Saturday, March 18, 2006

#1 Villanova Outlasts #16 Monmouth, Advances to NCAA 2nd Round to Face Arizona

By Craig Dimitri

It may seem counterintuitive, but it could be argued that Friday afternoon’s victory over #16 Monmouth was the most important victory that the Wildcats will have in this tournament, short of reaching the Final Four itself.

The reason – this game was fraught with peril. The NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, as we all know, making Villanova’s national championship possible. Since that year, there have been 21 NCAA tournaments, prior to this year’s. All 84 teams with #16 seeds have lost to their top-seeded opponents, albeit with some close calls here and there. Thus, when the Wildcats took the floor against the Hawks, on Friday afternoon, they were seeking to become the 85th consecutive top seed to overcome its overmatched opponent.

Had Monmouth won this first-round game, it legitimately would have qualified as one of the greatest upsets in the history of college basketball. And not just because it would be the first time a #16 has ever beaten a #1. Monmouth had two distinct disadvantages that most bottom-seeded squads haven’t had.

First, it would have done it in Philadelphia, on Villanova’s quasi-home court (many 1-16 games are played at neutral courts, and the fans of the other six schools will always unite behind the underdog).

Second, it would have done it after being forced to win a play-in game at Dayton, vs. Hampton, on the previous Tuesday. Meaning, that while Villanova was staying on-campus in a familiar setting since Selection Sunday, Monmouth had to fly to Dayton, prepare for Hampton, play Tuesday, then fly home and prepare for ‘Nova.

But fortunately, the Wildcats have foreclosed such a morbid possibility. Villanova put forth a solid effort in defeating Monmouth, 58-45, on Friday afternoon at the Wachovia Center. Villanova improved its record to 26-4 overall; Monmouth finished its fine season at 18-15. The 26 victories match the highest total in school history; only the 1995-96 Wildcats captured so many victories; that team, seeded #3, eventually lost in the NCAA second round to #6 Louisville.

Due to Monmouth’s Princeton-style, deliberate offense, the game was low-scoring. It was only the fourth time that VU had been held under 60 points this season (the others were losses to Texas and Pittsburgh, as well as a win @ South Florida, in which Allan Ray did not play due to a sprained ankle).

Despite the relatively close 13-point margin, Villanova was never really in danger of falling to the Hawks. Late in the second half, Monmouth cut the lead to 47-40, but the seven-point spread was as close as they got. Also, the Hawks simply do not possess an offense that can score points in salvos. A seven-point lead against them at that point in the game is roughly equivalent to having a dozen-point lead against most other teams. And as it turned out, Monmouth only scored five points the rest of the way – meaning that even if Villanova had been shut out for the remainder of the contest, the Wildcats still would have prevailed.

The backcourt duo of seniors, Allan Ray and Randy Foye, were the engine for the Villanova offense. Ray appeared to have no lingering aftereffects, from the horrific eye injury he suffered in last Friday’s Big East tournament semifinal against Pittsburgh. Ray had a game-high 19 points, including 5-12 from three-point range, to lead the Wildcats to victory – and he did it while playing only 30 minutes, due to foul trouble.

Foye struggled a bit with his shot, making just 5-18 shots from the floor, including just one triple in eight attempts. However, he still scored 17 points, including a perfect 6-6 from the line. And Foye was also huge in other areas: he narrowly missed a double-double by gathering nine rebounds, recording five steals, and also dealt four assists, while logging 36 minutes.

The other two guards – Lowry was OK, Nardi was really struggling. Kyle Lowry was just 1-5 from the floor and committed two turnovers, but scored nine points, also shooting a near-perfect 7-8 from the line. Mike Nardi logged just 23 minutes, shooting a horrific 1-9 from the floor and finishing with just three points and one assist.

Will Sheridan, as always, was a solid contributor, scoring four points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and achieving three steals in 32 minutes.

The Bench

After being outclassed big-time by Pitt’s bench last Friday evening in New York, the bench played reasonably well. The sixth, seventh, and eighth men, freshmen Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark and senior Chris Charles, were the only bench players to see significant minutes, with 25, 10, and 7 minutes, respectively. None are expected to score, and they combined for a single field goal on Friday.

Cunningham finished with a single point, but had an impressive seven boards in his 25 minutes, plus two steals. Clark had three points, all from the line, but contributed with four rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot. Charles had two points and two rebounds. So if you combine their three lines into a single player who had 42 minutes and is expected to play defense almost exclusively, you see six points, 13 rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot – a solid, if unspectacular effort.

Jason Fraser, who is in sort of limbo in terms of the rotation, got in for two minutes, and did not have a number in the box score. As did three other players, to Jay Wright’s credit, got into the contest in the waning minutes, so that they could play in the NCAA tournament. Bilal Benn, Dwayne Anderson and Baker Dunleavy all got in for one minute. (Ironically, none of the four had any statistics in the box score lines.)

The Hawks

Of the eight Hawks who composed coach Dave Calloway’s rotation, Dejan Delic had far and away the best performance for Monmouth, finishing with 17 points, six rebounds, and three assists. Point guard Tyler Azzarelli was the only other Hawk to reach double figures: 11 points, five rebounds, five assists, two turnovers, before fouling out; he played only 29 minutes. (A bit unusual to see all those “5”s in a row in the box score.) None of the other six Hawks had any discernible impact, whatsoever.

The key to the preliminary analysis of the game was the X factor of 7-2, 320 pound John Bunch (someone who had improved his game in the Pavilion over the summer, as it turned out.) However, ‘Nova, although lacking any post players of comparable size, completely shut down Bunch; the X factor was a complete non-factor. In 21 minutes, Bunch went just 1-4 from the field, did not reach the foul line, had one rebound, one block, one steal, and committed four turnovers. His one basket, a dunk in the first half, was impressive and the crowd (all of the non-VU fans were cheering for Monmouth, naturally, and were impressed by the slam). But as a whole, VU outrebounded the Hawks, 38-25.

Villanova’s victory came on the defensive end on Friday. As a team, Monmouth shot just 14-41 (34.1%) from the floor, and 4-17 (23.5%) from beyond the arc. Monmouth needed strong free throw shooting (13-17 – 76.5%) to even make it to 45 points. They also committed 18 turnovers, an absurdly high amount in light of both the pace of the game, and Monmouth’s low-turnover, deliberate style. (Monmouth actually had four more turnovers, than field goals: a ratio of 18-14.) They did pass the ball extraordinarily well: of the 14 field goals, a dozen came courtesy of an assist.

Not that Monmouth couldn’t play defense, too. Villanova shot just 16-52 (30.8%) from the floor and 7-25 (28%) from beyond the arc, and committed a dozen turnovers. (12 turnovers are not bad for a typical game, but for one this slow, an appalling total. Put it this way – Villanova had only 16 field goals, against 12 turnovers.)

The Game Itself

It was pretty ugly, even for a team that plays in the Big East all season. It was obvious from the get-go than Monmouth – a low-scoring team to begin with – had no hope of scoring enough points to stay in the game. Villanova sprinted out to a 10-1 lead after about eight minutes or so. In fact, it took the Hawks nearly nine full minutes to even score a field goal – Delic hit a three-pointer to cut the Villanova lead to 10-4. (The lone point had come from Azzarelli at the 16:53 mark.)

The Wildcats had secured a comfortable 27-16 lead by halftime (10-6 was the closest Monmouth had gotten) and were in complete control.

I was surprised that MU had enough in the tank to score the 29 points it managed in the second stanza; ‘Nova won the second half by just two points.

Villanova was on cruise control, though. The second-half lead peaked at 44-27, at the 12:53 mark, after a fine play by Mike Nardi. Nardi had gotten mismatched against Bunch in the low post, but Bunch couldn’t finish and somehow Nardi came away with the rebound – and then went down to the other end and hit a triple. That pretty much ended any remote chance that MU could pull off the upset. Had Bunch finished, it would have been 41-29 and the Hawks would still have been in striking distance; suddenly, it’s 44-27 with less than 13 minutes to go. (As it turned out, MU only would score 45 points, so even if they had shut out VU for the final 12-plus minutes, they still would have won by just one point!)
MU rallied a bit after the Nardi triple, going on a 13-3 run to pull to within 47-40 after a three by Delic; ‘Nova had missed 10 of its previous 11 shots. MU now trailed by just seven with 6:21 to go. But there really was no need for concern – and unsurprisingly, MU never drew any closer. Villanova won the rest of the contest, 9-5.

For some reason, although Villanova’s second-half lead fluctuated from seven to 17 points (Monmouth never led for a single second of the entire contest), Monmouth’s strategy almost appeared to be avoiding being blown out, not trying to achieve an upset. The Hawks permitted the Wildcats to simply stand at halfcourt and run the shot clock down to 15-20 seconds on many second-half possessions. This strategy, obviously, makes sense if you’re a sizable underdog. But it ceases to make sense if you’re the underdog and the other team has a sizable lead, as ‘Nova did. If you’re down two to five points, let’s say, letting the favorite do that makes some sense, but not when you’re down as much as MU was, late in the game.

Some consolation for Monmouth, as it ended its season: it was far and away its best NCAA showing, winning the play-in game and losing by just 13 points in the #1/#16 game.

Chasing History – Villanova in the NCAA Tournament

Villanova now has compiled a record of 40-26 in NCAA play.

Villanova’s at-large bid this year was the Wildcats’ 27th appearance in the NCAA tournament. Villanova is now in a four-way tie for 9th place, all-time, in NCAA history, in terms of appearances by one school. (Both the Wildcats and Arkansas had entered the season, tied for 11th place, one appearance behind both St. John’s and Notre Dame, neither of whom qualified this season.) Here’s the updated list, including 2006 invitees:

1. Kentucky…48
2. UCLA…39
3. North Carolina…38
4. Kansas…35
5. Indiana…33
6. Louisville…32
7. Syracuse…31
8. Duke…30
St. John’s…27
Notre Dame…27

Up Next for the Wildcats

#8 Arizona clobbered #9 Wisconsin in the earlier game, and the two teams will face off on Sunday afternoon, in second round play. Villanova will set the school record for victories in a season with a victory, as well as heading onto Minneapolis for the Sweet 16.

Go Wildcats!

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