Monday, March 21, 2005

#5 Villanova, Fraser Knock Out #4 Florida, Head to NCAA Sweet 16!!!

To the Wildcat faithful!!!-

Villanova has thrilled 'Nova Nation by returning to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988!!!! On Sunday, the #5 Wildcats easily defeated the #4 Florida Gators, 76-65, in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Nashville. The star of the game was Jason Fraser, who scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds to lead 'Nova to victory...

This is the quick version of the recap of today's game. As soon as possible, a comprehensive recap of this tremendous day for Villanova will appear...

The Wildcats, now 24-7, will advance to the familiar territory of the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., for the Sweet 16 (the official title being "regional semifinals", but that doesn't have much of a ring to it). They will face the top seed in the Syracuse Region, the North Carolina Tar Heels, at 9:57 PM on Friday night on CBS. Be flattered: CBS - whose billions in rights fees give it unilateral power in deciding who plays when - showcases the most attractive games in the nightcap of these Sweet 16, Elite Eight doubleheaders. #10 NC State will face #6 Wisconsin in the opener at 7:27 PM. Remember, most of the country is behind us in time zones, so 10 PM nationally actually gets more national exposure than 7:30, since it would be only 4:30 in California.

If the Wildcats prevail Friday night, they would face the NC State/Wisconsin winner on Sunday for the right to go to the Final Four; it would be 'Nova's first trip there since 1985, when they won it all. (The Wildcats also caught a break today when NC State upset defending national champion Connecticut, the #2 seed in the region. If the #5 'Cats upset #1 Carolina, they would likely be favored against either NC State OR Wisconsin, both lower seeds.)

But of immediate concern is the health of Curtis Sumpter, who logged just ten minutes, scoring eight points and collecting six rebounds, after injuring his knee in two separate incidents during the first half. It was unclear at this writing whether Sumpter will be available for the game against North Carolina. In addition to Fraser, Kyle Lowry was a hero, scoring a career-high 15 points off the bench in 31 minutes, and accumulating five rebounds and three steals as well.

Remarkably, the Wildcats and West Virginia - a #7 seed which vaulted off the bubble to win the Big East tournament and take the automatic bid - are the only two Big East teams remaining of the six which qualified: the most bids of any conference. Ironically, the Wildcats were the fourth place finisher and West Virginia was seventh, and the Mountaineers eliminated Villanova in the semifinals of the conference tournament. Regular-season co-champions Boston College (playing its final Big East season, before shifting to the ACC next year) and Connecticut both lost in the second round, while Pittsburgh and Syracuse never made it out of the first. All except Pitt, which lost an 8-9 game as the 9, were upset by lower-seeded opponents. (As improbable as this possibility is: Villanova and West Virginia could meet in the national championship game...)

Villanova had not previously faced its first two opponents this year, Florida or New Mexico, in previous NCAA tournaments. But it will be the fourth time the Wildcats and Tar Heels have battled in the Big Dance. Michael Jordan led the Tar Heels to victory over 'Nova in the 1982 tournament, and the Wildcats also fell to Carolina in the second round in 1991, after escaping a tight one with Princeton in the opener. However, Villanova won the most important NCAA game with Carolina: in the Elite Eight in 1985. The Wildcats of Destiny upset the #2-seeded Tar Heels to advance to the Final Four, crossing the threshold of immortality even if they hadn't gone on to win it all the following week against Georgetown.

For the second game in a row, the Wildcats ended someone's long winning streak. Florida's eight-game winning streak, which had culminated in a SEC tournament championship and a narrow first-round victory over Ohio U. on Friday, is now in the history books, as is its season. The Gators completed the 2004-05 campaign with a 24-8 record.

But it will be of little comfort this off-season. It will be filled with more acrimony, as yet another of Billy Donovan's Gator squads has failed to make the Sweet 16 while wearing white jerseys, for the fifth straight year. Florida enjoyed its seventh consecutive NCAA bid of a #6 seed or higher, but since its 2000 title-game run, has not qualified for a Sweet 16, including two first-round losses. In fact, since 2000, the Gators have annually been ousted by a lower seed, including today's loss to the Wildcats. Donovan's critics will also zero in on the fact that the 'Cats were basically without the services of their best player, Sumpter, for most of the game - and still managed to beat Florida by double-digits. Since the 2000 run - in which Florida needed overtime to outlast #12 Butler in the first round - Donovan's five subsequent NCAA teams have won a grand total of three games, all against double-digit seeds.

More to come...

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