Friday, December 23, 2005

#3 Villanova Levels La Salle, 98-57

by Craig Dimitri

La Salle was a once proud program, and still has loads of tradition, including a NCAA title in 1954. Although the Explorers haven't had a winning season since 1993, Villanova has had trouble with La Salle during that span. Incredibly, La Salle entered the game with a 5-1 record at the Pavilion, far and away the best of any Wildcat opponent, with Villanova's only victory having been on January 12, 2000. (Villanova has only 15 losses to non-Big East opponents in the Pavilion, with five of them coming against La Salle, even though La Salle was only played every other year for most of the 1990s). And heading into tonight, Villanova still led the all-time series by just a 28-26 margin, even after winning six of the last eight clashes.

Well, their second loss was a memorable one. Villanova handed the Explorers their worst defeat in the venerable, 72-year history of the series, by the margin of 98-57. It just eclipsed the previous mark, a 90-50 defeat that Kerry Kittles and company inflicted on Lincoln's Birthday in 1996, when La Salle was playing its home games in the old Spectrum.

Both schools came into the game unbeaten, with identical 7-0 records - in all likelihood, the first time in the Big Five's 50-year history that two schools had faced each other with both being 7-0. Obviously, one would suffer its first loss of the season. And it was La Salle who did all of the suffering tonight.

Villanova improved to 8-0, the first time since the 1977-78 season, when Roland V. Massimino was at the helm, and also moved to 2-0 in the City Series. La Salle fell to 7-1, 0-1 City Series, and was stymied in the pursuit of its first 8-0 start since Lionel Simmons's 1989-90 squad.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

#3 Villanova Gets Past Penn at Palestra, 62-55

by Craig Dimitri

Each year, it is worth reminding, that in City Series play, anything can - and often does - happen. The last time the Penn Quakers and Villanova Wildcats played in this situation (at the Palestra with Villanova in the top five) it was December 1996 (what has become known as the "Tim Thomas year", to differentiate it from the others of that era).

That night nearly a decade ago, Penn had no business defeating Villanova, and they didn't. However, with the old ghosts in that building, the Quakers always have a fighting chance. And so as could have been expected, Villanova survived an unpleasantly rocky game, but managed to best Penn, 62-55, on Tuesday night. It was, far and away, the stiffest challenge to still-undefeated Villanova this season.

That Penn - now 3-4 overall, 0-2 City Series - would put up a tough game at the Palestra was to be expected. The Quakers, despite their mediocre 3-3 record entering the game, lost by only 13 at #1 Duke earlier this season, and at home they were going to be very tough, regardless of the number in front of Villanova's name. The Quakers charged with a 24-7 run in the second half and trailed by just four, 55-51, with just under two minutes remaining.

What wasn't expected was a bizarre technical charged to 'Nova at crunch time, after Jason Fraser got caught as the sixth man on the floor, coming out of a timeout, and was whistled as he belatedly tried to scurry off the court. Apparently, this situation is not unusual, but the officials usually wait to present the ball to the opponent, until the superfluous player(s) safely escape the court - it's not like having 12 men on the field in football, where everyone is shuttling in and out on every play.

In what could have been devastating to Villanova's chances, the officials offered no such courtesy to the Wildcats. But all's well that ends well, and in the final analysis, Villanova improved to 7-0, 1-0 City Series. They will face Big Five rivals La Salle and Temple in their next two contests, before beginning Big East play against newcomer Louisville.

Go Wildcats!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

No Gambling for #4 Wildcats, as 'Nova Cleans Up Longwood in Atlantic City

by Craig Dimitri

It was not how one would describe a typical Villanova cupcake game. Instead of being played at the cozy on-campus Pavilion, it was played 78 miles away in Atlantic City, NJ, the oasis for slot-playing seniors. And it was played against Longwood, a school which few (if anyone, at least if they're being honest) had ever heard of. (Ray Didinger, the distinguished football writer, wittily noted on WIP that "the only Longwood I had ever heard of was Longwood Gardens [the large landscaped nursery out in Chester County] and you'd figure that they'd be pretty busy at Christmas time, with little time for basketball.")

Didinger wasn't the only one, of course, who had never heard of Longwood, which brought a 2-6 record into the contest. For one thing, it is not located anywhere near Atlantic City. It is, instead, in Farmville, Virginia, in the south-central interior of the state, near the North Carolina border, a bit southwest of the state's capital, Richmond. It is, according to Mapquest, 312.73 miles/5 hours, 32 minutes, from VU.

Longwood is a former Division II school, which is in the process (a long, painful one, apparently) of making the fitful leap to full-fledged Division I status. (If you really want to learn more - It appears to be in the third year of the four-year transition, which would seem to indicate that it will be a bona fide D-I school by the 2007-08 season.

Along with a handful of other schools making similar transitions, it is an independent with no conference affiliation. One fact alone establishes the growing pains: last season, the Longwood Lancers went 1-30. (Cool name, though, the alliteration rolls off the tongue.) This year's team has already doubled its predecessor's win total.

Accordingly, it would be safe to say that if Longwood somehow managed to defeat #4 Villanova, it would rank with Chaminade defeating Ralph Sampson's Virginia back in the early '80s, as one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.

Fortunately, Villanova did not provide an opportunity for Longwood to be the lead story on SportsCenter, with the biggest upset of 2005. The Wildcats defeated the Lancers by the surprisingly close margin of 90-77, improving to 6-0 and remaining among the ranks of the unbeaten.

Longwood could point to a moral victory. They still managed to outrebound 'Nova significantly, 44-35, and trailed by 29-25 at one point, and shot 50% (6-12) from beyond the arc.

As one might imagine, this was a rather unusual scenario for a December Villanova game - playing an obscure Division I (and a half?) school from rural Virginia, on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The game was played in Boardwalk Hall, within walking distance of the various and sundry casinos. The venue's 7,000-odd seats were filled with VU students, alumni and fans, many of whom, as the cliche goes, inhabit the Garden State, as AC is just a relatively-quick jaunt from VU down the aptly-named AC Expressway. (And if you were coming from points north, the Garden State Parkway.)

The senior backcourt, as usual, paced the Wildcats. Randy Foye had 27 points on 9-18 shooting, and Allan Ray had 20 points on 7-15 shooting. Will Sheridan had a powerful game underneath, scoring 13 points on 6-10 shooting, while collecting eight rebounds, in only 29 minutes. Mike Nardi had a fine all-around game, scoring a dozen points, dealing five assists and grabbing three rebounds. For Longwood, the leading scorer was Michael Jefferson, with 19 points.

Throughout the game, Wright was able to spread playing time to the bench, a long-overdue move, and the chief reason why the victory margin was only 13 points. ('Nova was never threatened, holding a 44-32 advantage at halftime.) For once, Villanova moved away from the four-guard alignment: Kyle Lowry played only six minutes, as he was bothered by back spasms.
Freshmen Dante Cunningham (22 minutes), Dwayne Anderson (12 minutes), Bilal Benn (13 minutes) and Frank Tchuisi (2 minutes) all got into the game, as did Chris Charles (8 minutes) and Baker Dunleavy (2 minutes).

Obviously, it was the first (and likely the last) meeting of the two schools.

The Wildcats will return to action by opening City Series play, against the Penn Quakers on Tuesday, December 13, at the Palestra.

Go Wildcats!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

In Homecoming for Coach Jay Wright, #4 Villanova Survives Scare at Bucknell, 79-60

by Craig Dimitri

Don't let the 19-point margin of victory deceive you. Bucknell was playing on its home floor, in front of a rabid, raucous student crowd, in the biggest on-campus game in decades. And the Bison trailed by just three, to the fourth-ranked team in the nation, in the second half. In the end, fortunately, the Villanova speed, quickness and athleticism were enough to subdue Jay Wright's gallant alma mater, 79-60, at Sojka Pavilion in Lewisburg, Pa.

Bucknell is no pushover. Last season, the Bison knocked off Big East member Pittsburgh and stunned Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And they have continued that success, this year. Bucknell was undefeated entering the game, with a 5-0 record, and has already beaten then-#17 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome as well as defeating DePaul in Chicago.

And those upsets were on the road. Here, the Bison had one of the rarest of opportunities for a Patriot League team: the chance to face a national power on their home floor, instead of constantly hitting the road for these contests. This precious opportunity came about explicitly, due to Jay Wright's four-year career at Bucknell (class of 1982). It was also one of the rarest sights in college basketball: a game in which both coaches attended the same alma mater, as Bucknell coach Pat Flannery also played for the Bison. Not surprisingly, uuntil the game started, Wright was the toast of Lewisburg, as students waved Reagan-era pictures of Wright as a player.

(The Bison's logo is also quite cool - it's identical to the logo of the NFL's Buffalo Bills, except with blue, orange and white, instead of the Bills' red, white, and blue.)

But after tip-off, Bucknell's fans and players were undoubtedly contemplating the possibility of another upset, when the score was just 44-41 early in the second half. 'Nova had raced out to an early 26-7 lead, quieting the crowd, but led by just nine, 40-31, at halftime.

And even as late as the ten-minute mark, the orange-and-blue Bison were still down just 54-48. This margin was a long way from comfortable for Villanova, with the deafening, partisan, largely student crowd (the 4,433-seat Sojka Pavilion was sold out) in full fury behind the Bison's bid, for yet another upset over a national power.

The Wildcats were able to exploit their advantages, however, after that point. 'Nova went on a 10-0 run to put the game out of reach at 64-48, and were never challenged the rest of the way. And thus, Villanova remains undefeated, at 5-0.

Randy Foye was the biggest contributor, leading the Wildcats with 28 points and 11 rebounds. After scoring just two points in the first half, Allan Ray exploded for 18 after intermission. Kyle Lowry was the only other Wildcat to reach double figures, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and four steals. One factor, that kept the Bison in the game, were turnovers: Villanova coughed it up 18 times, including seven times on Bucknell steals.

The biggest advantage was on the glass. Even playing with four guards, Villanova won the rebounding battle, 37-21, something which it is very unlikely to do for the rest of the season.

For Bucknell, Chris McNaughton virtually carried the team, especially given Villanova's weakness in the paint. He had a game-high 29 points (on 12-21 shooting, plus 5-6 from the line) and five rebounds, while none of his teammates had more than nine points. Abe Badmus (one of the great names in college basketball) contributed significantly for the Bison, with eight points, four rebounds, and five assists. Bucknell is now 5-1, although, ironically, it won at Rider by just two points, against a Broncos squad that Villanova breezed through, earlier this season.

Villanova, surprisingly, leads the all-time series against Bucknell by just a 12-8 margin, although the main reason for that fact is that prior to Wright's arrival at Villanova in 2001-02, the schools hadn't faced each other since 1948 (the schools faced each other frequently in the 1930s and '40s.) Bucknell's last victory came on December 8, 1945. In modern times, the teams' only previous meeting was at the Pavilion during Wright's first year, with the 'Cats triumphing 67-44, on December 1, 2001.

The 'Cats return to action against Longwood, on Saturday, December 10, in Atlantic City.

Go Wildcats!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

See Ya, Sooners! In Front of Dick Vitale, ESPN, and the Nation, #4 Villanova Knocks Out #5 Oklahoma in Old-Fashioned Showdown

by Craig Dimitri

Too much celebrating in Philadelphia, post-game, tonight, to finish the game story. I have the game on tape, of course, and a more detailed and fitting chronicle, for such a historic victory, to come later...

But for now, here's a brief summary:

In this rare matchup of undefeated Top Five teams, the three healthy seniors - Randy Foye, Jason Fraser, and Allan Ray - were the big stars for the Wildcats this afternoon. Foye rocked the Pavilion rims for a career-high 32 points on 14-21 shooting. Fraser played 26 minutes, scoring 10 points, collecting four rebounds. But most importantly, he blocked three Oklahoma shots, providing some key size and defense against the bigger Sooners in the paint. Fraser's looming presence underneath helped in permitting Villanova's four-guard attack to be successful, as Oklahoma couldn't keep up on defense, allowing 85 points. And Ray also helped pour it in, scoring 21 points and converting a perfect 10-10 from the line.

Villanova's quickness on defense forced 17 OU turnovers, leading to 27 Wildcat points, and the Wildcats eventually broke open a game that was deadlocked at 35 at intermission. The speedy VU guards became increasingly disruptive for OU's offense in the second half, as frontcourt players Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout scored 27 of OU's 39 second-half points. For OU, Gray led the Sooners in both scoring and rebounding, finishing with 22 points and seven boards, with Bookout contributing 15 points In the first half, OU led on the glass 21-10, but Fraser's increased presence in the second half helped 'Nova win the remainder on the glass, 10-8...

More to come!

Go Wildcats!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Sovereign Power: In Trenton's Sovereign Bank Arena, #4 Villanova Busts Broncos, Crushes Rider, 86-57

Sovereign Power: In Trenton's Sovereign Bank Arena, #4 Villanova Busts Broncos, Crushes Rider, 86-57

by Craig Dimitri

On Wednesday night, Villanova completed its expected three-game warmup for the long-awaited, ESPN/Dick Vitale-presented, nationally televised confrontation with #5 Oklahoma on Saturday at the Pavilion. The Wildcats, ranked #4 in both polls, cruised to their third consecutive lopsided victory, crushing the Broncos of Rider, 86-57, at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, NJ. Villanova (3-0) has now outscored its first three cupcake opponents by a combined score of 248-139. They have not scored fewer than 78 points or permitted more than 57.

Kyle Lowry scored a career-high 20 points, while Allan Ray had a game-high 21 points. Mike Nardi scored all 18 of his points on six triples on ten attempts, as 'Nova continued its torrid three-point pace. 'Nova ran out to a 33-13 lead in the early going, and never looked back. Rider fell to 1-3 on the season.

The chief oddity is that the two schools can't agree as to what precisely Villanova's advantage is in the all-time series. 'Nova claims that it has won 22 out of 23 against Rider (the teams play reasonably often, due to Rider's proximity in nearby Lawrenceville, NJ), in the series, which goes all the way back to 1937. Rider's only victory came on December 11, 1944, in one of the only four times the game wasn't at Jake Nevin or the Palestra, where they triumphed 48-32. (The other three times were tonight, in Trenton, and three trips to Rider). Tonight's victory was Villanova's 15th straight.

According to Rider, however, VU's commanding lead is now just 19-3, and that the 1944 victory actually took place in 1945.

Go Wildcats!