Friday, March 10, 2006

#2 Villanova Slays Scarlet Knights, 87-55, in BET Quarterfinals

#2 Villanova Slays Scarlet Knights, 87-55, in BET Quarterfinals

By Craig Dimitri

On Thursday night, 10th-seeded Rutgers, a surprise winner over 7th-seeded Seton Hall in the first round, battled gallantly against 2nd-seeded (and second-ranked nationally) Villanova – at least for the first half. The champion of the Rutgers cause was as always, Quincy Douby, who turned in an incredible first-half performance. Thanks to an incredible 24 points from Douby, RU trailed just 34-33 at the half – and there were some concerned murmurs that Villanova might lose – and with it, a potential #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Even if the #1 seed were preserved, VU might not have the crucial advantage of playing the Sweet 16/Elite Eight contests in nearby Washington, DC, at the MCI Center.

The concerns about an upset were well-founded – in the teams’ only meeting during the regular season, the Wildcats needed overtime to subdue the Scarlet Knights at the RAC on January….

However, Villanova adjusted at halftime, and recast their defensive scheme explicitly to shut down Douby – and it worked. Whenever Douby touched the ball, the Wildcats converged – and Douby’s supporting cast couldn’t make VU pay for double and triple teaming Douby out on the perimeter. Villanova routed Rutgers, 87-55, winning the second half by an incredible 53-22 margin.

Douby did the best he could, and it was a memorable performance in the first half. For the game, he finished with 31 points on 11-21 shooting, including 6-10, from beyond the arc, and six rebounds to boot. In the first half, he was absolutely unstoppable, scoring 24 points, many on distant shots while being well-defended by Wildcats.

Rutgers fell to 18-13 overall, and will receive a NIT bid. The subplot for this contest, was the fact that it was the final Big East tournament for Gary Waters, who has already accepted a buyout of his contract – and so he has been finishing out the remainder of this season as a lame duck. (On March 1, Waters made it official, although with RU’s failure to reach the NCAA tournament during his five year reign, it was widely known that he wouldn’t be coming back.) Although it has not been explicitly announced, the word on the street is that current RU assistant (and former Villanova associate head coach Fred Hill – one of the key figures in the recruiting of Villanova’s four seniors, who arrived in the fall of 2002) will be named the RU head coach over the offseason. (Hill’s father is the baseball coach at RU, and Hill is undoubtedly happy about the opportunity to become at head coach in Piscataway.)

This led to an interesting soap opera, as Villanova permitted Fred Hill to leave for a lateral position at not only another BE school, but one in close geographic proximity, and as such, one with whom they will constantly tangle on the recruiting trail. Also, it is (obviously) very unusual for a coach to accept a newly-hired assistant coach as a tacit heir-apparent, given the conflict of interests involved. And this decision was that much more surprising, since Hill arrived at RU, entering what would be Waters’ make-or-break year – so it raised a lot of eyebrows around the conference.

Waters had a lot of success at Kent State (including beating Villanova in the NIT back in 2000, at the Pavilion.) However, he was unable to produce similar results at RU. In five years, the Scarlet Knights never received a NCAA bid (and only received two NIT bids, entering this season, although they are certain to get a third one this season, being five games over .500). And in the modern landscape of college basketball, three NIT bids in five years in the Big East will not be enough to appease a fan base. RU hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1991. In the ensuing 15 seasons, Bob Wenzel, Kevin Bannon, and Waters have all fallen short. And so Hill (presumably) will take his turn at improving RU’s status within the Big East.

All five starters reached double figures, indicating a well-balanced attack. The clear star was Will Sheridan, achieving a double-double: he matched his career-high in scoring with 17 points, and also collecting 13 rebounds (nine on the offensive end). Allan Ray exploded for a team-high 26 points, on 8-18 shooting plus a perfect 7-7 effort at the foul line. Kyle Lowry had yet another fine across-the-board evening: 14 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals. As did Randy Foye, who had 10 points, seven boards, four assists, and two blocks. Finally, Mike Nardi finished with a dozen points.

As a team, Villanova crashed the boards well (winning 38-26) and also shot a stellar 85% (23-27). Perhaps most importantly, the team had only five turnovers.

In Friday’s semifinal, Villanova will now take on #15/#16 Pittsburgh (the sixth seed in the BET) for the first time this season; the teams did not meet this year during the regular season.

Some more superlatives:

It was Villanova’s 25th victory, against just three defeats. It seems more likely than not, that VU would retain a #1 seed, regardless of its performance in the Big East tournament. However, aside from the general principle that victory is always better than defeat, VU can improve its seeding along the #1 line, both in terms of opponent(s) and geography.

Best of all, news from the rest of the BET was all good for Villanova. VU had already caught one break when RU beat SHU, thus giving ‘Nova a weaker opponent. While RU had forced OT in the regular season, that contest was at the RAC – one of the toughest home floors in the conference. One of RU’s chronic problems during their now 15-year absence from the NCAA tournament, is an inability to win away from the RAC – and so playing RU at MSG was vastly preferable to facing Seton Hall.

Even better, #1 seed (and top-ranked) Connecticut was ousted in the quarterfinals early on Thursday afternoon, by Syracuse. The Orangemen have now played their way into the NCAA tournament, with wins over Cincinnati and now UConn – but from VU’s perspective, this meant two things:

1) a clearer path to the BET title. Should Villanova rattle off three wins, the Wildcats would likely claim the #1 spot in the final regular-season poll – something which would be unprecedented in school history. UConn would not only drop out of the top spot in the poll with a quarterfinal loss to a weaker team – but would also be removed as the boulder in Villanova’s path to the tournament championship, one which it has captured only once in the generation-old Big East, in 1995.
2) It also gave the ‘Cats some breathing room for the NCAA seeding. It appears that five schools are jostling for the four #1 seeds: ‘Nova, UConn, Duke, Memphis, and Texas. By definition, VU has already surpassed UConn’s performance, just by getting to the semis. So ‘Nova certainly won’t be bumped off the #1 line by the Huskies. Plus, it may help ensure that Villanova – and not UConn – will have the privilege of playing in DC for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

But the good news didn’t cease there, either. Georgetown defeated Marquette in the quarters, on the other side of the bracket. I certainly would prefer to play Georgetown in the final, rather than Marquette, after the Golden Eagles outplayed ‘Nova at the Pavilion and nearly stole the contest in the regular season…

The only really discomforting news, was seeing how little Jason Fraser played, particularly with the blowout score; he logged just two minutes. Whether Wright is conserving his energy for the future – or if perhaps he can’t play at all, due to his injuries – isn’t clear….

Time will tell…

Go Wildcats!

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