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.

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