Wednesday, January 25, 2006

In Their First Running of the Bulls, #6 Wildcats NARROWLY Avoid Being Trampled, 49-46

by Craig Dimitri

It was the first-ever meeting between #6 Villanova, and the Bulls of South Florida. And undoubtedly, coach Jay Wright and the Wildcats are very thankful, that there won't be a second meeting this season. Despite their narrow losses, in all but one of their conference games, USF is 0-6 in Big East play. Thus, the Bulls are obviously likely to finish in the bottom four of the new, 16-team Big East, and miss the trip to Madison Square Garden, where there could be a potential rematch with the Wildcats.

(In an atypical section of the USF media game-day notes, they specifically requested that their team be referred to initially as "the University of South Florida", then either as "the Bulls" or "USF". With equal specificity, they asked that such variants as "South Fla.", "S. Florida", or the like not be used. And since they asked so politely, and the USF SID did a great job with the game notes - it was easy to get up to speed on USF, thanks to them, I will cheerfully comply with their request, throughout this article.)

The visiting Wildcats trailed by as much as seven, 45-38, with just over six minutes to play. The Bulls, who had lost four of their five previous Big East contests by single digits, were undoubtedly intoxicated on the scent of the school's first-ever Big East victory. The Wildcats were sorely missing Allan Ray, who did not play due to a hamstring injury he suffered in practice this week.

However, the Wildcats went on a 10-0 tear to reclaim the lead at 48-45, with 3:22 remaining, with the big strikes being triples from Randy Foye and Mike Nardi. Nonetheless, the Wildcats were not out of the woods at the Sun Dome, until the final buzzer sounded.

USF's McHugh Mattis (as noted in the preview, what a great name!) converted the first of two free throw attempts, to pull the Bulls within 48-46, at the 1:47 mark. But Villanova couldn't make a field goal the rest of the way. Jason Fraser rebounded Mattis' miss, and VU called timeout. But Will Sheridan missed a shot, and USF's Solomon Jones grabbed the rebound.

Villanova forced a turnover, calling its final two timeouts with 46 and 37 seconds remaining, respectively. Foye missed a shot that would have made it a two-possession game with 32 seconds left, and Jones once again retrieved the rebound. USF called its final timeout with 21 seconds to play, to discuss its strategy. A two-pointer would tie it, a three-pointer would win it. What undoubtedly figured strongly, in coach Robert McCullum's analysis, was that the Bulls were in serious foul trouble, and would lose a battle of attrition if it went into OT. They were better off trying for the three, and it was not surprising that both of their final two shots were three-pointers.

Accordingly, James Holmes tried a three-pointer that went in and out with 4 seconds remaining, and the rebound went to Foye, who was immediately fouled. Foye kept USF's hopes alive by missing the first one; he made the second one (Villanova's only point in the last 1:43), to give USF one last chance, this time down by 3. A desperation shot by Mattis did not go in, and so the Wildcats managed to scamper out of the Sun Dome with a victory - that, speaking frankly - they probably didn't deserve, even without Ray.

One major concern is how inept the offense was, without Ray. With the team's best shooter off the floor, and the Wildcats thus playing bigger, USF simply plugged the inside lanes shut, and forced the Wildcats' perimeter shooters to beat them. It was a wise strategy by McCallum, and it came within one three-point shot of succeeding. Villanova's shooting was abysmal: the Wildcats shot just 29.6% from the floor and slightly worse from beyond the arc, at 28.6%. Randy Foye finished with a game-high 24 points (nearly half of VU's total) on 8-23 shooting. Nobody else reached double figures for Villanova. But Foye was only 2-11 in the first half, the major reason why USF took a 21-18 lead into the locker room.

The bottom line: on no fewer than three possessions, in a one-possession situation, the Bulls could have tied or taken the lead in the last two minutes. The victory by the Wildcats tonight was by a very precarious margin.

Defense, of course, was the key to the Villanova triumph. They allowed only 46 points, holding USF to equally dismal 29.2% shooting from the floor, and also forced 17 USF turnovers (which committing only nine, themselves.) For the Bulls, Melvin Buckley scored a team-high 12 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds. However, the real star of the game was USF center Solomon Jones. Jones had seven points, five blocked shots, an incredible 17 rebounds (and five assists, from a center!). He continues to be one of the best big men in the Big East. Both Buckley and Jones played all 40 minutes.

Worth Noting

USF's Colin Dennis went 0-13 from the floor, but 6-6 from the line. (How can that happen?) Or if you look at it another way, the rest of the Bulls shot a respectable 40% (14-35) from the floor.

As Wildcats assistant Patrick Page noted after the game, "everyone on the bench moved up a spot", due to the Ray injury. His 35 minutes were distributed down the line, so freshmen Shane Clark (19 minutes, 2 points, 5 rebounds and a block) and Dante Cunningham (14 minutes before fouling out) made substantial contributions. Also, Chris Charles and Dwayne Anderson came off the bench for a total of three minutes.

Villanova improved to 5-1 Big East, 14-2 overall, and continued to solidify its Big East standing. The Bulls fell to 0-6 Big East, 6-13 overall, but their first-ever conference victory is going to turn up at some point. They have had a lot of close calls, all of which they lost, and eventually the basketball gods will reward USF with a victory. At 0-6, it would be very difficult for them to qualify for the conference tournament (they'd probably need to go at least 5-11, to avoid the bottom four) but it's not impossible.

Up Next For Villanova

The Wildcats will travel to South Bend, Indiana, to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, on Saturday at 6 PM, EST. ND, which had been viewed as an up-and-coming program under former Delaware coach Mike Brey, has been sagging in the standings. It hasn't helped that ND has gone to the NIT in both 2004 and 2005.

While Villanova was struggling at the Sun Dome, suddenly red-hot, #21 Georgetown overcame ND in South Bend, 85-82, in double OT, with Irish star Chris Quinn playing all 50 minutes. While the Hoyas (4-2 Big East, 13-4 overall) will be dancing come March, Notre Dame is now 1-5 Big East, 10-7 overall. ND is vulnerable and if the Wildcats get Ray back in one piece, things should go better than they did in Tampa.

I will provide a full preview...

Go Wildcats!

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