, in celebration of the common beloved gridiron squad.

Wright is a huge Eagles fan and has been quite unabashed, in displaying his enthusiasm for their prospects. In keeping with this spirit of metropolitan harmony, it was reported that both Wright and St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli have agreed not to conduct practice on Sunday, to permit players from both teams to watch the game.

However, if the Eagles lose, the collective frustrations of an entire generation of Eagles fans (including many far too young to remember the malaise after the Eagles' sole other Super Bowl appearance in 1980) will likely manifest themselves in an even-worse-than-normal Holy War rancor and general displays of hostility and vexation. It will not be a pretty scene at the Palestra on Monday night.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Facing UConn, Late T on Coach Jay Wright Ends Villanova's Night, 81-76

On Groundhog Night, it was determined that newly-#24 Villanova is condemned to suffer through six more weeks of excruciating waiting, to see if a NCAA bid is headed their way. This was partially due to a technical foul on coach Jay Wright in the waning seconds of the Wildcats' 81-76 loss at #23 Connecticut, the defending national champions.

In the 1993 film, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character is forced to relive a single identical day, interminably. A similar, though not identical, experience can be said of Villanova fans, when the Wildcats have taken on the Huskies during Wright's tenure. Villanova is now 1-7 against Connecticut, having lost three straight and never won outside of Philadelphia.

It was Jim Calhoun's 1000th game as a college coach over 33 years. It was Jay Wright's 322nd over 11 years. Calhoun has won two national championships. Jay Wright has never won a game in the NCAA tournament (he has made two appearances, both with Hofstra). Experience counts. And never did that fact show through more, than when Wright was hit with a devastating technical foul in the final minute, with 'Nova trailing just 75-72 and with possession of the ball, after a Huskies basket by Charlie Villanueva.

According to the Associated Press account, Wright "grabbed referee Doug Shows", thus giving Shows no discretion to avoid calling a technical foul in the final minute of a close game. The AP went on to say that Wright acknowledged his mistake afterward and assumed the blame for the blunder.

Obviously, there is no guarantee that Villanova would have won the game, if it hadn't been called. 'Nova still would have had to make a three-pointer and win in overtime. But prudence and wisdom would dictate that antagonizing an official in that situation, is at odds with everything Wright and his staff attempt to instill in the players about controlling one's emotions in the heat of battle.

We do know what happened, after all, with the technical foul being called. Any chance 'Nova had of winning was basically extinguished, as the Huskies' lead was extended to 77-72 with 31 seconds left, entirely altering the complexion of the game. Down five instead of three, 'Nova had to race down the court, fire a wild miss, and once the 'Cats failed to get the rebound, the game was effectively over.

Wright's ill-timed outburst unfortunately overshadowed an otherwise strong overall effort from Villanova on enemy territory. The Wildcats' three-game winning streak was snapped, as the 'Cats fell to 4-4 Big East, 12-5 overall. The Huskies rebounded from a tough loss to Notre Dame on Sunday, improving their season mark to 5-3 Big East, 13-5 overall; the Huskies had lost two of their last three. Expected to either win or come in second in conference play, Connecticut is in serious jeopardy of not even securing one of the byes in the Big East tournament.

Rank and File

Villanova was proudly sporting a national ranking for the first time since the end of the 1996-97 season, having been anointed #24 by the AP and #25 by the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll (generally the less reliable of the two, as the ballots are cast by harried, overworked assistants). The new ranking seemed to spell trouble for the Huskies, as Connecticut has struggled against ranked teams in recent days, having lost their last three contests against highly touted competition.

This was only the fifth occasion when Villanova and Connecticut have faced off when both teams have been ranked. All previous times came in the mid-'90s heyday for Villanova -1995-96- when the nucleus of Kerry Kittles, Jason Lawson, and Alvin Williams took on Huskies teams led by Ray Allen. When Villanova has been ranked, the Huskies have faced them eleven times, and have won on just four occasions, including tonight.

The next issue would be whether 'Nova can keep the ranking for more than a week. Obviously, if they lose to Providence on Saturday, they will be unceremoniously dumped as swiftly as they arrived. However, if they win convincingly - as they should - they have a fighting chance at staying in. It was a close loss to the defending national champions on the road.

Villanova played quite well: the Wildcats forced 18 Connecticut turnovers and coughed the ball up only nine times. The clear standout of tonight's game was Mike Nardi, who finished the game with a season-high 20 points on 7-13 shooting, including a career-best six triples. He ran the point well, finishing with five assists against a single turnover, and also had four steals. Allan Ray - the reigning Big East Player of the Week - continued his outstanding play, scoring 16 points (including four triples) and grabbing five rebounds. Randy Foye had an excellent all-around game, finishing with 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists. And Kyle Lowry came off the bench to key the offense, finishing with a dozen points and four rebounds.

The Huskies also relied on a well-balanced attack, with four players reaching double figures. Rashad Anderson scored 21 points to lead the team, including 9-10 from the foul line. Rudy Gay finished with 17 points and nine rebounds. The lefty guard Marcus Williams finished with a dozen points and nine assists. Denham Brown finished with ten points, while Josh Boone missed a double-double with eight points and nine boards.

Unfortunately, the Wildcats got little from their frontcourt tonight, the chief reason for their demise. Curtis Sumpter had probably his worst game of the season, finishing with four points, four rebounds, and four fouls: he played just 26 minutes. Jason Fraser played reasonably well coming off the bench, logging 24 minutes, scoring five points and collecting five rebounds. Chris Charles and Marcus Austin combined to play six minutes, failing to score and picking up a single rebound. Grand total: nine points, ten rebounds from the entire frontcourt. Tough to win that way.

Villanova eschewed an inside game in favor of raining down threes, and it almost worked. There was a huge disparity in fouls: the Huskies went to the line 42 times, making 30 (71%), while Villanova went to the line 10 times, making seven. The Huskies also won the battle of the glass, 38-30. However, Villanova took 75 field goal attempts to Connecticut's 43, with an even more imbalanced 32 three-point attempts to the Huskies' 12.

Villanova was well-poised throughout the contest to pull off the upset, and actually led narrowly at halftime, 40-38. The Wildcats led by as much as five in the second half, 50-45, at around the 14 minute mark. However, what would be the 'Cats' final lead came when Nardi drained a three with 9:26 to play, and it was erased momentarily.

Still, 'Nova still had the game deadlocked at 72 down the stretch, after a three from Ray with 2:35 to go. As it turned out, the Wildcats went cold at precisely the wrong time, managing to miss five consecutive shots in the final two minutes. They didn't start making them again until they were down 79-72, with just four seconds left and it no longer made any difference. With the game tied 72-72 in the final two minutes, the Wildcats yielded a 7-0 run (including the two points cost by Wright's technical) to the Huskies.

It may very well be Villanova's last loss at the hands of Calhoun. It was the teams' only meeting this season, and he has been widely mentioned in consideration for the Los Angeles Lakers job recently vacated by Rudy Tomjanovich. Last summer, the Lakers engaged in a highly conspicuous courtship of Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, before Coach K rebuffed them to stay in Durham.

The Wildcats will return to action this weekend, against Providence at the Pavilion on Saturday night. It will be the Wildcats' first game there since the January 15 game against Georgetown, when the 1985 team was honored.