Saturday, March 19, 2005

Villanova in the NCAA Tournament - First Round - Lobos in Sheep's Clothing - Villanova Hangs On (Part I)

To the Wildcat faithful-

The #12 New Mexico Lobos (Spanish for "Wolves") were quite effectively disguised in sheep's clothing, during the first half of Friday's first-round NCAA game, when they scored just 11 points - fewer points than their seed, in fact (12). But they changed back into predators in the locker room, nearly rallying for an incredible comeback upset of #5 Villanova. The Wildcats hung on by their claws - BARELY - for a 55-47 victory over the Lobos, who never quit despite trailing 34-11 at halftime.

New Mexico shot 18% in the first half. But then Villanova shot 13% in the second half. And that brief tale of two halves neatly summarizes Friday's bizarre first-round, first-ever matchup between the schools in the NCAA tournament, both returning to the NCAA tournament - after frequent 1990s appearances - for the first time since 1999.

Villanova, now 23-7 overall, advanced to Sunday's second round, where they will face the #4 Florida Gators at 2:15 PM. The Gators had a similar frightening experience earlier in the afternoon, when #13 Ohio University rallied from 20 down with 12 minutes to play to nearly pull off the upset. The Bobcats actually should have WON the game, given that they missed a dunk, threw a ball away and had Florida air-ball a shot for an assist and three-point play in the final two minutes. Villanova is seeking to return to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988.

The game was initially announced to take place at 4:45 PM, which was flattering. CBS had held off on announcing the tip-time until deciding which teams were the most attractive to a national audience. Unfortunately, in an insult to both teams, CBS decided to switch VU/Florida with Georgia Tech/Louisville, shifting our game earlier. Which, if you're going for maximum ratings, does not seem to make much sense. (Generally, the closer you are to prime-time, the more viewers there are.) Villanova/Florida brings in #4 Philadelphia, plus higher ratings through the Northeast, as well as the entire state of Florida. Ga. Tech/Louisville brings in Atlanta metro, and Kentucky, plus Rick Pitino's fan base. It wouldn't be a difficult decision for me, but go figure... (CBS must be "America's Most Watched Network", as they love to proudly remind us, for a reason. Although probably not for programming such as that spring-break-shark-attack movie, they're relentlessly flogging throughout the tournament...)

New Mexico's season, as well as its nine-game winning streak, ended with the defeat, as they completed the year with a mark of 26-7. They are now 1-17 against current Big East members in all games, and 0-4 against the Big East in the NCAA tournament, having previously lost to eventual champion UConn (1999), Allen Iverson's Georgetown (1996) and Syracuse (1998) in the second round. Villanova was the eighth Big East member the Lobos have now faced.

It was New Mexico's first opening-round ouster since losing to Virginia, 57-54, in 1994, as they made it to the second round in 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999. The program still has never qualified for a Sweet 16 which required two victories (it made it in 1974 but only one was necessary then.) The 47 points were easily the lowest ever for the Lobos, in their 18 game NCAA history: the previous low had been 54 in the loss to Virginia eleven years ago. They also were a season low, as the previous had been 53 against BYU on Jan. 24.

Unless the schools meet in a holiday tournament, this was the first and last meeting for a while. After this experience, it seems highly unlikely that Jay Wright would like to fly across the country to Albuquerque, to visit the terrifying Pit for his half of a friendly home-and-home series. (Although I would enjoy it...)

As for the Lobos, they had a tremendous 102nd season of basketball, and one for which their hordes of passionate fans ought to be VERY, VERY proud. The 26 victories were the second highest in school history. They returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years. They were Mountain West Conference tournament champions for the first time, second-place finishers in the Mountain West regular season, two wins out of three over regular-season champion Utah. They were 12 wins better than last year and a whopping 16 better than two years ago.

But most importantly, they showed a lot of heart and composure out there. A lot of teams, being roundly humiliated like that on national television (Eleven points! Think about that!) against a better team with more talented players... away from their home court, where they rack up most of their victories... they would have folded their tents. Nor can the Lobos be accurately described as "a second-half team." In the three seasons under McKay, they are just 2-26 when they are behind at intermission, including 20 losses in a row. Both victories overcame deficits of only five points.

And they didn't. They not only made the final score respectable - the Lobos almost WON, and caused a lot of anxiety throughout 'Nova Nation at rush hour Friday afternoon. They acquitted themselves and the Mountain West Conference very well today. The young, well-traveled Ritchie McKay and his Lobos have a bright future ahead of them, and an even brighter one if they can ever figure out how to win consistently away from the Pit.

The Wildcats were very fortunate, to be able to overcome their two top scorers simultaneously having ABYSMAL games. The adjective "abysmal" doesn't really do it justice, either. They both had their worst games of the season, possibly of their careers as starters. Stars Curtis Sumpter and Allan Ray combined to shoot just 2-22 from the floor and score only six points (they can ordinarily be relied upon for about 33, based on their averages), as well as commit eight turnovers. When Sumpter and Ray have more turnovers than points, 'Nova would probably be defeated 99% of the time.

Will Sheridan had the best performance, finishing with a game-high 14 rebounds, eight points, three steals, two blocks and an assist. Mike Nardi had the scoring lead with 15 points, but Randy Foye led the team overall with 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists. Unfortunately, all but two of those points came in the first half and Foye also committed seven turnovers.

For New Mexico, superstar and soon-to-be-NBA-millionaire Danny Granger was reasonably contained, finishing with 15 points and 12 rebounds and shooting just 5-16 from the floor. (Worth noting: Diplomat George F. Kennan, the architect of America's Cold War policy of containing Communism and the guy primarily responsible for introducing the word "containment" into popular usage, died a couple of days ago at 101. He had no idea his legacy would live on in "SportsCenter" catchphrases.) Facing Villanova's formidable defensive armor, which would shut down his supporting cast, the Lobos vitally needed to have a huge game from Granger to emerge victorious. What's truly remarkable is that Granger didn't have a particularly great game, and the Lobos still came so close to winning. More on the box score numbers later in the article.

It was undoubtedly a euphoric day for coach Jay Wright. He won his first-ever NCAA victory as a head coach, after two first-round losses with Hofstra. But late Friday night, Wright undoubtedly halted his tape-watching of Florida long enough, to at least catch the end of #14 Bucknell/#3 Kansas, both Villanova opponents this year (and both victories). Wright's alma mater, for whom he played four years, stunned the Jayhawks and earned the first-ever NCAA tournament victory for the Patriot League.

Of course, here's what today's recap could have looked like:

"The Wildcats now own one of the most ignominious collapses in NCAA tournament history, having coughed up a 24-point second half lead to a #12 seed on Friday, the New Mexico Lobos. Villanova had a 34-11 lead at halftime and couldn't seal the deal. Coach Jay Wright may be politically wounded for many years, or perhaps permanently, by this fiasco. This made the notorious 1995 triple overtime defeat to #14 Old Dominion appear to be a particularly well-played contest that just happened to produce a few bad bounces, and the fan reaction to ODU to be a well-adjusted, serene acceptance of defeat.

The magnitude and circumstances of this catastrophe meant that a 5-12 upset was one of the top three national tournament storylines of the night, competing effectively with upset victories by #13 Vermont and #14 Bucknell, both teams from low-major conferences over recent Final Four qualifiers in Syracuse and Kansas.

In light of this disaster, posters would be strongly advised NOT to visit for an appropriate amount of time - such as a decade, or maybe a century. Logging on prior to the dissipation of the rage is ultrahazardous, might lead your computer to ignite and burst into flames right on the spot.

Rumors have circulated that as a result of the fear and loathing generated by this crumbling, Villanova is prepared to drop basketball for a few years, much in the way it did football a generation ago. Some time away from the sport may very well be needed to permit the gaping wound caused by this catastrophe to heal. According to one unnamed VU source, "We've had a pretty good run over 85 years of intercollegiate competition. A miraculous national title, three Final Fours, fourteen Sweet Sixteens, a lot of great players, top 10 program in all-time victories... Why should we wreck that legacy by continuing to play?"

But seriously... I genuinely shudder to imagine what the fan reaction would have been, if Villanova had lost this game under these circumstances, being up 23 at the half against a double-digit seed. During the entire final minute, as New Mexico kept pulling closer and the Wildcats kept clanging free throws, all sorts of words and images began flashing through my mind of a bleak Villanova future:

"Malaise... defeat... Petey Sessoms... Old Dominion... new set of villains... empty stands... lack of fan interest"...

But it didn't happen. There won't be anybody bitterly hurling the terms "New Mexico" or "34-11" as epithets at Jay Wright and his players for the next ten years or more. It won't haunt the program or fatally undermine Wright's regime. He won't be asked about on it the alumni circuit at every appearance.

The game took a while to get rolling, both literally and figuratively. Tip times are an inexact science, as all tourney watchers know. Prior to the game, VU/UNM was estimated to tip at 2:55 PM EST. But Florida/Ohio U. ran very long, when the Bobcats nearly came back to win, and so the Wildcats were delayed till 3:14 PM EST (CBS likely didn't mind :)

And neither team scored for a while - the first two minutes. Eventually, the Wildcats' shots began to fall, but New Mexico's wouldn't till the second half. Villanova sprinted out to a 12-2 lead and things looked good, but we had no idea just how good it would get in that half.

As the lower seed, New Mexico sported its cherry-red uniforms with silver numbers and trim. The school colors are cherry (for the sunsets over the New Mexico's Sandia Mountains) and silver (for the Rio Grande's reflection, when you look at it from the mountains), according to the media guide. The uniforms looked great, but that was about all that looked great for the Lobos during the first 20 minutes. They were absolutely annihilated by Villanova's defense.

thrashed New Mexico in that half, in probably the most dominant of any team thus far in the tournament. Lobos' Lapse: How bad was New Mexico in the first half? (These are not typos.)

Randy Foye personally outscored the entire Lobo team, 12-11.

Nobody other than Granger scored ANY points until backup point guard Ryan Wall converted a pair of free throws at the 5:26 mark, to make it 26-8. Nobody other than Granger had a field goal until the 3:54 mark, when David Chiotti hit a jumper to make it 29-10.

The Lobos trailed 12-2, 26-6, 29-8, and 34-10 at various points. They finally made it to double digits on Chiotti's jumper.

At halftime, New Mexico was 4-22 from the floor (18%). If you subtract Granger's 3-9, the rest of the Lobos were 1-13 from the floor. They were 0-9 from beyond the arc. They had been outrebounded 22-15 and had committed 11 turnovers. Villanova had shot 42% from beyond the arc (8-19).

McKay must have given SOME inspiring speech at halftime. Some leadership figures inspire heroic efforts from their rank-and-file - George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte come immediately to mind - and McKay clearly took a page out of their playbook to get those guys to come back with a vengeance like that.

Don't forget to read Part II of the game recap...

No comments: