Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Later, 'Gators! Villanova in First Sweet 16 since 1988!

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 comprehensive version of the recap which appeared earlier...

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 might be favored against either NC State OR Wisconsin, both lower seeds - even without Sumpter. Plus, the overwhelming majority of fans at the site will be pulling for 'Nova, with NC State, Carolina and Wisconsin as the other three, all located much further from Syracuse.

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 the initial 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.

However, on Monday, ESPN.com carried an AP story that Sumpter would miss the rest of the tournament. According to the AP, a MRI today revealed that in Sunday's game Sumpter suffered a torn ligament in his knee. The loss is indubitably a huge blow to 'Nova's hopes of upsetting North Carolina, which has a powerful inside presence. Sumpter's minutes will be taken by Fraser, who would certainly take Sumpter's spot in the starting lineup, with Will Sheridan shifting to the four position. Fraser's minutes off the bench, in turn, would slide down to forward/centers Marcus Austin and Chris Charles, who have never played much despite the fact that both are currently in their fourth year at Villanova (they had redshirt seasons and will return next year).

What would be the fatal blow came with 8:25 to came, when Sumpter went down after what may or may not have been a collision with Florida's Al Horford on the baseline, which is detailed later in the article.

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 Big East had received the most bids of any conference. The ACC, with North Carolina, Duke, and NC State still alive, have the most left of any conference, with three of its five-team contingent surviving. Wake Forest was upended in an incredible battle with the Mountaineers late Saturday night, with both teams clearing the century mark in double overtime. Georgia Tech fell to Louisville in the second round.

Ironically, within the Big East, 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.

The Sweet 16 milestone is particularly sweet for coach Jay Wright, who was an assistant to the legendary Roland V. Massimino on the Main Line in 1988, the last time the 'Cats made it this far. That team traveled to Birmingham, Ala., won in the Sweet 16 against Kentucky and advanced to the Elite Eight, finally falling to pre-season tournament favorite Oklahoma, which was in turn upset by Danny Manning's Kansas team.


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. This mournful quote from the FRONT PAGE of fan site GatorCountry.com says it all:

"If there is solace in this loss, it is that at least the Gators didn't lose to a team with a double digit seeding. Florida was a four and Villanova was a five, so the teams should have been fairly even."

Billy Donovan's most likely response will be to go out and sign some more McDonald's All-Americans, in the vain hope that if he can just load the roster up with enough of them, he can't lose. He'd be better off finding a grizzled old assistant coach to teach his talent-laden roster of freelancers play five-man basketball. The Gators looked - well to paraphrase the great baseball writer Bill James - like a team only in the official sense, in that they all wear identical jerseys and get statistical credit for assists on each other's baskets. Naturally, Donovan looked very frustrated, almost in a torpor, yesterday, as Villanova rolled to victory.

But as the Gospel of Matthew stated in last night's Palm Sunday service, those that live by the sword, die by the sword. It appears equally true those programs who prosper with McDonald's AAs, perish by them as well. Florida brought three of them (Roberson, Lee, and Brewer) into the game yesterday, to Villanova's one (Fraser), but Fraser was the difference-maker. And so Florida goes home early to Gainesville yet again, without having needed to unpack (or even pack!) its blue jerseys for the tournament. However, the U of F community will likely divert itself from this latest unhappy outcome, with the joys of spring football, its true love. GatorZone.com proudly announces that the annual Blue/Orange football game will be on April 9, just a couple of weeks away.

Donovan clearly believes that simply drowning opponents in a deluge of talent is the way to go, and in the SEC, he's probably right. He has awesome results in the regular season, including leading the Gators to the top spot in the polls, however briefly, in both 2003 and 2004. And he routinely draws high NCAA seeds, while graduating his players (15 of 19 possible graduations have taken place under his watch). But I strongly suspect that the consequences of this philosophy are that Donovan and his staff don't spend enough time properly preparing and coaching the many elite recruits the Gators already have nabbed. (And Florida's talent goes well beyond the nine McDonald's All-Americans he has signed, since he got there in 19960. Florida's last five NCAA performances support that conclusion, and based on yesterday's effort, it certainly seemed that way.

It won't help Donovan that the Gators acquitted themselves very poorly yesterday. Particularly in contrast to New Mexico, which brought a smaller and less talented team to face Villanova. The Gators looked both ill-prepared and sloppy, throughout most of the game against the Wildcats. Among other things, countless passes were simply heaved across mid-court, leading to Wildcat baskets in transition. The Gators committed 19 turnovers while recording just nine assists. And Villanova had 11 steals, which as color analyst Whitey Rigsby likes to accurately point out, "often lead to easy baskets." Steals are very damaging, as opposed to other sorts of turnovers, such as traveling or backcourt, where play stops and the team which turned over the ball gets a chance to set up on defense and redeem itself.

Not that Donovan isn't used to getting whipped by 'Nova. When he played for Providence, from 1984-87, the Friars played Villanova twice a year in that simpler era of the nine-team Big East. Villanova beat Donovan's Friars the first seven times he played them: he was winless against the 'Cats entering his senior year. That season, when Rick Pitino got them to the Final Four. Donovan's PC blew out Villanova twice, leaving his lifetime record against the 'Cats 2-7 as a player.

As it turns out, there actually was a connection between the Wrights and the Donovans, aside from both coaches being young, successful, and from the East Coast. Verne Lundquist reported on yesterday's broadcast that during the late '90s, when Wright was the head coach at Hofstra in New York State, the Wrights almost bought a house from Donovan's father(Donovan grew up in Long Island).

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