Sunday, March 06, 2005

#19 Villanova Survives Severe Red Storm Warning

To the Villanova Wildcats faithful-

Let us forget that woeful St. John's had a chance to defeat #19 Villanova on the final possession today, that the Wildcats had a 16-point second half lead and nearly yielded every bit of it, and all other fateful omens for the rest of March. 'Nova did win, 70-68, and that's all that matters - the Wildcats' seventh consecutive victory.

It was Villanova's fourth victory in five games against St. John's, although the Red Storm has done quite well against 'Nova at Madison Square Garden, winning six of the last seven entering today. Villanova completed the Big East regular season at 11-5, finishing in fourth place out of 12 teams. The Wildcats' overall record now stands at 21-6.

Will "Bump" Sheridan posted yet another de facto career high, just six days after his last one against Georgetown, before unfortunately fouling out at crunch time. As noted after the Georgetown game, Sheridan's official career high was the 23 he scored against the Redlands in November 2003, but that was under such unusual circumstances, that the Georgetown game and this afternoon rank as his finest performances. "Bump", so named due to his proclivity for moving in his mother's womb, continued to provide offensive firepower to go with his usual steady interior defense. Sheridan was awesome today, finishing with 19 points, 12 rebounds and two steals. Allan Ray finished with 22 points and four rebounds, including three out of four free throws with the game on the line in the final seconds. Curtis Sumpter overcame another injury scare to finish his day with a dozen points and half a dozen rebounds. For St. John's, Darryll Hill nearly singlehandedly carried the Red Storm to victory, scoring 31 points while playing all 40 minutes, with Lamont Hamilton adding 20.

The Villanova Wildcats have now won nine of their last ten contests and ride a huge wave of momentum into this week's Big East tournament. St. John's ended its season with a 3-13 record in Big East play, 9-18 overall, losing four straight, although they avoided finishing in last place due to the greater ineptitude of Rutgers, who finished 2-14. St. John's is observing a self-imposed ban on postseason play, after former Red Storm player Abe Keita accepted cash from an SJU employee, and accordingly will not participate in the Big East tournament on its home floor. The Red Storm is in disarray after last year's early-season firing of Mike Jarvis and will take some time to recover.

SJU led 26-21 with just over six minutes to go in the first half, but 'Nova slowly asserted control over the game as it progressed. However, wwith 59.2 to go in the half, Sumpter was involved in a collision which banged up his knee. Will Sheridan banged into St. John's Ryan Williams, who then fell into Sumpter's knee, sending Sumpter to the floor like a house of cards. He struggled to walk and had to be helped off the floor by Fraser. While this was a substantial blow to the 'Nova faithful, Will Sheridan hit back-to-back sweet jumpers from way outside his normal range to give 'Nova a 36-33 lead at intermission.

'Nova had remarkably balanced scoring at halftime, with all five starters scoring at least five, but no more than nine, points. Allan Ray was tops with nine points on 4-8 shooting, while Sumpter had seven. In contrast, the Red Storm relied on two guys: Darryll Hill had 14 and Lamont Hamilton 10. SJU outrebounded 'Nova 21-16 and led 9-0 in bench points.

Fortunately, Sumpter returned, and actually ended up playing 37 minutes, so he seemed to be okay. The game, and St. John's season, appeared literally over when 'Nova crested to a 58-42 lead after a layup from Sheridan with 10:21 to play. Then the Red Storm began to thunder. St. John's made it very intensely interesting late in the second half, pulling to within 64-56 with 4:43 to play after a triple by Eugene Lawrence, following a sloppy, turnover-filled sequence by 'Nova. They then drew to 64-59 with just 3:55 to play after a triple from Hill. The rally culminated by SJU trailing by just 69-68 in the final seconds, with Allan Ray at the line. Against a more competent opponent, on the road, the Wildcats would have been in serious trouble, but not against the 2004-05 St. John's Red Storm. Ray made just one of two, but the Johnnies threw the ball away on the ensuing possession, to Randy Foye, and thus 'Nova escaped.

However, this game exhibited that Villanova is far from invulnerable. It is obvious that had 'Nova folded like this against ANY other Big East team, they would have gone home with a stunning loss. Granted, part of success in any sport is luck; if you have a meltdown in a second half, it's best to do it against St. John's, instead of BC or Pittsburgh, or in the NCAA tournament. Nonetheless, the contented satisfaction most 'Nova fans feel after victories - especially on the road - was clearly not present today.

Some general observations on St. John's:

Villanova now trails the all-time series with St. John's, 58-40. It is one of Villanova's most ancient rivalries, dating back to 1923, 'Nova's third year of play, and the teams have met regularly since 1962.

Obviously, the Red Storm are near the bottom of the Big East standings. However, Jay Wright now has some competition in a much more personal battle - his heretofore unchallenged status as the best dressed coach in the Big East conference. St. John's Norm Roberts, in just his first season, looked quite dapper in a charcoal gray suit with a sand-colored shirt. His tie appeared to be a sand-colored, DNA-style double helix on a gray background. Roberts also has a long-term advantage over Wright - easy, nearby access to the finest Manhattan designers and tailors.

'80s St. John's great Chris Mullin was in attendance, undoubtedly musing about the depths to which the once-legendary St. John's program has sunk since his era, when they visited the Final Four in 1985. The Red Storm hasn't won ANY road games in nearly two seasons - the last one came in November 2003. This year actually represents a modest improvement over last season. A year ago, the Red Storm managed only six wins overall and only a single one in conference play.

Although this may not be new this year, St. John's now has the trappings of a home floor at Madison Square Garden. Center court now reads "St. John's", as do the end lines, instead of "New York Knicks" . (It is obvious that it is of recent vintage, since the floorboards bearing the logo are of much lighter tone than the rest of the floor). Not that it seemed obvious who was the home team today. The Villanova chants were thunderous when the Red Storm began to rally in the second half. And finally, the SJU pep band delivered a strong rendition of "The Imperial March" from Star Wars prior to the second half.

In City Series news, Villanova is now officially co-champion of the Big Five, with the increasingly odious Temple Owls, both teams finishing with 3-1 records. The Owls defeated La Salle later this afternoon in the tenth final City Series game, to tie Villanova.

The Wildcats are now assured of the 4th seed in the Big East tournament with today's victory. They will take on #5 seed Pittsburgh in Thursday's 2 PM game - more likely a 2:30 PM game, due to the fact that it will begin a predetermined length of time after the first game ends, which tips at noon that day.

Let's focus on some positive news: This season was the first time finishing 14 games over .500 since 1997. It was the first time with 12 Pavilion wins, ever. And of course, the first time with 20 wins since 1999.

March Madness Monitor - Jerry Palm of on 'Nova

Jerry Palm of graciously agreed to share his observations on Villanova's NCAA seeding. Obviously, many 'Nova fans, particularly in the alumni-rich Boston area, are hoping that the Wildcats will be assigned to Worcester, Massachusetts. However, that does not seem likely, according to Palm. "There will be two four-team pods in Worcester. There can be no more than one team from a conference in each pod. It is very likely that the top two Big East teams will be in Worcester, and it's not likely 'Nova will get that high, but you never know."

It seems clear that Villanova - the fourth-place team in the standings - could not be considered one of the top two teams, except in the unlikely event of the Wildcats winning the Big East tournament. And Palm says that there's virtually no way to predict where the Wildcats might go, in that case. "If you don't go there, you could end up anywhere, and the farther down the bracket you go, the less likely you get geographic consideration." But take heart, 'Nova fans - perhaps the Wildcats will end up in the fair climes of Tucson instead.

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