Sunday, March 05, 2006

Big East Regular Season Co-Champions! #4 Villanova Stops McNamara, Syracuse to Take Share of BE Crown!

By Craig Dimitri

Well, the regular season is over – and what a season it was…

#4 Villanova has taken a share of the regular-season BE crown, in the brave new world of the 16-team megaconference – which is currently the crème de la crème of the college basketball world. The Wildcats have finished the season with a stellar 14-2 Big East record, 24-3 overall. Accordingly, they have claimed a share of the BE regular-season title with Connecticut, which also finished 14-2. (Although, regrettably, the Huskies will take the top seed in the tournament due to tiebreakers - the teams split their pair of head-to-head meetings).

Unfortunately, Villanova’s historic feat was not the marquee storyline. Instead the main plot centered on – and reasonably so – the fact that it would be the final Carrier Dome contest for Gerry McNamara, the Scranton native whose cult following is so remarkable, that 75 buses reportedly made the Scranton-to-Syracuse jaunt for his swan song.

The game took place just a few hours before the Oscars (albeit, an event staged in a slightly more temperate locale than upstate New York in March). And in keeping with the spirit of the evening, McNamara saved one of his best performances for his grand finale, in traditional Hollywood fashion. He finished with 29 points and four assists, one of the best games in his illustrious career, one in which he has started 130 consecutive games, over four years, and helped Syracuse capture the 2003 national championship.

However, it won’t be a storybook ending for the ‘Cuse this year, as the defeat likely means that they will be headed to the NIT. Syracuse has now thudded to a 7-9 Big East record, 19-11 overall. Most importantly, Syracuse’s last game prior to Sunday, was a debacle at DePaul, as the Blue Demons pureed the Orange by 39 points, in one of the worst defeats of the three-decade Jim Boeheim era. So unless they come up with a win over either Connecticut or ‘Nova in New York, it seems all but certain that they will be relegated to the consolation tournament.

For ‘Nova, the most surprising appearance was that of Shane Clark, the freshman who did not suit up until second semester due to eligibility issues. Clark played 21 minutes, scoring seven points and collecting three offensive rebounds, making a significant contribution to the victory.

Clark played so much because of two factors, one quantifiable and one speculative. The first was that the ‘Cats had too many players in foul trouble (Ray, Sheridan, and Clark himself all finished the game with four fouls, and Lowry and Foye finished with three.) The second was that Jason Fraser played zero minutes, despite the aforementioned foul trouble – which seems to lead to the inevitable conclusion that Fraser isn’t available due to his chronic injuries. As a result of Fraser’s unavailability, Chris Charles also played far more than usual, and did quite well. The redshirt senior logged seven minutes, scoring four points and scooping up a rebound.

Allan Ray continues to amaze. He scored 19 points in the first half, en route to a team-high 28 points, including six triples. And the 28-point barrage was that much more impressive, because Ray was saddled with foul trouble throughout the game. He played just 25 minutes. Any time you have more points than minutes played, you’ve had quite an afternoon.

Not to be outdone, Randy Foye also posted huge numbers: 21 points, six rebounds, six assists. Two other Wildcats also reached double figures. Kyle Lowry had another stunning all-around stat sheet, scoring 17 points, grabbing eight rebounds (at 6-0!), and recording six assists and four steals. (The one subpar category was turnovers: he also committed seven miscues). Mike Nardi had a dozen points and half a dozen rebounds (again, really something for such a small guy).

The contest itself was choppy and not particularly compelling. Villanova scored early and often, rolling to a 45-37 lead at halftime. Syracuse made some charges in the second half, engaging the huge crowd’s enthusiasms while doing so, but the ‘Cats’ quickness and guard play was just too much for Syracuse to overcome. VU led by as many as 13 in the last five minutes; SU pulled to within five down the stretch (a little less than three minutes remaining), but ‘Nova made its free throws, unrattled by the hostile environment – one which reflected a rare predicament at Syracuse, a must-win upset over an elite opponent to secure an at-large NCAA bid.

Villanova had retained a sufficiently large lead, in fact, that Jim Boeheim decided to surrender with under a minute to play, and take McNamara out of the contest, so that he could enjoy the accolades of the crowd in his finale. As it turned out, ironically, the game also represented a milestone for Jay Wright: it was his 100th victory at Villanova, against 57 defeats.

The latest set of Wildcat superlatives:

‘Nova finished the season at 14-2 in Big East play.

This was their best record in conference play (in terms of winning percentage) since Villanova joined the conference in 1980-81, the conference’s second year of existence. There have been two other seasons with 14 victories (the Kerry Kittles/Jason Lawson/Alvin Williams era teams in 1995 and 1996), but each of those teams went 14-4 against an 18-game schedule.

The two losses are the fewest Villanova has ever had in Big East play, against schedules ranging from 14 games, up to 16, then 18, then back to 16 again.

‘Nova tied for first place in the regular season.

There have been only three other occasions when this was true. In 1981-82, the Wildcats won the regular season outright with an 11-3 record (the only time Villanova has ever won it outright). The following season, they tied for first with a 12-4 record. Beyond those two early ‘80s successes, the only other time this took place was in 1996-97 (commonly known as “the Tim Thomas year”, after Thomas spent a single year on the Main Line, teamed with Lawson and Williams). Villanova and Boston College tied for first place in the “Big East 6”, a short-lived effort to separate the unwieldy, 13-team conference into divisions.

More to come…

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