Monday, February 20, 2006

Wildcats Off to Best Start Since 1937-38, Topping Hoyas at Pavilion, 75-65

By Craig Dimitri

On a bright but cold Sunday afternoon on the Main Line, #4 Villanova poised itself for the highest regular-season ranking in the school’s illustrious 86 years of basketball. The Wildcats held off #17 Georgetown, 75-65, thrilling a packed Pavilion crowd that was in far excess of the 6,500 official capacity. After Villanova took a slim 30-28 lead at halftime, the Wildcats played in nearly flawless fashion upon returning to the floor. They committed zero turnovers after intermission, and only three in the entire contest.

The senior backcourt of Randy Foye and Allan Ray delivered once again for Villanova. Foye finished with a game-high 22 points on 8-16 shooting, dealt three assists, and also contributed significantly on the glass, collaring eight rebounds against the bigger Hoyas. Ray followed up his heroic second-half performance against UConn, with 20 points (including 5-10 shooting, from beyond the arc) and four assists. Ray’s numbers were particularly impressive, because the senior guard had struggled with his shooting accuracy, in both games against the Hoyas last season.

Perhaps the most significant player on the floor, however, was Kyle Lowry. Georgetown had no answer for the sophomore spark plug, who scored 13 points, had three steals, and kept the Hoyas defense from keying exclusively on the two seniors.

Georgetown did not go quietly, however. The Hoyas had an enormous advantage in size, one that came uncomfortably close to offsetting the Wildcats’ three trump cards: quickness, offensive firepower, and a deeper bench. Roy Hibbert was simply awesome underneath, and the 7-2 center exhausted Villanova’s thin frontcourt corps. Hibbert exhausted the efforts of Jason Fraser, Will Sheridan, and Dante Cunningham – all of whom rapidly sank into foul trouble, trying to guard him. (The trio logged a total of 68 minutes, but committed 11 personal fouls). Hibbert finished with outstanding numbers: 20 points and a dozen rebounds (both team highs), and even three assists. The sophomore pivotman was the main reason why Georgetown hung around for nearly the entire contest.

Moreover, Villanova’s bench did not provide a single point, as Fraser, Cunningham, and Shane Clark combined for 46 minutes. But the three took only one field goal attempt, although they did add eight rebounds (six from Fraser, including four on the offensive end).

Aesthetically, it was one of the most enjoyable games of the season, as both squads played very well. As noted, it was a season-low in turnovers for the Wildcats, with just three, and the Hoyas had only ten. But Georgetown had its standout individuals, in addition to Hibbert. Jeff Green had an outstanding all-around game, finishing with 15 points, plus half a dozen rebounds and assists, to boot. Ashanti Cook, who had struggled mightily in the two games against Villanova last year, finally broke through, scoring 16 points on 6-8 shooting.

The crux of the defeat for Georgetown was the virtually complete shutdown of Brandon Bowman, to which great credit should be given to ‘Nova’s defense. Bowman, who entered the game averaging almost a dozen points and five and a half rebounds per contest, was almost invisible on the stat sheet. The senior forward played only 26 minutes, scoring only four points, and taking only two shots (he had one three-point field goal, and made one of his two free throw attempts). And it wasn’t just a scoring drought: Bowman had no assists or rebounds, and committed three turnovers.

It was the third straight loss for the Hoyas, after an 8-2 start in Big East play. However, as noted in the preview, Georgetown (8-5 Big East, 17-7 overall) really needs only one more victory – regardless of the opponent – to secure a NCAA bid, thanks to their strong RPI ranking and signature victory over Duke.

It should be noted that the game was far closer than the ten-point margin of victory would indicate. As noted above, VU led by only two points at the half, and although the Wildcats took control early in the second half, Georgetown drew as close as ----- before succumbing. When the Hoyas made their final, gallant charge down the stretch, there was a great deal of discomfort in the Pavilion. It is likely that most of the VU faithful had not forgotten last season’s contest, Georgetown’s first-ever visit to the Pavilion, when the Wildcats could not hold an 11-point halftime advantage. Instead, Villanova fell, 66-64 – ironically, on the day in which the 1985 national title team was honored for its victory over Georgetown, by that identical score.

The latest set of Wildcat superlatives:

Villanova is now 11-1 in Big East play, the best start the school has ever posted in the 25 years it has been a member (the Big East is in its 26th season, but VU did not join until the second year.) The Wildcats are now 21-2 overall.

Radio broadcaster Ryan Fannon stated afterward that “this was probably the greatest regular-season week in Villanova history,” and he’s right. With the trifecta of the upset victory over top-ranked Connecticut, Jay Wright’s contract extension through 2013, and the vanquishing of the 17th-ranked Hoyas at the Pavilion in front of a raucous crowd, it would be difficult to imagine another seven-day period that was better, in the regular season.

This was Villanova’s 10th straight victory. Think about that, and let it sink in for a second. Ten in a row. And this is the second time that the Wildcats have achieved the feat this season, having won their opening ten contests as well. Villanova has not lost since January 14, when the Wildcats fell in Austin, Texas, to the then-#9 Longhorns.

Pending confirmation by the BE office, I believe that VU has now mathematically clinched a bye in New York City for the Big East tournament, even in the unlikely event that the Wildcats lost their last four BE contests. Georgetown and Marquette are now both 8-5, and Seton Hall is 7-5- but VU would win a tiebreaker against any of them due to head-to-head victories over all three. Thus, I conclude that Villanova could finish no lower than fourth, after today’s victory.

Most importantly, in Monday’s latest polls, Villanova should vault over both #3 Memphis and #1 Connecticut, to the #2 spot. The Wildcats, if they can keep the streak going, need only for Duke – the putative #1 when the polls are released – to stumble once in the ACC, to take the top spot for the first time during regular-season play,in VU history.

Into the Wayback Machine

This victory meant that Villanova has gone 21-2 for the first time in 68 years, and only the second time in school history. The last Wildcat squad to do it, was the 1937-38 team, which went 22-2 to start the season, the best start in school history.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Preview - #17 Georgetown @ #4 Villanova, Sunday, February 19, noon

Preview of #17 Georgetown @ #4 Villanova, Sunday, February 19, 2006, noon

By Craig Dimitri

The nationally ranked Hoyas visit the Pavilion on Sunday, for one of the biggest on-campus games in recent memory… Here is a comprehensive preview…

The Viewpoint on the #17 Georgetown Hoyas

TV/Radio Broadcasts

It will be broadcast on ESPN+, regional television, which will be aired in metropolitan Philadelphia by WPHL, Channel 17, the WB affiliate. It will air on the radio with Ryan Fannon and Whitey Rigsby calling the game, as always, this time on 990 AM in metropolitan Philadelphia.

Series History

Georgetown leads the series, 34-25. Georgetown, along with St.John’s and Syracuse, is one of only three Big East schools which lead Villanova in the all-time series, including pre-Big East games. (Obviously, VU hasn’t played the five new schools often enough for there to be a meaningful history, either within the Big East or outside it. Nonetheless, the ‘Cats also lead Marquette, Cincinnati, South Florida, and DePaul, and are now deadlocked with Louisville at five wins each, after beating the Cardinals twice this season.)

The Villanova/Georgetown rivalry has had a lot of dormancy, surprisingly, given that this contest will be the 60th meeting. The first game was in VU’s second season of play, 1921-22. The host Hoyas won easily 54-39, on January 19, 1922.

Surprisingly, after that 1922 contest, the teams didn’t face each other again until after the conclusion of World War II, a generation later. The series resumed on November 28, 1945, at Villanova, with the Wildcats winning a narrow 40-37 game. The teams played frequently through the 1950 season, but the series lay dormant for a while. Over the course of the next 31 years, there were only three meetings, in 1955, 1965, and 1976 (with the last taking place at the now-defunct ECAC tournament, at West Virginia, a 72-59 Hoyas victory.)

The 1985 national championship game, which took place on April 1 (fittingly, April Fools’ Day), resulted, as we all know, in a 66-64 Villanova victory, a game in which the Wildcats shot a stunning 78.6% from the floor. Ironically, last year Georgetown came to the Pavilion for the first time in the building’s two decades of existence (Georgetown has always been a sufficiently high-profile opponent to warrant being played at either the Palestra, on Penn’s campus, the old Spectrum in South Philadelphia, or the new CoreStates/First Union/for now-Wachovia Center, which opened for the 1996-97 season).

In that game, the 20th anniversary of the miracle national title team was observed, with all the former players and Rollie Massimino’s coaching staff returning to be honored, with Rollie being formally honored with a banner hanging from the rafters. For that reason, the home game was shifted to the Pavilion. Unfortunately, the Hoyas wrecked the party by winning, 66-64 – in a remarkable coincidence, the precise score of the game nearly 20 years earlier in Lexington, Ky.

(Although the basketball gods showed that they had a sense of humor with this result, the Hoyas did not shoot 78.6% in last year’s Pavilion game, however. Of course, perhaps it was a celestial payback, for the fact that on December 3, 1997, the Wildcats had the audacity to defeat the Hoyas, in Georgetown’s first-ever game at the gleaming, new, downtown MCI Center, by the score of 73-69.)

In February, Villanova avenged the defeat with a triumph at the MCI Center, but all Villanova partisans would have vastly preferred to have won the home game, in front of the 1985 team.

Georgetown will now be making its second appearance at the Pavilion in as many years; last year, it was the first time the Hoyas had visited the Villanova campus since 1950 (this point is explored further in my article on the game, last season, which you can read below). In this case, however, the reason is tactical, rather than symbolic. This season, the Wachovia Center will be one of the eight sites hosting the first and second rounds. The NCAA considers any venue where a team plays more than three home games to be a home court, and you’re no longer permitted to play NCAA games on your home floor. (In one of the most impressive aspects of the 1985 run, before that rule was enacted- #8 seed Villanova had to defeat #9 Dayton in the first round, on the Flyers’ home floor in Ohio. It is one of the toughest places to play in America, given that Dayton is probably, on a per-capita basis, the best basketball town in the nation.)

Depending on the vagaries of the Big East schedule, with missing certain teams each year due to the conference’s over-inflated size, and the occasional, high-profile, out-of-conference home-and-home series, Villanova plays anywhere from three to five games at the Wachovia Center each year. This is done for three reasons.

One is money – the Wachovia Center holds over 21,000 seats, as opposed to the official seating capacity of 6,500 on campus.

The second is media exposure. The Wachovia Center (with the rise of the Comcast empire) has become the nerve center of the Philadelphia sports media, since the 76ers and Flyers play there, and VU feels – justifiably or not - that more media members will get the opportunity to see the team, if they make it more convenient.

The final reason is the Big East, which requires at least three games to be played there, since VU’s on-campus home is so small. (Although VU maintains that it would play at least three games a year there, regardless of the conference rule, for reasons #1 and #2).Certain opponents are always played there (Syracuse has never been to the Pavilion, and UConn hasn’t been there since January 1995.) Others rise and fall, depending on how good they are and how many tickets they can expect to sell (Pitt’s March 2003 visit was shifted there, because of the Panthers’ renaissance.) Notre Dame, although not a power, has also been faced exclusively at the Center, since it joined the Big East a decade ago. They will draw more paying customers than other, better opponents, due to ND’s national fan base.

However, this season, despite facing a host of high-profile opponents, VU would not be able to play more than three games there, and still be eligible to be placed in Philadelphia for the NCAA tournament. So VU decided to play UConn, Louisville, and Syracuse there, and play all other BE home games at the Pavilion. This also meant that the out-of-conference home game against then-#4 Oklahoma, which probably would have been played in Philadelphia, was played on campus on Dec. 4, a Villanova victory.

It is appearing that it was a fortuitous decision to have the #17 team in the nation coming to the cozy Pavilion, which is much more of a home court than the Wachovia Center, not only because the Wildcats practice on that floor, but also because of its much smaller size.

Coach and Context

John Thompson III, 2nd season

Of course, as we all know, JT III (the colloquialism by which he is known), is the son of the legendary John Thompson, architect of the Georgetown program. The elder Thompson spent nearly three decades at GU, arriving in 1972-73 and staying for over a quarter of a century. He inherited a team that had gone 3-23 the previous season, but he constructed the foundation of a program that would receive an incredible 29 consecutive postseason tournament bids over the next three decades. Under Thompson, the Hoyas reached 20 NCAA tournaments, including three Final Fours and capturing the 1984 national championship.

In comparing Villanova’s program to Georgetown’s, it is of historical interest that Georgetown, although it began playing basketball in 1906-07, did not have a long tradition of success in the sport, until the arrival of Thompson. In contrast, Villanova got a significantly later start, beginning play in 1920-21. But it always has been a significant power in the sport, even playing in the first NCAA Final Four in 1939 (although in fairness, there were only eight teams in the tournament back then, and the NIT reigned supreme for many years thereafter).

In retrospect, Georgetown’s status as a college basketball superpower, during the 1980s and to a lesser extent, in the 1990s, eroded for a variety of reasons. However, the chief one was probably the head-spinning - and highly unexpected - mid-season departure of the current coach’s father on January 8, 1999, amidst an unpleasant and public divorce, and his immediate replacement by former GU player and then-longtime assistant coach, Craig Esherick, who had been at GU for all but three years since 1974, as both a player (1974-1977) and assistant (1981-1999).

Obviously, it is impossible to tell whether Esherick would have been the heir to the Thompson legacy, had the legendary coach announced an impending retirement, in the spring of any given year. A more orderly announcement of Thompson’s departure would have permitted GU to pick up someone off the coaching carousel, which always starts spinning in earnest, after the snow has melted. Come each April, the schools which have been looking for the next hot coach, get in line to nab their candidates and hold optimistic press conference introducing their new, highly-paid mentors, and a honeymoon period begins.

Instead, Esherick was named interim coach to get the Hoyas through the season, and he was named as the permanent head coach afterwards. Esherick spent five full seasons at the helm, plus the remainder of the 1998-99 season, and his tenure came to an end after the 2003-04 season.

Over the course of his five-plus seasons as head coach, Esherick was not able to continue the legacy of Thompson. His best season was in 2000-01, his second full season, when the Hoyas reached the Sweet 16, before falling to crosstown Maryland (ironically, in Anaheim, California). But as it turned out, that would be the only NCAA tournament Esherick would reach as head coach.

During Esherick’s final season, in 2003-04, the frustration of the Hoya fan base continued to build, particularly when the squad ended the season with nine consecutive defeats. Demands for Esherick’s ouster were growing exponentially, particularly from students and the most passionate of the alumni. In addition, it had been believed that the impending opening of the downtown MCI Center, would substantially improve Georgetown’s already illustrious program, for two reasons.

The most significant was that the new building was equipped with all the necessary amenities and facilities for the then-approaching 21st century, and was far superior to the building it had replaced, the old Capital Centre in distant Landover, Maryland. It would be much more appealing to fans (and potential recruits) than the old building had been.

The other was geographical: the downtown MCI Center, conveniently located right off the Washington Metro, was far closer to the GU campus than Landover had been. In contrast, reaching suburban Landover from campus was far more troublesome and time-consuming than going to downtown DC, via either cab (the vast majority of students can’t keep cars on campus) or Metro. Attendance would only increase, particularly among students, always the most zealous supporters of any college basketball program. The only real weakness that Georgetown’s program had during the Thompson era, was the lack of an on-campus venue for basketball, with the vast majority of home games being played off-campus. And this weakness was being substantially ameliorated by the move to a brand-new facility, with a far better geographical location.

However - even with the advantages conferred by the new building - as the number of years since the Thompson era continued to increase, the quality of the Hoyas’ program had continued to recede. Esherick’s final season was one of great struggle, with the Hoyas finishing the year 13-15 overall, 4-12 Big East. Playing a very weak non-BE schedule (in fairness, as Thompson had traditionally done), the Hoyas rolled to a 10-0 start, before the roof caved in on the season. Georgetown went 3-15 the rest of the way, finishing the season on a nine-game losing streak (the longest since 1972, the final pre-Thompson year). Their final record stood at 13-15, after an opening-round loss to Boston College in the Big East tournament. The Hoyas finished with an overall, regular-season record under .500 for the first time since 1973, and did not receive a postseason bid for the first time since 1974.

It was announced that Esherick would not continue as head coach on March 16, 2004, and Thompson’s son, JT III, was introduced as the new head coach on April 20 of that year. JT III had previously been the head coach at Princeton, his alma mater, and in 2004, he had taken the Tigers to the NCAA tournament.

JT III’s first year (i.e., last season) was quite successful, as it was a sharp improvement over the previous season. Georgetown had not been expected to contend in the Big East in 2004-05. On the contrary, the preseason poll for the conference (then at an even dozen teams, with soon-to-depart Boston College playing out its lame-duck year before leaving to join Miami and Virginia Tech in the ACC), placed the Hoyas in the penultimate position of 11th out of a 12-team conference.

There was sound reason for the Hoyas to be placed 11th. While the arrival of JT III certainly brought a great deal of optimism to the Georgetown program, there did not appear much reason to think that the program’s reconstruction would yield immediate results, at least in the first season of the new regime (i.e., 2004-05). Of course, there had been a coaching change, one which had been universally welcomed by the Hoyas’ fan base. But this was not just any coaching change. This was one where the new coach (JT III) was installing a very complex, Princeton-style offense based on true five-man basketball, with lots of cuts and setting screens, to players whom he not only did not recruit, but who were used to a much simpler approach to the game.

On top of the change in philosophy, was the departure of two of the most important players from a team that had gone 4-12: Gerald Riley, who had led the team in scoring, and Courtland Rice, its most important post player.

But JT III proved the skeptics wrong, and he engineered a phenomenal turnaround last season. One significant change from his father’s legacy was playing a better non-BE schedule; the Hoyas played Temple,@ Davidson, Penn State, the eventual #1-ranked and NCAA runner-up Illinois, and @ Clemson, before Big East play began. However, the fact that the Hoyas lost big to Temple, Illinois, and most surprisingly, Oral Roberts (by 18 points, in fact), meant that Georgetown started the season with a 4-3 record. The prediction of 11th place seemed to be valid.

However, the Hoyas did remarkably well for the rest of the season. They won @ Long Beach State, @ Clemson, and then scooped up two home cupcakes against Norfolk State and Howard to enter BE play with a respectable 8-3 record.

Georgetown then shocked everyone by rocketing out to a 5-2 record, when Big East play began. In the season opener, they won @ heavily favored Pittsburgh, and went on to win four of the next six, including the victory @ Villanova. The only two losses were against a pair of powerhouses: UConn (by only seven) and @ Syracuse (by only five). After defeating St. John’s at the MCI Center on Jan. 25, the Hoyas’ record stood at 13-5 overall, 5-2 Big East. After losing @ BC by 15, the Hoyas ripped off three more victories, culminating with a Lincoln’s Birthday victory over #17 West Virginia at the MCI Center. Thus, by Valentine’s Day, Georgetown was now 16-6 overall, 8-3 Big East, and they were all but certain to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. In the BE, being over .500 in league play is almost certain to garner an at-large bid, and moreover, Georgetown actually had some decent out-of-conference losses to include in their tournament dossier. (Not bad at all, for the team predicted to finish in next-to-last place of a 12-team conference.) If they could get to nine BE wins, they were all but in.

Unfortunately for the Hoyas’ fans, the success did not continue beyond the West Virginia upset, the high-water mark of the season. The elusive ninth conference win never took place. After an incredible 8-3 start, Georgetown dropped its last five conference games, finishing at .500 in league play, tied for 7th place with WVU (which would eventually reach the Elite Eight.) Two of the five losses came against ranked opponents (@ #17 UConn and #13 Villanova). The third was against fellow bubble resident Notre Dame. But the two losses that destroyed the Hoyas’ NCAA hopes were losses to two of the worst BE teams (Providence and @ St. John’s, with both opponents finishing 4-12 in the BE).

So the Big East tournament took on enormous importance, as Georgetown desperately needed a win over #17 UConn at Madison Square Garden in the opening round, to make the NCAA tournament. It appears that despite the five-game losing streak to finish the regular season, including two horrible losses, the Hoyas probably would have still gotten into the NCAAs, with a win over the Huskies. But the point was rendered moot, when the Huskies triumphed in a close one, 66-62. Nobody gets a NCAA bid – nor should they – when they are at 16-6, and then finish the season on a six-game losing streak, including two losses to terrible teams. Georgetown was officially off the bubble, and into the NIT.

To their credit, the Hoyas played very well in the NIT, particularly in light of the fact that they had collapsed down the stretch in the Big East. Georgetown clobbered Boston University and Cal State-Fullerton, before losing by three to South Carolina – the eventual NIT champion – in the quarterfinals.

Thus, in summary, the 2004-05 Hoyas finished with a 19-13 record, returning to the NIT after the lone year of missing an invitation to postseason play in 2004. (So Georgetown has now received an invitation to a postseason tournament in 30 out of the last 31 years, still very impressive).

Georgetown’s stunning single-year improvement did not go unnoticed, as JT III was named a finalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year award. Also, the prospects for the future looked great. The Hoyas were bringing back four starters for 2005-06, along with most of its bench, plus adding four solid recruits. Most importantly, Georgetown’s two most important pieces – Brandon Bowman, and Big East Co-Rookie of the Year Jeff Green – would be back for this season. Bowman was the team’s leading scorer, and Green the leading rebounder. Upon their shoulders, the hopes of the 2005-06 season would be placed.

How The Hoyas Have Done So Far

17-6 overall, 8-4 Big East (5th out of 16 teams), #17 in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls, #26 in the RPI, defined by as of Tuesday morning.

In the polls, the Hoyas were in the “also receiving votes” category, from the preseason through Thanksgiving, when they stopped receiving votes. However, in the January 23 poll, they reappeared as #21 AP, ARV in the latter; the following week, #17/#22, then #15/#16, until the current poll, where the two agreed in pegging the Hoyas at #17.

Unlike JT III’s first year, the Hoyas were obviously not going to be underestimated with an 11th place prediction out of 12; in the new 16-team mega-Big East, the preseason poll – in which Villanova nosed out UConn for first place, with 9 votes to the Huskies’ 7, put the Hoyas at a solid 6th out of 16th.

However, the OOC schedule for the Hoyas this year, remained as rigorous as in JT III’s maiden voyage. There was the return game, @ Illinois (the #10 Fighting Illini won it), a trip to Oregon (a 14 point GU victory) and one looming large right about now – a stunning upset over #1 Duke on January 21, followed by GU students storming the MCI Center court. It remains the Blue Devils’ only defeat, and it is GU’s ticket into the NCAA tournament this season. Thus, the Hoyas have completed the OOC portion of the schedule with a 9-2 record, with the only losses coming @ Illinois and to Vanderbilt.

In another similarity to last season, the Hoyas raced out to an impressive start once BE play opened in January. Georgetown went 8-2 to start the season, with the most impressive victory coming at home against #9 Pittsburgh on February 5. Even better, the two losses were both on the road, against ranked opponents: @-then#23 WVU and then-#4 Connecticut.

However, the Hoya faithful are hoping that yet another part of the team’s recent history isn’t in the midst of being re-enacted by the 2005-06 squad: namely, a long losing streak down the stretch in BE play, after reaching eight BE wins before Valentine’s Day. This is particular cause for concern, because the 2004 team under Esherick finished the year with nine straight losses in the Big East, and the 2005 team under JT III finished with six consecutive losses, including the opening round of the BE tournament. (Of course, the ship was then righted for the impressive NIT showing.)

After starting 8-2, the Hoyas have dropped their last two contests: a 13-point MCI Center loss to #10 WVU on Lincoln’s Birthday, and a 57-51 setback @ Marquette on Thursday.

At this point, it would be extraordinarily difficult for Georgetown to miss the NCAA tournament, and they can count on packing their bags for the program’s first visit there since 2001.

For one thing, of their four remaining BE games, they still have two games left that they should win: @ South Florida and an MCI game against Rutgers. A win over either would get them to 9-7, and with the win over Duke, even an opening-round exit in New York would probably get them in anyway. Their other two games are a lot tougher: Sunday’s contest at the Pavilion, and the Syracuse visit to the MCI Center (although GU would probably be favored over the unranked Orangemen). Essentially, even if the Hoyas finish with losses in five of their last six, they’ll still get in, regardless of what happens in New York. The Hoyas only really need one more win, regardless of the opponent. Their RPI rank was 26 as of Tuesday, and the game on Sunday will also give them, at worst, another good loss, with the Wildcats ranked second in the RPI rankings.

However, what gives Georgetown fans nightmares, is this unavoidable fact: when they were 8-3 in BE play last year at this time, it was also virtually impossible, for Georgetown to miss the tournament. As a matter of fact, the only way it could happen, would be for GU to lose its remaining five BE games, and exit the BE tournament in the first round. Unfortunately for the Hoyas and their fans, that doomsday scenario was precisely the one which took place.

But more realistically, the Hoyas are now playing for seeding, in both the BE and NCAA tournaments. It is of enormous importance to finish in the top four, and receive the critical bye in New York; the Hoyas now sit at 5th place, one game behind both Pitt and West Virginia, who are both tied for 3rd at 9-3. (Georgetown would win a tiebreaker over the Panthers to their victory in the lone meeting this season, but lose to WVU due to being swept by the Mountaineers.)

Breaking Down the Hoyas

The first place to look is at the two VU/GU games from last season; this will be the first and only meeting this year (unless the two teams meet in the BE tournament).

January 15, 2005 (@ the Pavilion, the aforementioned game honoring the 20th anniversary of the 1985 VU national championship)

Villanova took a 36-27 halftime lead, before losing 66-64. The most significant statistic comes on the glass, where GU hammered VU, 39-27. One reason for the disparity was that Jason Fraser, VU’s best rebounder and shot-blocker off the bench, did not play in that game, due to a broken bone in his hand which he had suffered four days earlier, when Villanova won @ Providence in overtime. For an extended account of the contest, here is my article last season on the subject, text in

20 Years Later: Still 66-64, But GU Wins
All the elements were in place for another storybook ending. There was a raucous, emotionally expressive crowd and the authors of the miraculous victory, at halfcourt at halftime. (For more on the significance of 1985 and the presence of the former players, please see the subsequent article on that topic.)

And instead of being sent to the Pavilion parking lot happy with another victory over one of its long-time Big East rivals, the Villanova fans were shocked, dismayed and consternated by one of 'Nova's most bizarre losses in the last decade. After Will "Bump" Sheridan dunked to tie the game at 64, overtime seemed inevitable: five more minutes of exciting basketball. That is, until Georgetown whisked the ball up the court, catching the Villanova players flat-footed. Without calling a timeout, Georgetown's Ashanti Cook flung the ball straight up the middle of the floor, neatly splitting the Wildcats' defenders, and Darrel Owens broke away for what would have been an easy, game-winning basket at the buzzer. Curtis Sumpter wisely fouled him to prevent his doing so, with just one-tenth of a second gleaming from the Pavilion scoreboard.

At this point, a long delay ensued. Coach Jay Wright vociferously asserted to the officials that Cook had been over the end line when he inbounded the ball. Therefore, not only should Georgetown not have the chance to go to the line, but it would be a turnover, and Villanova would resume possession under the Hoyas' hoop with 2 seconds to play with a chance to WIN, an attractive feature of Wright's argument. Also, it had the beneficial effect that even if Wright's plea failed, it iced Owens. He is a 57% free throw shooter and even with two guaranteed shots and needing just one, a Georgetown victory was far from assured.

During this delay, I kept trying to figure out what the basketball "book" dictated in this unusual situation. Should the Wildcats be pulled off the foul line? (That's what I decided I would do.) Nothing positive could come from their being there. There wouldn't be enough time to for Villanova to score, since the clock would start by rule when the ball re-entered play, or to grab it and call timeout. (Of course, Georgetown could score on a tip-in, if they got the rebound, but if the ball re-entered play and there was a rebound to be had, the game was over ANYWAY, whether they tipped it in or not.) All that could happen would be a potential lane violation (real or imagined) that could give the Hoya an extra shot. Plus, it's harder to shoot free throws with the lane half-empty because it's unusual.

Anyhow, Owens rendered the point moot by sinking the first one to put Georgetown up by one, 65-64. Then, for reasons which I still cannot figure out, he inexplicably made the second one, eschewing the opportunity to let the clock run out by just hitting the ball with the rim. In an instant, Villanova's chances of victory had increased from nil (65-64) to 1% (66-64). Maybe you could throw it long, and someone could get fouled going for it. Or someone could tip it in. It's important to note that in these buzzer-beater situations, the team trying to score will always have a little longer than the clock indicates. There's "reaction time" - the official has to see the ball touch something/someone, lower his hand, the scorer has to see that signal, touch the mechanism, and the electrical impulses have to go to the scoreboard to set off the horn - and by the time all that stuff happens you've ended with up with an extra couple of tenths of a second.

That almost happened, as it turned out. The ball was heaved long, and there was a collision going for it. Wright vociferously demanded a foul, but it wouldn't have been reasonable to call one there. Game over. 'Nova loses, 66-64. (Perhaps this fiasco was the "alternate ending" for the 1985 game, since neither DVD technology nor clocks which measured tenths of seconds were in common use in the Reagan era.)

It was Georgetown's first-ever visit to the Pavilion and the Hoyas' first visit to the Villanova campus in over half a century - since March 6, 1950, when Villanova triumphed 82-72 at the Fieldhouse. Since then, Georgetown has always come to the Palestra, Spectrum, or CoreStates/First Union/Wachovia Center for Villanova home games. Villanova had won five of the last six games in the series, which Georgetown now leads 34-24.

The loss was a substantial setback to Villanova's NCAA hopes. Granted, usually when you have only three losses by the middle of January, you're in pretty good shape. But with a weak out-of-conference schedule and just six Big East games at the Pavilion, Villanova could hardly afford this particular loss. One, or perhaps two, Pavilion losses were manageable, and they were allotted for Pittsburgh and/or Boston College and/or West Virginia. Everyone in the Wildcat community looked at this game, looked at the crowd that would be on hand for it, the ceremony, the weak Georgetown squad expected this season under the younger John Thompson, and BANKED on it as a victory. Villanova is now going to have beat someone really good (whether it be Kansas, or Syracuse, or Connecticut) to make up for this loss on its true home floor. The loss lowered the Wildcats to 9-3 overall, 2-2 Big East.

To a degree, Villanova bought itself some breathing room with the surprising victory at Providence, where the Wildcats never win. But with the possibility of no emerging Jason Fraser for the next 3-6 weeks, Villanova's NCAA chances remain highly suspect after this loss. It was announced that Fraser will miss 3-6 weeks after breaking a bone in his hand against Providence. It remains to be seen if this will be a true 3-6 weeks or a Sumpter-knee-sprain 3-6 weeks, which turned out to be one week. So for all we know, Fraser might be back next week. Or not at all this year. Time will tell. (The sooner the better. 'Nova needs him in the paint. Bad.)

The Hoyas have been surprising this season. After loading up with their traditional creampuffs in December, Georgetown has now won at Pittsburgh, lost a close game to Connecticut, and won at the Pavilion in their first-ever trip there. The Hoyas are now 11-4 overall, 3-1 Big East. (They might be getting on the bubble soon, with a great loss to Illinois and a respectable loss to Temple also on the schedule).

There were two bright spots to the loss: the far more important one was the unexpected return of Curtis Sumpter, well ahead of schedule. Sumpter sprained his knee on Friday, January 7, while at Notre Dame as a result of a collision in practice. It was originally announced that he would be out 3-6 weeks, but clearly the injury didn't turn out to be as severe as was feared. And he not only came back, he was extraordinary. Braced to the hilt, Sumpter scored 14 points and grabbed seven boards in 34 minutes; other than the brace, he seemed none the worse for wear, especially when he blocked three Hoya shots, to the delight of the assembled crowd. The students serenaded him with chants of his name.

The other bright spot was Mike Nardi, who finally seems to have broken through on the offensive end, after struggling most of the season. The sophomore guard turned in a fine performance, scoring a dozen points while manning the point for 39 minutes. Under Nardi's superb direction, Villanova's turnover-prone offense coughed it up only eight times. Nardi himself dealt four assists against a single turnover.

Allan Ray scored a game-high 17 points, although he did it on abysmal 4-13 shooting and had to rely on going 8-9 from the line. For Georgetown, freshman forward Jeff Green was a highly formidable opponent, finishing with a double-double of 16 points and a dozen rebounds, tops for the Hoyas in both categories. (This guy seems to save it for tough opponents: he had 20 points against Illinois and a career-high 22 points against Connecticut).

Even leaving the 1985 hoopla aside, Villanova undoubtedly should have won this game. The Wildcats took control early and certainly conveyed the impression that the Washington, DC-based Hoyas would play the role of Washington Generals to the Wildcats' Globetrotters today. After trading baskets in the early going, Georgetown trailed just 20-18. However, the Wildcats sailed to a 33-20 lead, blasting the Hoyas with a 13-2 run which ended on a pair of free throws from Marcus Austin. The Wildcats took a 36-27 lead into the locker room, making way for the ceremonies honoring the 1985 team, and there was every indication that the lead would hold up. Sumpter's layup put 'Nova up by seven at 41-34, but Georgetown charged, tying the game at 46 with 11:50 to play. It took the Hoyas a while, but they took the lead finally at 57-56 on two free throws with 5:53 to go. Villanova would never see the lead again. The Wildcats forced ties, but never led after that point.

Neither team executed well in the final two minutes, and the score stayed locked on 63-62 GU after Ray hit two free throws with 2:32 to play. 'Nova missed THREE separate shots, all of which would have given them the lead, before Rayshawn Reed made one of two free throws with 14 seconds to play. On the ensuing possession, Sheridan dunked to tie it, and the crowd went ballistic - and was just as quickly deflated by subsequent events.

The Wildcats will try to rebound, when they visit Boston College on Wednesday. It will likely be Villanova's final visit to Conte Forum for many years, if not decades, in light of the acrimony surrounding BC's departure from the Big East after this season.

The second game, at the MCI Center, took place on February 27, 2005. The big story line in this game was the performance of Will “Bump” Sheridan, who scored 14 points and had nine boards to lead the Wildcats to victory. This time, the Wildcats won the battle on the glass, 41-31. A partial explanation for the reversal of rebounding fortune, was that Fraser had returned from his injury for the second game Although he played just 18 minutes, he collected four boards and two blocks, in that span.

The full text of my article last season, on that game, in italics:

Hoyas Hit "Bump" at MCI Center, 67-56

#23 Villanova continued its surprising dominance on Georgetown's home floor, the MCI Center, on Sunday, winning 67-56 behind a 14-point, nine-rebound, three-steal performance by Will "Bump" Sheridan. The Wildcats have never lost at the MCI Center in five appearances, since debuting there in December 1997.

Villanova has certainly had more of its share of problems with phone calls and cards over the years, ranging from Kerry Kittles' notorious suspension to the 2003 scandal. It may be fitting, then, that the basketball gods have decided that the only Big East building named after a phone company be one where Villanova is destined never to lose.

Sheridan's day amounts to a career-high, although technically it wasn't. His official career-high was the 23 points he scored against the non-Division I Redlands in November 2003, playing against a run-and-gun opponent on a phone-card suspension-depleted team. In essence, this was Sheridan's career-high under normal circumstances; a defensive specialist, he had never scored more than 13 points in any other contest.

The victory was the fifth straight for Villanova, which is continuing its cruise into the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are now 9-5 Big East, 19-6 overall, and are assured of a winning record in conference play. With two games remaining, the 'Cats are now in the driver's seat for one of the five byes in the Big East tournament.

The loss was devastating for the Hoyas, who desperately needed a home victory over a ranked team to bolster their NCAA at-large hopes. Georgetown's RPI ranking is only 49 and their record fell to 8-6 Big East, 16-9 overall. The Hoyas will require a very strong showing in New York City to reach the NCAAs for the first time since 2001.

The victory avenged the most bitter loss of the season, the 66-64 loss the Hoyas dealt 'Nova on Jan. 15, the day the glorious 1985 national championship team was honored at the Pavilion - and they did it by the same score, by which Villanova defeated Georgetown in the national title game.

Villanova now trails the all-time series by a 34-25 margin, which dates back to 1922. However, with the decline of Georgetown's program in the 21st century, 'Nova has had more success against the Hoyas. Villanova has now won six of the last eight meetings.

Sheridan scored a season-high 14 points and grabbed nine boards in leading 'Nova to the victory. Kyle Lowry, once again pressed into service at the point due to the ankle injury to Mike Nardi, once again came up big. Lowry finished with a dozen points, five rebounds and seven assists. Allan Ray finished with 18 points, but struggled with his shot, finishing a dreadful 5-17 from the floor. Curtis Sumpter just missed a double-double with 11 points and nine boards.

It was important that four starters reach double figures, because Villanova received almost no help from the bench, effectively playing with only six players. The five starters played almost the entire game (all but 22 minutes). Jason Fraser came off the bench to score four points and add four rebounds in 16 minutes. No other bench player took a shot and they combined for only one rebound. All of this means that Mike Nardi's return would be quite welcome. (Reportedly, Nardi was available today if absolutely necessary, and may return against Seton Hall on Wednesday.)

For Georgetown, Brandon Bowman scored 22 points to lead the Hoyas, before he fouled out during garbage time in the final minute. Of more consequence, however, was that super-freshman Jeff Green was held to just five points, tying his season-low. Bowman was the only Hoya to reach double figures.

As usual, 'Nova won its victory in the Big East trenches. The Hoyas were limited to just 35% field-goal shooting, took only ten free throw attempts, and were flattened on the boards, 41-31. It was the main reason why the game didn't tighten until the last couple of minutes, and even then 'Nova wasn't seriously threatened. The Wildcats also walloped Georgetown on the specialty stats of second-chance points and points off turnovers, easily outpacing the Hoyas in both categories. 'Nova permitted just 17 Georgetown points in the first half and had little trouble thereafter. The Hoya starting backcourt of Ashanti Cook and Jonathan Wallace combined to shoot just 6-24 from the floor.

'Nova sprinted out to early leads of 18-7 and 27-11 and wound up the half up 29-17. The Hoyas briefly showed a pulse during garbage time, after trailing by double digits for much of the half. They trimmed the deficit to seven with 1:24 to go and to six with under a minute left, but it was really too late to affect the outcome, which was never seriously in doubt. Georgetown's offense, now headed by the Princeton disciple John Thompson III, is not designed to score points in bunches.

Understandably lost in the uproar over the St. Joseph's/Temple game on Tuesday, was the fact that Villanova claimed at least a share of the Big Five title with the Hawks' victory. The Wildcats, 3-1 in City Series play, were assured of at least a tie for the championship when Temple fell to 2-1. If La Salle defeats a John Chaney-less Temple team next week, Villanova will win the title outright at 3-1.

Poll Watch

The Wildcats' standings will improve in both polls when they are updated on Monday, thanks to victories over #3 Boston College and Georgetown. The Wildcats are currently ranked #23 in the Associated Press and #24 in the ESPN/USA Today poll. Of the teams closely ahead of them, both #18 Pittsburgh and #20 Wisconsin may go a-tumblin'. Pitt lost twice this week, and Wisconsin fell to #9 Michigan State. 'Nova will likely leapfrog both.

March Madness Monitor

The Wildcats' NCAA seeding, thanks to all of these victories, could range as high as #4-#5. Villanova's rating as of last Sunday was up to #18, and with two victories, including one over third-ranked Boston College, that ranking will continue to rise. will create a new bracket on Monday; it currently has 'Nova as a #7 seed facing Miami (OH) in Nashville. Joe Lunardi, the bracketologist for, currently places the Wildcats as a #7 seed facing #10 Georgia Tech in Nashville, but notes that the 'Cats' seed is "rising".

Of more immediate interest is the Wildcats' seeding for the upcoming Big East tournament. With St. John's on probation, all 11 other Big East teams will qualify for the Big East tournament, with the top five receiving byes. The Wildcats cannot mathematically finish among the top three teams. However, the Wildcats can assure themselves of no worse than the #4 seed - and hence a bye - by defeating Seton Hall and St. John's this week, two of the worst teams in the conference. They currently reside in fourth place, with a one-game lead over Pittsburgh, Georgetown, and Notre Dame, all 8-6. The Wildcats would win tiebreakers over Pitt and Georgetown but would lose one to the Irish.

The Wildcats will next face Seton Hall on Wednesday, Senior Night, at the Pavilion, and attempt to sweep the Pirates over a two-week span. 'Nova won at the Meadowlands, 66-52, on February 17.

Breaking Down Sunday’s Game

It is unusual, that most of the key players from last year’s pair of contests, are still with both schools. The only significant player for VU who faced the Hoyas last year, but won’t face them tomorrow, is senior Curtis Sumpter, the team’s best player last season, who hasn’t played since the 2005 NCAA tournament second-round victory over Florida. His status remains as out indefinitely, and it appears that there will be no late-season miraculous recovery, so VU probably ought to assume that he will take the medical redshirt and be back for next season.

In the same manner, Georgetown brings back all of the players who saw significant time last year against the Wildcats. The Hoyas’ chief weakness is their lack of depth; six players log the vast majority of the minutes. That sextet was the same guys who played the bulk of the minutes in last year’s MCI Center game. The six are unusually divided into half seniors and half sophomores. The trio of seniors consists of Bowman, Darrel Owens, and Ashanti Cook). The trio of sophomores are Green, Roy Hibbert, and Jonathan Wallace (a former walk-on, whom JT III decided to start at point guard in the BE as a freshman, but who succeeded in the role).
The only player who saw significant action in either game against VU last year, was a sophomore guard, Rayshawn Reed, who is no longer on the roster. And even he saw only 24 minutes – combined – in the two games. So these two teams know each other very well – about as well as any two BE teams can know each other in this day and age, due to the gradual recession of the old (and sorely missed) twice-a-year rivalries (and in some cases, missing BE opponents entirely for a year).

Georgetown has a balanced attack, with Bowman, Owens, Hibbert, and Green all having led the Hoyas in scoring, in various BE games this season. The same is true in rebounding, where Bowman, Green and Hibbert all rotate in leading on the glass. In a shocking departure from the philosophy of JT III’s father, the Hoyas are leading the BE in field goal percentage, a shocking development at a program where defensive intensity was always the credo, and offense was largely overlooked. But the defensive end isn’t neglected, for in the national rankings, the Hoyas are 20th in the nation in points allowed per game, yielding a stingy 59.5 points per contest.

The one huge advantage that the ‘Cats have, will come from the bench. Fraser is always a question mark due to his injuries, but he’s a devastating shot blocker and rebounder if he’s healthy. Freshman forward Dante Cunningham has seen his minutes increase of late, as he often comes in to spell one of the four guards, thus permitting Wright to go with a more conventional three-guard alignment if he wants to put a bigger team on the floor. Another freshman, Shane Clark, is behind the other freshmen on the defensive end, due to the fact that he wasn’t eligible until second semester, but he provides more depth in the frontcourt. Villanova has a true eight-man rotation, and also has Bilal Benn and Dwayne Anderson available if needed.

In contrast, Georgetown really only plays six guys; JT III has gone so far as to say that “the team has six starters”. And he’s right, as there are de facto,“six starters” – those half a dozen players have logged over 83% of the Hoyas’ minutes this season (and in BE games, where there are few blowouts, their proportion of minutes is probably even higher).

Villanova probably should win this game; it will be at home, better-rested than the Hoyas, with a deeper, quicker, squad. It is incredibly volatile on offense, frequently exploding for points in bunches, with so many weapons available. And the game – unlike the victory over the hated Huskies – will be at the Pavilion, with the VU student section eager to cheer on the squad that catapulted the program into the national spotlight last Monday evening.

Probably the greatest obstacle for VU, is the letdown factor after the huge win over #1 Connecticut on Monday night. But Georgetown - #17 in both polls, and with the assets described above – is no speed bump for Villanova as it tries to win the BE regular-season title.
On the injury front, Mike Nardi is still recovering from the tonsillitis which caused him to miss two of the Wildcats’ last three contests, the City Series-clincher over SJU at the Palestra and the win @ DePaul. Nardi saw limited action in the thrilling victory over #1 UConn on Monday night – although he nearly became the center of attention when he passed up an easy, uncontested layup with the ‘Cats trying to conserve a three-point lead in the last 31 seconds. Instead, he deliberately dribbled away from the hoop, was fouled for a one-and-one opportunity – and the 82% free-throw shooter missed the front end, giving the hated Huskies a window to steal the game at the end – one which they could not successfully exploit, fortunately.

Nardi is expected to play against Georgetown, and the Wildcats’ rare six-day layoff likely means that Nardi will be back to full strength. Another big advantage the Wildcats have in this contest, is that the Hoyas had to travel to Milwaukee to face Marquette on Thursday night, then fly immediately back to the East Coast, and have to play again on Sunday, at noon. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have been home for over a week, since the game against UConn was at the Wachovia Center.

If there is one factor to look for, it is Kyle Lowry. Lowry – at six feet tall - has consistently demonstrated that he would have been willing to drive on either Patrick Ewing, or Alonzo Mourning, or Dikembe Mutombo, in their primes. He fears no one, and few VU opponents this year have been able to stop him from penetrating to the basket. Whomever draws the assignment of guarding Lowry, has the most important task, for Georgetown to pull off an upset of a #4-ranked, 20-2 overall, 10-1 BE squad at its on-campus venue.

I’ll have a recap after the game.

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!

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


By Craig Dimitri

On Monday night, at the Wachovia Center, the #4 Villanova Wildcats delivered one of the program’s greatest wins in a generation, knocking off #1 Connecticut, 69-64. A record-setting crowd (breaking the mark set several weeks ago when Syracuse arrived) watched the contest, and the VU student section stormed the court afterwards (a first for VU at the Wachovia Center, where court-storming is difficult due to the low angle of the behind-the-basket seating.

It was Villanova’s first chance at taking out the #1-ranked team since December 30, 1998, when the Wildcats were buried, 100-76, at the Hartford Civic Center. And it was Villanova’s first victory over #1 since 1995, when the Kerry Kittles/Jason Lawson/Alvin Williams/Eric Eberz squad pulverized the Huskies on the road…

The heroes were Will Sheridan – who had the greatest game of his career - and Allan Ray, who overcame a hellish first half to finish with 25 points. Sheridan’s explosion was a highly unexpected one; the unassuming junior scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for a double-double. The points came at a particularly critical juncture in the second half, where Sheridan – abandoned by the Huskies’ defense, due to the quickness and volatile nature of the VU guard quartet – kept hitting bucket after bucket. The 13 points were a lucky one for ‘Nova tonight… (and tied Sheridan’s career-high).

If the Wildcats can defeat nationally ranked Georgetown on Saturday, it appears that they would leapfrog over both Connecticut and #3 Memphis in both polls, and move to #2 behind Duke (assuming that the Blue Devils win both of their games this week, against weak opponents at Cameron Indoor Stadium).

It was arguably the greatest victory in the Jay Wright era on the Main Line, which has now entered its fifth season. The only other game of comparable significance was the victory over Florida in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament. However, Florida was nowhere near as good as UConn is now, and so this was a more substantial accomplishment (and ‘Nova also had Curtis Sumpter for part of that game, before he was injured in the contest…)

Obviously, this is the very concise version of one of the greatest nights in Villanova basketball history. Stop back and read the detailed version of the game, which will come later. It will fully chronicle this historic contest, one which will be justifiably remembered as a fitting addition to Villanova’s illustrious - and glorious - basketball tradition…

Go Wildcats!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Marquette @ #4 Villanova Preview (Sat Feb 4, 2 PM)

by Craig Dimitri

The Marquette Golden Eagles – thus far, the only team to topple #1 Connecticut, and doing so, in fact, by 15 points – swoop into the Pavilion on Saturday afternoon…. Here is a comprehensive preview…

Note: Please visit Tim Blair's outstanding Marquette blog, "Cracked Sidewalks" -, also linked over on the side), to learn more about not only Saturday's Marquette/Villanova contest, but for information on the Marquette program in general, as they continue their successful initial season in the Big East trenches. I give his blog my highest recommendation. You'll enjoy Saturday's game a lot more if you check it out.

The Viewpoint on the Marquette Golden Eagles

TV/Radio Broadcasts

ESPN regional coverage will carry the contest, which will air in metropolitan Philadelphia on WB, Channel 17. ESPN Full Court subscribers will also be able to see the broadcast. Ryan Fannon and Whitey Rigsby will call the game on radio, WNTP 990 AM.

Series History

Given the distance between the schools, it is not surprising that they have only met eight times, with Villanova winning five of the eight. The teams played annually for much of the 1960s, with Villanova winning @ Marquette in the first contest, 75-70, on New Year's Eve, 1960.

After 1967, there have been only two meetings. The first came in the 1980 NCAA tournament, when coach Roland V. Massimino's Wildcats defeated the then-Marquette Warriors, 77-59, in the first round. The series then lay dormant, until the most recent meeting in the opening game of the 2002-03 season, on November 15, 2002. This game featured the much-anticipated debut of the class of 2006 (Curtis Sumpter, Jason Fraser, Allan Ray, and Randy Foye), generally regarded as one of the top recruiting classes in the nation. However, in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden, a Marquette squad which would eventually reach the Final Four, destroyed Villanova, 73-61.

Coach and Context

Tom Crean (7th season, 137-71)

Crean - who had never previously served as a Division I head coach - took Marquette back to its previous glories in 2003, as he guided the Golden Eagles back to the Final Four, for the first time since Marquette's golden age, under the late Al McGuire, in the 1970s. Before being named Marquette's 15th head coach on March 30, 1999, Crean had been an assistant at Western Kentucky, Pittsburgh, and Michigan State.

Crean was the recruiting assistant in Lansing, and played an important role in constructing Michigan State's 2000 NCAA championship team, under head coach Tom Izzo. Of particular importance was his success in recruiting Mateen Cleaves, the team's catalyst, who would eventually win two Big Ten Player of the Year awards. (Although unfortunately for Crean, he wasn't in Lansing to savor the success, since he was then coaching his inaugural season at Marquette.)

Marquette has a very rich and storied history, comparable to Villanova's past. The school has made 23 NCAA tournaments (with 32 NCAA victories) and 15 trips to the NIT, and served as a pit stop for Rick Majerus, among others (although he only had a trio of NIT trips in the 1980s, during his three seasons there). Along with Villanova, it is one of the few schools that can boast of both a NCAA title and a NIT championship, both courtesy of McGuire during his tenure in Milwaukee, from 1964-1977. In 13 seasons, McGuire made 11 postseason appearances, and posted a record of 295-80.

Marquette sank into mediocrity for a decade, however, after reaching the NCAAs in 1983 (ironically, after the NCAA became far easier to enter, when it was expanded in the miraculous year of 1985). The school went an entire decade between NCAA appearances, before Kevin O'Neill got them back in 1993. Things began looking up again. Including 1993, Marquette has made six NCAA appearances, including the 2003 Final Four, and qualified for five NITs. In only two years, has it missed postseason play entirely (1999 and 2001). Of those five NIT appearances, it also has gone deep into three of them. The Golden Eagles reached the NIT final in 1995, a team chiefly memorable because its sixth man, William Gates, was one of the two players documented in one of the greatest sports films ever made, Hoop Dreams. (In that game, Marquette lost in OT to Virginia Tech, 65-64.)

McGuire eschewed a NCAA bid in 1970 and instead won the NIT, in one of the last meaningful ones, before the NCAA's expanded field eventually reduced the NIT, to a consolation tournament; that Marquette team finished with a 28-1 record.

In 1974, McGuire took Marquette to the Final Four, losing in the title game to North Carolina State. But in 1977, he won it all, topping Dean Smith's North Carolina team, and then stepped down.

In 1997, two decades later, Marquette won a Conference USA tournament. And in 2003, they returned to the Final Four for the first time since the McGuire era, winning the C-USA regular season championship as well.

In 2004-05, Marquette had a decent season, which it finished with a 19-11 record. However, the team fell in the opening round of the C-USA tournament, to TCU in overtime. This fact, coupled with a 7-9 record in conference play, meant that the Golden Eagles really didn't have much of a chance at a NCAA bid. And so the season went into the record books, without the magic number of 20 wins, since it ended with a 12th loss, in the first round of the NIT (by double-digits, at home) to Western Michigan, in which the Golden Eagles scored only 40 points.

After the outstanding success of the 2003 team, Crean was being courted intensively by many other schools, particularly those in conferences of higher prestige than Conference USA, and those state schools with the money to presumably outbid Marquette in its bid to retain Crean for the long term.

To their credit, Marquette simply decided to shell out whatever it would take to keep him – in contrast to what usually happens at less wealthy private schools, namely, once they get a decent coach, they immediately lose him to higher powers in the college basketball firmament. They shrewdly calculated the math, figuring that if they wanted to keep a Big Ten school from taking Crean, the best solution would be simply to outbid his richer suitors, regardless of what it would cost to do so. And so Crean was locked up with a long-term deal, and has remained in Milwaukee.

Marquette has dropped a bit, however, since then, missing the NCAA tournament in each of the last two seasons.

How They’ve Done So Far

6-3 Big East (6th out of 16 teams),16-6 overall. ranks them #31, with a strength-of-schedule ranking of #25.

(Note: CollegeRPI’s most recent update was Tuesday morning, and thus did not include Marquette’s Wednesday night victory over St. John’s.) The Golden Eagles are unranked, but received 6 votes in the AP poll (“37th place”, so to speak), in the Also Receiving Votes category. However, they did not receive any votes in the ESPN/USA Today poll.

Non-Big East Play

The season did not start off so well for the Golden Eagles, when they lost their second game of the season, a home cupcake game against Winthrop (by seven points, no less). They had won the opener against Rice, an old C-USA rival, handily.

The Golden Eagles then flew north to the Great Alaska Shootout – and won the tournament. Marquette had a solid victory over Eastern Washington, then eked out wins over both Oral Roberts and South Carolina to take the title. Granted, that path was not the most formidable in Division I, but a holiday tournament championship is still a championship. The games were on neutral courts, and the NCAA Selection Committee loves teams that can demonstrate the ability to win both on the road and on neutral courts.

They also have eight easy wins at home (Rice, South Dakota State, Valparaiso, San Francisco, Oakland, Delaware State, and Lewis). Also, as it turned out, the November loss to Winthrop, does not look as bad as it did at the time. Winthrop is 14-5 overall, and battling Birmingham Southern in the Big South conference. One of those two teams will likely take the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Big East Play

And so now, it was time for Marquette to make its first run through the rigors of Big East competition. They probably had the best debut of any team in Big East history, as in their first conference game, they toppled then-#2 Connecticut, by a decisive 15-point margin. It remains Marquette’s signature victory, obviously. It will – and should - be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament, barring a total collapse down the stretch. Marquette’s RPI ranking of #31 is strong, and will only increase, since the Golden Eagles still must travel to Villanova, and play Georgetown and Pittsburgh at home (all ranked opponents), and even with losses to all three, their SOS will rise. If Marquette can at least make it to .500 in Big East play (eight wins will do it, and they already have six), they should be safely in the field of 65.

They have played well against other Big East schools- and surprisingly so, given how unfamiliar they are with most of their opponents. Of the five new teams from C-USA, they by far have had the best season: with Cincinnati at .500, both Louisville and DePaul mired near the bottom of the league standings, and South Florida being winless. They swept former C-USA rival DePaul, although the Blue Demons are one of the worst teams. They have a win @ Seton Hall, a nailbiter win over Notre Dame at home, and most recently, a 20-point pounding of St. John’s at the Bradley Center. They also have two good losses. One was @ West Virginia, a very tough place to play, in a contest which featured WVU hitting a Big East-record 20 three-point shots. The second was at Pittsburgh, where the Golden Eagles were hammered on the glass. But both schools are ranked. Their only bad Big East loss was against another old C-USA rival, Cincinnati, at home.

The Golden Eagles have won four of their last five, and are brimming with confidence. They know, of course, that a win @ #4 Villanova, would end any doubt about a NCAA bid.


Guard Dominic James – Freshman – 15.1 pts/4.4 rebs/5.5 assists/game

James, who is likely to be named Big East rookie of the year, has emerged as a tremendous talent and is one of the key reasons for Marquette’s success thus far. In addition to his other numbers, he has a strong 1.8/1 assist/turnover ratio. He sprained his shoulder against Pittsburgh on Jan.28, but returned for the St. John’s game on Wednesday.

Guard Jerel McNeal – Freshman – 11.2 pts/ 4.4 rebs/3.0 assists/2.2 steals/game

The team’s best defender, and as the above statistics indicate, is a solid all-around player.

Swingman Joe Chapman – Senior – 5.9 pts/game

Third on the team in triples, he’s another perimeter threat, with a 41% success rate. However, he averages less than six points a contest, so he probably won’t be much of a problem for his defender.

Forward Steve Novak – Senior – 16.5 pts/6.0 rebs/game

This is the guy to shut down. He slew the UConn dragon in the Big East opener, turning in an incredible 41-point, 16-rebound performance, as the Golden Eagles demolished the Huskies in a stunning upset. Against Notre Dame, he knocked down the winning jumper to defeat the snake-bitten Irish. He’s a dangerous three-point threat as well, having sunk 79 triples, far and away the most on the team. Also, thus far this season, he’s shot an astonishing 98% from the foul line. However, he sprained an ankle earlier in the season, which has hampered him in Marquette’s last two victories.

As for the fifth starter – Marquette really doesn’t have a genuine starter at this position, as explained below. The two players (Ousmane Barro and Mike Kinsella) who (officially) started at the five spot, in the last two games, both ultimately played less than ten minutes in the contest, so it’s up in the air. The Golden Eagles often play three guards, anyhow.

What to Look For

This game will be decided on the perimeter, or as radio commentator Whitey Rigsby likes to describe it, between the foul lines. For once, Villanova doesn’t need to be concerned about an opponent pounding the ball inside, and thus exploiting the Wildcats’ thin frontcourt corps. Fortunately, Marquette doesn’t have any big men capable enough to do that. In fact, two of Marquette’s three BE losses (Cincinnati and @ Pittsburgh) are directly attributable to the Golden Eagles’ failure to stop an opponent’s inside game. Aside from the 6-10 Novak, the two freshmen guards are the team’s top rebounders, which is as clear an indication as any, as to the quality of Marquette’s big men in the paint. Marquette’s weak inside game relies upon a patchwork rotation of four players (two juniors, two sophomores), in descending order of minutes/game: Ryan Amoroso (17), Barro and Jamil Lott (both with 11.5), and Kinsella (6). None are likely to cause problems for the Wildcats.

In much the same way as Villanova, the Golden Eagles rely almost exclusively on outside shooting and guard play for offense.

On the injury front, both teams are banged up. Marquette has a third freshman guard, Wesley Matthews, who incurred a stress fracture in his foot on Dec. 28. He came off the bench on Wednesday against St. John’s, not scoring but dealing four assists and adding three rebounds in just 17 minutes of action. As noted above, James and Novak also have nagging injuries.

Of course, Villanova still lacks Curtis Sumpter, and media reports seem to indicate that there probably won’t be any dilemma about a potential return in time for March Madness – he likely won’t have healed in time, for it to even be an issue. Last week, Allan Ray pulled a hamstring, which caused him to miss Villanova's close call against South Florida, although he played against Notre Dame and Louisville. And Jason Fraser’s playing time will be limited by his chronic injuries.

After the contest, I will provide a recap…

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Go Wildcats!