Some superlatives from the NCAA tournament:
Villanova is the only one of the five Catholic schools in the field (Boston College, Creighton, Gonzaga, and St. Mary's were the others) to survive to the Sweet 16. Along with Duke, it is one of only two private schools remaining as well (and the only one with an endowment of less than several billion dollars). (Louisville, despite the name - it sounds Catholic, with a French name, after a city - is actually a public school.) It is a great story in what has already been a blissfully volatile tournament, one in which fully half of the top 16 seeds didn't play themselves into the Sweet 16, including the defending national champion Huskies and fashionable tournament-pool selection Wake Forest, the personal choice of ESPN.com's Andy Katz, who probably knew more about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams than anyone on earth.
Most of you are undoubtedly familiar with "The Crocodile Hunter" (and occasional 'Gator Hunter) Steve Irwin, the hyperkinetic, self-educated Australian zoo proprietor/conservationist. Irwin is famous for his highly entertaining Discovery Channel/Animal Planet cable show, frequent "Tonight Show with Jay Leno" appearances (and occasional reckless child endangerment), where he routinely enters hand-to-hand combat with the great cold-blooded predators of the wild. (BTW - in a remarkable bit of bravado, Irwin claims that should he ever encounter a croc who is smarter than he is, and thus has a bit of bad luck while sticking his head into its "giant, gaping jaws", the camera crew has standing orders to keep the film rolling to record Irwin's fate for posterity.)
Well, the Wildcats - with their own NCAA lives at stake yesterday - made Irwin look like a rank, unpolished amateur when it comes to handling 'Gators. "CRI-KEY!!!!!" would have been Irwin's likely reaction, had he been in Nashville yesterday. "That Jason Fraser manhandled 'ose powerful 'Gators, mate, wit' their RARE recruiting spec'mens!! Watch Kigh-ull Lowry, slash 'is way into the 'Gators' razuh-shahp, interiuh defense in the paint! Wasn't that game a beauty!"
The Game Itself
Tip-time was scheduled for 2:15 PM EST, but viewers in the Philadelphia area (and thus anywhere in the world, as Philadelphia was obviously, along with Florida, one of the two primary markets for this game) missed the first 1:25 of Villanova/Florida, since NC State's upset of Connecticut ran long and was competitive down the stretch. Usually this would be a violation of CBS' announced policy of not depriving a game's primary markets of the tip-off of their game, regardless of what is going on in other games around the country. However, I actually wouldn't fault CBS too much for that, as the game was of interest to 'Nova fans for two reasons. One was the fact that it was a Big East rival, the other was that it's a game in 'Nova's bracket, as the winner would be a potential Elite Eight opponent.
After Sumpter went down the first time, he walked off the floor, as the cameras showed Sumpter's anxious family looking on.
Villanova dominated play in the early going, racing out to a 23-10 lead. Florida's next basket finally terminated a six minute dry spell for them, leading Jay Wright to call a timeout, which came at 9:18. The Wildcats led 23-13, had outshot the Gators 50%-33%, had and had outrebounded them 13-5, including 5-0 on the offensive end. Sumpter had made all three of his shots for his eight points - but it would be all he would score, both Sunday and apparently now for the rest of the 2005 tournament.
At the 8:25 mark, he got hurt again, with the score 25-15 'Nova. Florida worked the ball inside to Al Horford, who while pivoting to the hoop, seemed to just lightly bang into Sumpter (if he even collided with him at all - it's hard to tell on the tape because it doesn't zoom in.) But when Horford drew near him, Sumpter immediately toppled over like a statue falling off its pedestal. However, he got up almost immediately, after being attended to by the training staff, and it did not initially look serious. But Sumpter wouldn't return to action for the rest of the day.
Shortly afterward, Walsh committed a borderline intentional foul, which was not called as such. Chasing from behind, Walsh tried to swat Lowry atop his head, like a knight whacking his enemy with a broadsword, as Lowry went up on a breakaway. With the shot dropping anyway, making it 29-15, it triggered the under-8 timeout. Given the NCAA's admirable crackdown on fouls in that situation, should have been ruled intentional. Situations like that are what the rule is DESIGNED to prevent. You can't just go after somebody's head like that when they're up in the air, from behind. There was no meaningful effort on Walsh's part to play the ball. Frustration may have played a role. At that point, 'Nova already had four steals and five deflections, according to a CBS graphic, while Walsh was scoreless.
At 4:55, there was Villanova's best play of the game: a sweet assist leading to a dunk, from the two bench stars, Lowry to Fraser, leading Bill Raftery to exclaim, "left some lingerie on the deck!" It lifted 'Nova's lead to 35-23. At 3:47, Verne Lundquist gave Donovan a backhanded compliment on his recruiting successes: "David Lee, the senior out of St. Louis, #24, highly recruited as a McDonald's All-American, said one reason he chose Florida, over Duke or North Carolina, was because of Billy Donovan 's recruiting of him. He though if Donovan was that persistent as a coach, to equal his persistence as a recruiter, he would work hard to make David Lee a better basketball player." Lee had just scored Florida's last 10 points, and was singlehandedly keeping the Gators in the game, but there was a subtle subtext to the comment, discussed earlier in the article.
At halftime, 'Nova led 39-32, and it could have been higher if a defensive lapse hadn't permitted Florida's reserve freshman Taurean Green to nail a deep three with 7 seconds to go.
It was announced by Lundquist and Raftery, when play resumed, that they had been told that Sumpter had an injured left knee and wouldn't be back. Florida began to build some momentum, the only time they did all day. The 'Gators got to within 39-38 less than 90 seconds into the second half. But Fraser converted an "and-one", boosting it back to 42-38, and 'Nova never yielded the lead. Walsh finally got rolling, draining a three at 16:16 to pull Florida within one at 44-43, his first field goal. Looking at the halftime numbers,
At intermission, Lee had 16 of Florida's 32 points and they could ill-afford to lose him, which became a very real possibility when he picked up his third foul at the 15:56 mark, triggering the under-16 timeout with 'Nova still holding the lead, 44-43. With Florida back in the game, Donovan had no choice but to remove Lee, if only for a minute or so.
In retrospect, Lee's third foul was the turning point. Florida probably would have lost today's game in any event, but Lee's third foul pretty much ended their hopes, even though Donovan put him back in again after a little while, at 14:11. It broke their run. Without Lee, Florida's offense ground to a screeching halt. And even when he came back in, when Horford picked up his own third foul, the momentum had been broken and Florida could never regain it. How bad was it? From the moment Lee picked up his third foul, Florida didn't score a single point for over SEVEN minutes, and by then, the Wildcats - and Florida's season - were long gone. And saddled with fouls, Lee couldn't be as aggressive on either end. When he picked up his third foul, he had 18 points, after his third foul, he had - two. Walsh broke the drought with a triple, but it was way too late by then. Villanova had embarked on a 10-0 run which catapulted the Wildcats to a 53-42 lead - and into the Sweet 16.
In the midst of this run, Lundquist told a story about what had gone on at halftime:
The VU pep band had played "Rocky Top", the Tennessee fight song, which of course went over well with the local denizens at the game in Nashville. But it was a not-so-subtle dig at Florida, for whom the SEC rival Volunteers are the archrival in football, and the Florida fans "stood up and booed them". The rivalry was partially fueled by former UF coach Steve Spurrier, before his stint with the Washington Redskins. Spurrier, in a refreshing display of honesty, disregarded the usual polite, insincere diplomacy most coaches employ when discussing their rivals, acidly quipping, among other things, that due to Tennessee's visits to the also-ran Citrus Bowl, that "you can't spell Citrus without U-T." (Come to think of it, you can't spell "frequent upset" without UF, either...)
Coming out of a timeout, with 5:40 to play, UF started to press, trailing 62-54. 'Nova countered with four guards, plus Fraser, and while they had some trouble with it, they weathered it. At 5:19, Brewer was hit with a charge, and then Lee picked up his fourth foul guarding Fraser with 5:01 to play. Donovan yanked him, but he came back in shortly after, and then with 3:04 fouled out, ending whatever small chance the 'Gators had, trailing 67-58.
That was it. The rest was a victory lap. The two memorable plays in this stretch were Ray making an incredible catch of a wild inbounds pass from Nardi, which I remarked to the guy sitting behind me, "Was that Ray - 6-2 Ray - who caught that ball?' The guy laughed and said, "yeah, he's got some ups." The second was Lowry dribbling the ball while sitting down at midcourt, prompting Raftery to compare the skill to those the Harlem Globetrotters of his own day... CBS put up the stat of the day: 'Nova had just eight points in the paint against New Mexico, and put up 40 against Florida. The primary reason for the explosion in the lane, of course, was Jason Fraser.
On the biggest stage of his career, Jason Fraser finally showed the dominance that led him to be viewed as the top post prospect in America, when he was signed by Villanova earlier in the decade. Ironically, he was the centerpiece of the Fab Four recruiting class which also included Curtis Sumpter, Allan Ray, and Randy Foye, all of whom have surpassed Fraser. The prevailing view back in 2002 was that Villanova was going to have a significant dilemma in the paint, when the "Amityville (NY) Horror" would leave the Main Line for NBA lucre after his sophomore season of 2003-04. 'Nova Nation would have been mildly surprised to learn that Fraser would still be here as a junior, but apoplectic to learn that injuries had dictated that he wouldn't even be in the starting lineup.
Obviously, it hasn't turned out that way. His chronic knee injuries have slowed his development, and downgraded Villanova's putative aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Fraser, to a battle cruiser coming off the bench. Reportedly, he's a very humble individual who has accepted his reduced status well, and does everything possible to help the team win, and at no time has that fact been more evident than today. It's a shame, because he seems like a nice guy, and was a good fit for Villanova's program as well.
Villanova's meandering in the NIT over the last two years, can largely be explained by the lack of an intimidating post presence that Fraser had been expected to provide. In four years, coach Jay Wright hasn't recruited any other post players (who would have been interested in coming here to sit behind Fraser?). The only exception was Chris Charles, Wright's first recruit after replacing Steve Lappas in 2001, a last-minute spring signing on whom Wright decided to take a flyer, prior to the landing of Fraser. And Charles is of very limited value as a replacement, because of his own health problems.
But when the true extent of Fraser's injuries either became known, OR when they began to initially decay under the increased stress of Big East basketball, the Wildcats had a very real problem on their hands, as they had to play small all the time. If the guards went cold, 'Nova got beat.
Fraser's stunning performance today was even more of a surprise, because he had not been much of a factor against New Mexico on Friday. Fraser played only 14 minutes, scoring two points and pulling down four rebounds against the Lobos. Because of the Lobos' small size and lack of dominant big man, Jay Wright went with a smaller, quicker lineup. Also, Villanova led during the entire game, and had to hold the ball and convert free throws down the stretch, and having Fraser's cast-bound hand on the floor wouldn't help matters. (Which is ironic, in light of how well he shot free throws Sunday.)
Fraser, when he's healthy, can be and is a dominant defensive player who owns the paint, and if he were healthy he undoubtedly would have a bright NBA future solely for that reason, even if he had no offensive skills at all. Unfortunately, Europe is likely his fate; if I were an NBA GM, I doubt that I'd want to risk millions of dollars on a player with chronic knee injuries, even if Fraser were to have a monster senior year. But stranger things have happened, with medical science.
So let's take a look at the numbers. For a change, I'll start with the bench, because they were the key to the victory.
Fraser's 21 points (on 5-9 shooting) and 15 rebounds were obviously awe-inspiring off the bench. Fraser virtually owned the paint in Nashville, going to the foul line no fewer than 17 times and converting 11 of them, good for a big man and particularly good for a guy with a cast.
Lowry's performance would have been the lead story, if not for Fraser's heroics. The freshman continues to impress, particularly since he still may not be fully recovered from a bout of stomach flu earlier this week. Lowry had 15 points, five rebounds and three steals, as well as creating matchup problems for Florida with his speed.
Role players Chris Charles and Marcus Austin made brief appearances to help out in the paint, with Will Sheridan in foul trouble. They didn't bring much to the table statistically, as they played six minutes they had one rebound, one blocked shot, and one steal, failing to score. But they were there to buy Jay Wright time, which they did well. That's why it's a TEAM sport. Charles and Austin did what they could today to help the team win, and they did it well.
Which is a good segue into my next point - giving credit to the practice players: Baker Dunleavy, the injured Michael Claxton, Tom Grace, and Ross Condon. On a glorious occasion, such as a Sweet 16 appearance, it's appropriate to give those guys some props. They aren't just there to fill out the bench on game days and to make cameo appearances at the end of blowouts. You need a minimum of ten guys to practice, even if nobody's injured (which someone always is) and those guys serve the team effectively by giving the rotation players sparring partners in practice. They often mimic the upcoming opponent's style as best they can. The fact that they don't play in competitive game situations, doesn't make their contributions to the team's success any less valid. By definition, only five guys can play at any one time, and the goal of a team sport such as basketball, is for all members of the team to do whatever they can to help the TEAM be successful, even if there is no direct glory for any particular individual.
Sumpter appeared well on his way to a huge game, scoring eight points and grabbing six boards early on, before his day was prematurely ended by two separate knee injuries.
Allan Ray needs to come home and figure out what happened to him in Nashville. Ray had a dismal performance in both games, yesterday he failed to make a field goal in six attempts, finishing with 7 points, all from the line, and three assists. Ray's typical offensive output will be sorely needed against Carolina, especially if Sumpter either isn't available or isn't 100%.
But Randy Foye picked up the slack for Foye, scoring 18 points and adding four rebounds and two steals.
Mike Nardi did what he needs to do - which is, run the point first, look for his shot later. He played 38 minutes and while he made only one of his six shots, finishing with three points, 'Nova doesn't really need him to score.
Finally, Will Sheridan sank into foul trouble, logging just 20 minutes due to four fouls. He didn't have much of an impact on the stat sheet, although he did play solid defense, finishing with four points and seven rebounds.
How about the 'Gators?
McDonald's All-American David Lee had a great overall game before fouling out. Lee had a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds in 33 minutes. He also had a strong defensive game, finishing with three steals and three blocks. Lee's ouster near the end of the game was the final nail in the Gators' coffin.
Philadelphian Matt Walsh, a Holland (Bucks County) native who attended Germantown Academy (alma mater of Alvin Williams), finished in double figures with a dozen points, nine rebounds, and three assists. But Walsh did not have as an strong overall game as those numbers would indicate. He shot 4-13 from the floor and committed four turnovers. He didn't make a field goal at all until the second half. After fouling out, the head-banded Walsh looked every bit the picture of defeat, burying his head in his arms on the bench in a visual that practically screamed to CBS, "Put this shot in the "One Shining Moment" montage next week." Look for it.
Walsh was the one Gator who was well-known to Villanova's program, due to geography. Walsh had already committed to Florida, when Wright replaced Steve Lappas in the spring of 2001, but Wright made a last-ditch effort with him anyway, and they "know each other well", according to Florida's media notes.
As for Florida's other two McDonald's All-Americans, both had subpar games. Anthony Roberson, along with Lee and Walsh part of Florida's triumvirate on the offensive end, was dreadful, going 1-8 from the floor to finish with just five points in 26 minutes. Roberson had no impact at all, and Donovan probably reduced his minutes to try to get something going with a hotter hand. The other AA, swingman Corey Brewer, managed to score 11 points, but also committed four turnovers and didn't rebound (just one for the game in 28 minutes).
Al Horford, a second-line player forced into service earlier this season, because of an injury to projected starter Adrian Moss (who played three minutes) was eaten alive by Fraser in the paint, committing four fouls in 22 minutes and failing to score (although he did have five rebounds).
Three bench players combined for a respectable 17 points, but it wasn't enough to make a difference.
My own personal experience, redux
As I did on Friday, I watched the game in Jake Nevin Field House, on the big screen with a small assemblage of about 75 other fans, who eschewed the vibrancy and undoubtedly fun and buzz of watching it in a Main Line bar, in order to see the game on a huge screen with perfect volume and sight lines. Unfortunately, due to a quirk in the Christian calendar long predating the NCAA tournament, Easter falls early this year. This means that the Villanova students won't get the full benefit of the Sweet 16 experience, as the campus will be shut down for the Easter break during Villanova's game(s) this weekend. For me, it also means no big screen in Nevin, so I will have to scout out an alternative site.
Audrey Kline, a senior from Lebanon, Pa., won herself a full-sized backyard basketball hoop set by volunteering to lead the crowd in the VU fight song, "V for Villanova". (Read the back of your "V" shirts to learn the words.) She said that as a former cheerleader, it wasn't too tough. At halftime, despite Sumpter's absence, Kline was not concerned about Villanova advancing to the Sweet 16, stating confidently (and in prescient terms): "We're going to win." Kline knows basketball well, praising the team for its frontcourt play, in Sumpter's absence: "I'm glad that we're going inside, and not relying on the perimeter, establishing dominance in the paint." Kline was there watching the game with her boyfriend, senior Joe Farrell of Medford, N.J. (if memory serves me correctly, the hometown of late-'90s star Malik Allen). Farrell was equally enthused about the Wildcats' chances: "I love how dynamic our team can be...we have an excellent perimeter game, and as we are proving today, we can play inside as well..." Farrell was also excited about the fact that the Wildcats lose no players of consequence and will return six seniors next year: "I can't wait to see our boys come back next year and do it all over again."
The mood, naturally, was a lot more upbeat than it was on Friday, when the collective feeling could be best described as a sigh of relief. There was a lot of enthusiastic cheering and clapping, throughout. What's really surprising - and which gives me some hope for Friday night - is how easy a time the 'Cats had of it. Villanova made pretty short work of Florida, a higher seed, defeating them by 11 points and pulling away midway through the second half. And they did it largely (about three-quarters of the game) without Sumpter, arguably their best player and certainly one of the top two. Without him, Villanova is not likely to defeat Carolina, let alone reach the Final Four, but it certainly looks a lot more feasible than it did back in mid-January, prior to the victory over Kansas. I would not be raising ANY white flags due to Sumpter's injury. Think of it this way...
Villanova only needs to be one point better than Carolina on a neutral floor, with a de facto home court advantage for 40 minutes. It wouldn't require any miracles for that to take place. Just good solid basketball.
I am in the midst of preparing the Ultimate Guide to Villanova/North Carolina, which will appear as soon as it's ready. Thanks to the helpful folks at the UNC Sports Information office, who are sending me a media guide, which is in transit from Chapel Hill as I write this.