Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Nardi Gras: On His 21st Birthday, the Junior Guard Lights Up Louisville for 20 Points, as #4 Villanova Sweeps Cardinals

by Craig Dimitri

NBC-10's John Clark came up with the phrase "Nardi Gras tonight" while reporting the results of last night's game on the 11 PM broadcast, and so he deserves credit for that phrase. It best describes the explosion from Mike Nardi last night, on his 21st birthday. In just 26 minutes of action, Nardi scored 20 points, including five triples, to propel #4 Villanova to its fifth consecutive victory, defeating Louisville, 79-73, to sweep the season series. On January 5, at Louisville, the Wildcats triumphed over then-#8/#9 Cardinals, 76-67, to improve to 10-0.

The Wildcats improved to 16-2 overall, 7-1 Big East, and now reside in second place in the 16-team conference, behind only #11 West Virginia, which is 6-0 and handed 'Nova its only conference loss, on January 7 at the Pavilion. This is Villanova's best Big East start in a generation, since the 1982-83 squad, under Roland V. Massimino, also went 7-1.

Nardi wasn't the only star for VU, however. Also turning in strong showings, in front of the sold-out Wachovia Center, were the senior backcourt of Allan Ray and Randy Foye, both logging 35 minutes. Ray - who had been struggling with a hamstring injury - finished with a game-high 26 points (including 5-8 shooting from three-point range), eight rebounds, and two assists. Foye finished with 19 points, four rebounds, four steals, and three assists. And of course, there was Kyle Lowry. Despite playing only 21 minutes, the sophomore guard had eight points and six assists.

Off the bench, freshman Dante Cunningham continues to impress. In 20 minutes, he finished with two points, six rebounds and three assists.

The high-scoring contest was due to an abundance of threes, on both sides, giving both the crowd, and the ESPN audience, a lively contest to watch. At halftime, Louisville was already 9-14 from beyond the arc, including 5-6 from Dean, who had 17 points already. (This did not bode well for VU, given the aforementioned statistic about Dean clearing the 15-point line.) For its part, Villanova was 10-17 from three-point range (with four apiece from Ray and Foye) - and remember, this was only halftime. In the first half, the teams combined to go 19-31 from three-point range - remarkable sharpshooting. (Both teams cooled off a bit in the second half: VU was only 4-9, and Louisville only 3-9, but they were still respectable numbers.) For his part, Foye matched Dean's 17 points at the half, but managed just two points after intermission.

Villanova's largest first-half lead was at 41-30; Louisville had come back with a 8-0 run, cutting the margin to 41-38, before Foye scored the final basket of the half. So, after the first-half fireworks had ended, VU's lead had been reduced to a 43-38 advantage.

Within five minutes of the resumption of play, the Cardinals had pulled to within 50-48- and then, as has dogged them all season, the offense began to malfunction. Villanova exploded with a 13-0 run, with the middle nine of the 13 scored by Nardi, and culminating in a tip-in from Dante Cunningham. The Wildcats now led 63-48. The crowd went wild, and Louisville appeared to be ready to board the plane for home.

To their credit, the Cardinals rallied in a very hostile environment, and made the game uncomfortably close in the final minutes. Trailing by 15, Louisville went on a 14-3 run of its own, ending when Dean hit a jump shot around the five-minute mark. The Wildcats' lead was now down to a thin 66-62, with plenty of time remaining. By the under-four minute TV timeout, the Cardinals were within two at 70-68, having now scored 20 of the last 27 points.

Ray responded with four straight points, followed by a tip-in by Foye, and the Wildcats were back in control, 76-68, with about 90 seconds to play. Louisville never drew closer than five the rest of the way, with the final tally being 79-73.

VU probably won this game for two reasons:

1) At the free throw line- or depending on how you look at it, by preventing Louisville from reaching the line. The Wildcats went 15-21 (71.4%) from the line, while the Cardinals took only eight free throws (and they only made three, a dismal 37.5%; Dean was 2-2 and everyone else was 1-6.)

2) Turnovers. The four-guard lineup once again worked in Villanova's favor, as the Wildcats committed only eight miscues, while forcing almost twice as many (15) for Louisville.

Louisville stayed in the game, despite the disparity, because it shot 56% from the floor. In fact, five Cardinals reached double figures: Dean, Dwight Padgett (15 points, five rebounds), Brandon Jenkins (24 minutes due to foul trouble, he fouled out at the end, but not before scoring 11 points and collecting five rebounds), Juan Palacios (a dozen points, half a dozen rebounds and three assists in only 28 minutes), and, off the bench, Terrence Williams (10 points, five rebounds, 27 minutes).

One of Villanova's few weaknesses was once again exposed: lack of scoring punch off the bench. Four bench players entered the game, for a total of 56 minutes, but scored a grand total of two points (Cunningham's aforementioned two). Shane Clark had a decent 23 minutes (three rebounds, an assist and a steal). Jason Fraser, unfortunately, couldn't help the 'Cats much (he played just 11 minutes, with one rebound and one block). Finally, Bilal Benn played two minutes, due to some foul trouble for the guards.

Louisville fell out of the Top 25 yesterday in both polls, receiving only a handful of votes in each (see Rank and File post, for more) and it doesn't appear that they will be returning to the national rankings, any time in the foreseeable future. The Cardinals have now lost five of their last six, and their record stands at 2-6 Big East, 14-7 overall, with a CollegeRPI.com rank of #64.

Obviously, if these trends continue, they will miss the NCAA tournament, after making it each of the last three seasons. Not since Rick Pitino's first season (2001-02), have the Cardinals been relegated to the NIT. Also, there seems little reason to think Louisville is going to turn it around, particularly with Dean's injuries. Essentially, the only thing for U of L to play for at this point, is qualifying for the 12-team Big East tournament- which is far from a lock at this point, with the Cardinals saddled with a 2-6 record.

It was noted in the preview, that Louisville was undefeated (8-0), when Dean - the preseason All-American guard - scored 15 or more points, but had a 7-7 record, otherwise. And so perhaps the most impressive element of VU's victory, was the fact that Dean had a great performance. And he did it, despite being hobbled by an ankle injury, which has drastically reduced his playing time in recent games. Dean scored a team-high 23 points and dealt seven assists - but Louisville is now 8-1 when he scores 15 or more points.

Worth Noting

During the frequent stoppages in the final minutes, there was some banter between ESPN broadcasters Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery, and Jay Bilas. The best exchange, between McDonough and Raftery, went something to the effect of:

McDonough (indicating his disbelief, in the following statement): You know, Jay Wright claims that he doesn't pay any attention to his wardrobe. He told us so, this morning.
Raftery (with similar disbelief) : Well, if he doesn't- then, someone else pays a lot of attention to it, for him! (pausing) You know, I used to have as much sartorial elegance as Jay Wright. Back when I was younger.
McDonough: In which life?!?

The subject of this exchange was not surprising, given the reputation of both Pitino and Wright for expensive suits, with them being on the same sideline last night.

Up Next For the Wildcats

After the frantic nature of the last two weeks, the Wildcats will finally receive an opportunity to rest and let some injuries heal. Fortunately, Marquette - which owns a 15-point victory over top-ranked Connecticut - won't arrive at the Pavilion till Saturday afternoon. I will provide a full preview...

Comments, observations, etc., whether positive or negative, are always encouraged. Feel free to post a public comment, and/or e-mail me at

Go Wildcats!

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