by Craig Dimitri
The Wildcats entered Friday night's season opener against Stony Brook with the loftiest of expectations. Ranked #5 by the AP and #4 by the ESPN/USA Today poll, Villanova has been making national waves, after their strong NCAA tournament run last March ended in a Sweet 16, heartbreaking loss to North Carolina, the eventual national champion.
Accordingly, the Main Line faithful have not seen in a decade - since the heyday of the trio of Kerry Kittles, Alvin Williams, and Jason Lawson - a season with such glittering promise.
And they were not disappointed in the season opener, at the Pavilion. On a rare Friday night game, the Pavilion was about as well-attended, as it could be for any November game against a cupcake opponent. Most attendees were eager to escape the elements, which had gone from one extreme to the other, in less than 48 hours. (For those of you, outside of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, it was 75 degrees here on Wednesday, and frigid cold on Friday). The crowd was raucous and spirited, and they had quite a lot to cheer about. Villanova absolutely obliterated (and I do not use the term "obliterated" lightly) Stony Brook, 78-35, in the season opener for both teams.
Villanova allowed only 35 points - the fewest it has ever allowed an opponent, since the shot clock was introduced in 1985-86 (ironically, the year after the national title). The most recent occasion, where any opponent had even been held below 40, was in 1996-97, the "Tim Thomas year" (along with Williams and Lawson), when VU walloped UNC-Wilmington, 87-38, at the Pavilion, on December 30, 1996. Even going back into the pre-shot clock era, Stony Brook's 35 points were the fewest of any VU opponent since Rollie Massimino's Wildcats won a 36-34 contest at Penn State . That game (in what was undoubtedly a virtuoso display of Coach Mass's ability to hold the ball) took place on February 4, 1979, well before the vast majority of the cheering,"V"-shirt-clad students at tonight's game were even born.
The four-guard lineup, installed by coach Jay Wright due to the indefinite absence of the injured Curtis Sumpter, revved the Villanova offensive engine. The backcourt duo of Randy Foye (a game-high 21 points) and Allan Ray (16 points) led the way, with Foye also garnering seven rebounds. Mike Nardi also reached double figures with 13 points and dealt three assists, and Kyle Lowry scored 9 points, adding six rebounds and four assists. The only non-guard starter, Will Sheridan, had a game-high 11 rebounds.
Wright experimented with a variety of defenses, some with pressure, some without. The one trait all the defensive alignments had in common, was that the Seawolves had no success against any of them. Stony Brook managed to score only 16 points in the first half, and just 35 for the game.
How Dominant was the Villanova Defense?
The Wildcats held Stony Brook to just 32% shooting from the floor, 25% from beyond the arc. And, although Villanova obviously can take no direct credit for this, the Seawolves shot a comically inept 9% from the line (that's not a typo). The team went 1-11 from the line, with forward Tre Cunningham missing all six of his attempts. No Seawolf scored more than seven points: three players made it that far - Cunningham, Marques Cox, and Bobby Santiago. (Ironically, none of those three played more than 20 minutes, and they were the three top scorers.)
The Wildcats also owned the backboards at both ends, hauling down more than twice as many as the Seawolves (46-22; all those missed free throws helped create easy defensive boards). Villanova had 10 steals (Allan Ray led with three) and forced 18 turnovers.
As dominant as the defensive performance was, it could have been even worse for Stony Brook. Had Wright opted to leave the starters and top-of-the-bench reserves in the game for its entirety, Stony Brook might not have even reached 35. Wright emptied the bench - as he should have - with just over five minutes to play. The Seawolves went on a mini-flurry during garbage time, scoring five quick points, on back-to-back possessions- something they rarely achieved during the rest of the game. (Ross Condon, a walk-on, finally got into the game in the final minute, committing one foul.)
Villanova had this game won, virtually from the moment both teams stepped on the court. The Wildcats zoomed to a 27-10 lead with over eight minutes to play in the first half, padded that lead to 37-16 at halftime, and never looked back. Possibly the single most dramatic moment happened at the end of the first half, with Stony Brook playing for the last possession (there was about a 3 second differential between the game clock and shot clock). Near the end of the shot clock, the Seawolves forced up a shot, which was rebounded by 'Nova. Nardi made an off-balance heave to the basket, from well behind 'Nova's foul line (about a 90-foot shot, or thereabouts). Nardi somehow managed to hit the rim with that ball (although it would not have counted, if it had gone in, as the official had correctly waved it off, as soon as Nardi released it). Nonetheless, if Nardi's shot had gone in, it would unquestionably have been on "SportsCenter".
But defense wasn't the whole story. Villanova shot 50% from the floor, made 10 of its 25 three-point attempts (40%), and attempted 32 free throws, compared to just 11 for Stony Brook, and its 62.5% success rate dwarfed the aforementioned 9% for the Seawolves.
I was somewhat surprised that the bench players didn't see more minutes, if for no other reason, that Villanova is very unlikely to have this many lopsided victories. (There are only five cupcakes on the schedule, including tonight, and three of those aren't even true cupcakes, because they won't be at the friendly confines of the Pavilion. 'Nova will be playing AT Wright's alma mater, Bucknell, and will also face Rider at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, NJ, and Longwood at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ.)
Using tonight's game as an indication, it appears that at least for the next few games, Wright is going to use the four guards, along with Sheridan and Jason Fraser, in heavy rotation. Freshman Dante Cunningham will be worked in and out as the 7th man. This assumption is solely based on the fact that Cunningham played 16 minutes tonight, with fellow frosh Dwayne Anderson (7 minutes), Frank Tchuisi and Bilal Benn (5 minutes each) seeing significantly less time. Baker Dunleavy logged 4 minutes tonight and drew perhaps the crowd's biggest cheer, by calmly draining a three near the end of the contest.
Cunningham turned in a great performance: four points, six rebounds, two steals, an assist, and no turnovers, and all in just 16 minutes of action. Anderson scored three points and had one turnover in 7 minutes. Benn had an assist and a turnover, but did not take a shot in 5 minutes, and Tchuisi's only notation in the box score was a blocked shot in the same amount of time.
This was the second meeting between the two schools, both of which have resulted in easy Villanova victories at the Pavilion. The first meeting was during Wright's first season (2001-02); on December 11, 2001, 'Nova won 76-54, with no trouble. The Long Island school, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, has only been in Division I, since the 1999-2000 season. And the team is playing under a new coach, Steve Pikiell. (Pikiell was a Connecticut Husky, during their late-'80s rise to prominence, and served as captain of the team for two seasons.) After his playing career ended, Pikiell had been an assistant at George Washington and his alma mater, among other stops. Stony Brook had a 12-17 team last season, although this year's America East race is up for grabs, since last year's NCAA entrant, Vermont, lost their nucleus. (The Villanova Times, in their outstanding Basketball Preview issue, reported that Street and Smith had pegged the Seawolves fourth in the America East and gave them a fighting chance at the conference title).
Still, props must be given to the Long Islanders. Obviously, Stony Brook was vastly overmatched in talent, athleticism, bench depth, quickness, and size (in short, basically every attribute needed for a potential victory). Nonetheless, the Seawolves consistently hustled, dove and fought for loose balls, played hard for 40 minutes, in spite of the fact that they knew they had no chance of even keeping the contest close, let alone winning. And that augurs well for their future in the America East. (About the only area where Stony Brook could match the 'Cats, was in court appearance; the Seawolves sported simple, classic red-and-white uniforms, with easy-to-read block numbers.)
Of course, Villanova's thrashing of Stony Brook does provide an auspicious start for what the Villanova faithful hope will be the team's finest season in a decade. And perhaps, with a few good breaks and the eventual return of Curtis Sumpter (sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury), an appearance in the Final Four for the first time since the magical 1985 team won it all.
The Wildcats will enjoy a long break over Thanksgiving. There will be a nine-day respite, and the squad will return to action against Lehigh, at the Pavilion on Sunday night, November 27. It will be the second of three cupcakes to open the season, before the Wildcats meet their first real challenge, Oklahoma (ranked #6 in both polls), at the Pavilion on December 3.