Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Nardi Gras: On His 21st Birthday, the Junior Guard Lights Up Louisville for 20 Points, as #4 Villanova Sweeps Cardinals
NBC-10's John Clark came up with the phrase "Nardi Gras tonight" while reporting the results of last night's game on the 11 PM broadcast, and so he deserves credit for that phrase. It best describes the explosion from Mike Nardi last night, on his 21st birthday. In just 26 minutes of action, Nardi scored 20 points, including five triples, to propel #4 Villanova to its fifth consecutive victory, defeating Louisville, 79-73, to sweep the season series. On January 5, at Louisville, the Wildcats triumphed over then-#8/#9 Cardinals, 76-67, to improve to 10-0.
The Wildcats improved to 16-2 overall, 7-1 Big East, and now reside in second place in the 16-team conference, behind only #11 West Virginia, which is 6-0 and handed 'Nova its only conference loss, on January 7 at the Pavilion. This is Villanova's best Big East start in a generation, since the 1982-83 squad, under Roland V. Massimino, also went 7-1.
Nardi wasn't the only star for VU, however. Also turning in strong showings, in front of the sold-out Wachovia Center, were the senior backcourt of Allan Ray and Randy Foye, both logging 35 minutes. Ray - who had been struggling with a hamstring injury - finished with a game-high 26 points (including 5-8 shooting from three-point range), eight rebounds, and two assists. Foye finished with 19 points, four rebounds, four steals, and three assists. And of course, there was Kyle Lowry. Despite playing only 21 minutes, the sophomore guard had eight points and six assists.
Off the bench, freshman Dante Cunningham continues to impress. In 20 minutes, he finished with two points, six rebounds and three assists.
The high-scoring contest was due to an abundance of threes, on both sides, giving both the crowd, and the ESPN audience, a lively contest to watch. At halftime, Louisville was already 9-14 from beyond the arc, including 5-6 from Dean, who had 17 points already. (This did not bode well for VU, given the aforementioned statistic about Dean clearing the 15-point line.) For its part, Villanova was 10-17 from three-point range (with four apiece from Ray and Foye) - and remember, this was only halftime. In the first half, the teams combined to go 19-31 from three-point range - remarkable sharpshooting. (Both teams cooled off a bit in the second half: VU was only 4-9, and Louisville only 3-9, but they were still respectable numbers.) For his part, Foye matched Dean's 17 points at the half, but managed just two points after intermission.
Villanova's largest first-half lead was at 41-30; Louisville had come back with a 8-0 run, cutting the margin to 41-38, before Foye scored the final basket of the half. So, after the first-half fireworks had ended, VU's lead had been reduced to a 43-38 advantage.
Within five minutes of the resumption of play, the Cardinals had pulled to within 50-48- and then, as has dogged them all season, the offense began to malfunction. Villanova exploded with a 13-0 run, with the middle nine of the 13 scored by Nardi, and culminating in a tip-in from Dante Cunningham. The Wildcats now led 63-48. The crowd went wild, and Louisville appeared to be ready to board the plane for home.
To their credit, the Cardinals rallied in a very hostile environment, and made the game uncomfortably close in the final minutes. Trailing by 15, Louisville went on a 14-3 run of its own, ending when Dean hit a jump shot around the five-minute mark. The Wildcats' lead was now down to a thin 66-62, with plenty of time remaining. By the under-four minute TV timeout, the Cardinals were within two at 70-68, having now scored 20 of the last 27 points.
Ray responded with four straight points, followed by a tip-in by Foye, and the Wildcats were back in control, 76-68, with about 90 seconds to play. Louisville never drew closer than five the rest of the way, with the final tally being 79-73.
VU probably won this game for two reasons:
1) At the free throw line- or depending on how you look at it, by preventing Louisville from reaching the line. The Wildcats went 15-21 (71.4%) from the line, while the Cardinals took only eight free throws (and they only made three, a dismal 37.5%; Dean was 2-2 and everyone else was 1-6.)
2) Turnovers. The four-guard lineup once again worked in Villanova's favor, as the Wildcats committed only eight miscues, while forcing almost twice as many (15) for Louisville.
Louisville stayed in the game, despite the disparity, because it shot 56% from the floor. In fact, five Cardinals reached double figures: Dean, Dwight Padgett (15 points, five rebounds), Brandon Jenkins (24 minutes due to foul trouble, he fouled out at the end, but not before scoring 11 points and collecting five rebounds), Juan Palacios (a dozen points, half a dozen rebounds and three assists in only 28 minutes), and, off the bench, Terrence Williams (10 points, five rebounds, 27 minutes).
One of Villanova's few weaknesses was once again exposed: lack of scoring punch off the bench. Four bench players entered the game, for a total of 56 minutes, but scored a grand total of two points (Cunningham's aforementioned two). Shane Clark had a decent 23 minutes (three rebounds, an assist and a steal). Jason Fraser, unfortunately, couldn't help the 'Cats much (he played just 11 minutes, with one rebound and one block). Finally, Bilal Benn played two minutes, due to some foul trouble for the guards.
Louisville fell out of the Top 25 yesterday in both polls, receiving only a handful of votes in each (see Rank and File post, for more) and it doesn't appear that they will be returning to the national rankings, any time in the foreseeable future. The Cardinals have now lost five of their last six, and their record stands at 2-6 Big East, 14-7 overall, with a CollegeRPI.com rank of #64.
Obviously, if these trends continue, they will miss the NCAA tournament, after making it each of the last three seasons. Not since Rick Pitino's first season (2001-02), have the Cardinals been relegated to the NIT. Also, there seems little reason to think Louisville is going to turn it around, particularly with Dean's injuries. Essentially, the only thing for U of L to play for at this point, is qualifying for the 12-team Big East tournament- which is far from a lock at this point, with the Cardinals saddled with a 2-6 record.
It was noted in the preview, that Louisville was undefeated (8-0), when Dean - the preseason All-American guard - scored 15 or more points, but had a 7-7 record, otherwise. And so perhaps the most impressive element of VU's victory, was the fact that Dean had a great performance. And he did it, despite being hobbled by an ankle injury, which has drastically reduced his playing time in recent games. Dean scored a team-high 23 points and dealt seven assists - but Louisville is now 8-1 when he scores 15 or more points.
During the frequent stoppages in the final minutes, there was some banter between ESPN broadcasters Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery, and Jay Bilas. The best exchange, between McDonough and Raftery, went something to the effect of:
McDonough (indicating his disbelief, in the following statement): You know, Jay Wright claims that he doesn't pay any attention to his wardrobe. He told us so, this morning.
Raftery (with similar disbelief) : Well, if he doesn't- then, someone else pays a lot of attention to it, for him! (pausing) You know, I used to have as much sartorial elegance as Jay Wright. Back when I was younger.
McDonough: In which life?!?
The subject of this exchange was not surprising, given the reputation of both Pitino and Wright for expensive suits, with them being on the same sideline last night.
Up Next For the Wildcats
After the frantic nature of the last two weeks, the Wildcats will finally receive an opportunity to rest and let some injuries heal. Fortunately, Marquette - which owns a 15-point victory over top-ranked Connecticut - won't arrive at the Pavilion till Saturday afternoon. I will provide a full preview...
Comments, observations, etc., whether positive or negative, are always encouraged. Feel free to post a public comment, and/or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even before they took the Wachovia Center hardwood, with the customized Block V at center court, the Wildcats had already risen in the two major polls. Previously ranked sixth in both polls, Villanova vaulted all the way to #4, in both polls released yesterday. The Wildcats have been ranked continuously, since January 2005.
In Week 13, both polls agreed on an identical top six:
National Rankings for Week 13 (released Monday, January 30)
Villanova (15-2) #4, 1,548 points, up from (13-2) #6 (one 1st-place vote), 1,429 points.
Villanova gained two spots and 119 points in the AP poll, despite losing the support of the single writer who had given them a first-place vote in Week 12. The Wildcats sufficiently impressed the voters, despite their narrow wins at South Florida and Notre Dame (who have only one Big East victory between them, although both have suffered many tough losses), over the course of the last week.
Villanova jumped over previous #4 Texas, who had beaten them on January 14 in Austin. The Longhorns dropped all the way to #7, after losing @ Oklahoma immediately after VU's win @ ND. The Longhorns' support fell from 1,541 points to 1,355 points.
The Wildcats also leapt over previous #5 Florida (whom VU pounded in the second round in last year's NCAA tournament), which fell to #8. The Gators had 1,530 points in Week 12, but dropped down to 1,287 points in Week 13.
Villanova (15-2) #4, 657 points, up from (13-2) #6, 606 points.
Villanova gained two spots and 51 points, again surpassing the same two Sunbelt schools. However, in the latter poll, the positions of Florida and Texas had been reversed, so previously #4 Florida dropped from 677 points to #7, 582 points, and previously #5 Texas fell from 654 points to #8, 577 points. Logically - just as they had in the AP poll - each also fell three spots in this survey: thus, Florida is now #7 and Texas #8.
As of the most recent update (early Tuesday, January 31), Villanova is ranked #3, behind only Duke and Memphis. Moreover, the Wildcats' strength-of-schedule ranking is a powerful #13, which will only rise as more and more Big East games are played.
Comments, observations, etc., whether positive or negative, are always encouraged. Feel free to post a public comment, and/or e-mail me at email@example.com.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
The plummeting Louisville Cardinals, having lost four of their last five contests, make their first-ever visit to the Wachovia Center, to take on the # Wildcats on Monday night... Here's a preview...
The Viewpoint on the Louisville Cardinals
ESPN: Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery, and Jay Bilas
The two teams have not faced each other often, unsurprisingly, including a near 36-year gap between meetings from Dec. 1953 to Nov. 1989. This will be just the tenth meeting all-time, with Louisville holding a narrow 5-4 edge. The teams met regularly in the early 1950s (the first game was on January 8, 1950, with the host Wildcats falling 78-68), but then only played each other in holiday tournaments and the 1996 NCAA tournament, until this season.
On Thursday, January 5, Villanova became Louisville's first-ever official Big East opponent, visiting Freedom Hall as Louisville celebrates the venue's 50th anniversary of hosting Cardinals basketball. The Wildcats prevailed over then #-9 Louisville, 76-67.
It had been almost ten full years since the teams had last met, on March 17, 1996, in the second round of the NCAA tournament, at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. It's worth repeating, from my recap of the initial meeting this year:
The victory was at least a consolation for longtime Villanova faithful, who vividly remember the 1995-96's team being ousted by Louisville and DeJuan Wheat (19 points) in the second round of the NCAA tournament on St. Patrick's Day. It was the final game for Kerry Kittles, who completed his stellar career with only one NCAA tournament victory, despite two appearances as a #3 seed in a region. There was no luck for the 'Cats that day, as sharpshooter Eric Eberz had the worst game of his career, and it ultimately sunk the 'Cats' Sweet 16 hopes.
Coach and Context
Rick Pitino (5th season at Louisville, 20th overall)
Against Villanova, Pitino is 3-4 lifetime, including all coaching stops (five of them came when he was coaching Providence, of course, and he was 2-3). While at Louisville, he did get Jay Wright's Hofstra team in December 1997 at the Puerto Rico Shootout, defeating them in the first round.
Rick Pitino is a future Hall of Fame coach, as we all know. In two decades of college coaching, he is closing in rapidly on 500 victories (he currently has 463, one short of former Georgetown coach John Thompson on the all-time list), in four stops (Boston University, Providence, Kentucky, and his current station). He's been to four Final Fours (with three different schools), and captured the 1996 championship with Kentucky, probably the last truly great NCAA team, before the flood of players foregoing eligibility escalated.
He's also done something which very few coaches have done before him - coach both sides in an archrivalry, such as the one between UK and Louisville. He spent eight stellar years in Lexington, where his final six teams all made NCAA appearances, five made the Elite Eight, three made the Final Four and one won the whole thing.
After a respite in the NBA, Pitino announced that he'd return to the NCAA, but coaching Louisville, of all places, for the 2001-02 season. The UK fan base went ballistic - their sentiments perhaps best represented by the most memorable sign, the day Pitino went back to Lexington for the first time on the U of L sideline: "Rick - Only Santa Looks Good in Red."
Part of the Pitino act is the image (inter alia, the urbane sophistication, the ghostwritten books on leadership, the tailored, expensive suits). But he does have the goods to back it up, when one looks at his records at his various coaching stops. At Louisville, his first team (2002) only made it to the NIT. But in 2003 and 2004, the Cardinals returned to the NCAAs, and last season, went all the way to the Final Four, going 33-5. Overall, in his nearly five seasons at U of L, Pitino has compiled a very impressive record.
Louisville, of course, is a storied program. It has 32 NCAA appearances (tied with Indiana for fourth all-time) and eight Final Fours (also tied with IU, for seventh all-time). This year, it is observing three significant anniversaries:
two concurrent ones (the 50th year in residence at Freedom Hall and the NIT title the Cardinals won in that same year, 1955-56, when the NIT arguably was the de facto championship);
and the 20th anniversary of the 1986 national champions under Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum, featuring "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison and Milt Wagner (back in the news in recent years, as his son, DaJuan, was a highly touted recruit coming out of South Jersey, who ended up at Memphis).
How The Cardinals Have Done So Far
2-5 Big East, 14-6 overall, RPI rank #79 (through games of Mon Jan 23). They were ranked #24/#22 in the polls last week, but in the Monday, Jan. 30, polls, they have fallen out of the top 25 in both the AP and the ESPN/USAToday polls. (Last week, in AP, they were #22 but now received only nine votes; in ESPN/USA Today, they were #23 but received just six votes.)
The Cardinals are in serious danger of missing the NCAA tournament, despite the fact that the team had been in the Top 25 all season, prior to today's polls. Their extremely weak RPI rating (nowhere near what would be needed to qualify as an at-large bid) is chiefly attributable to Pitino's decision to schedule very weakly, in light of the team's entry into the rugged Big East. The same CollegeRPI.com report ranks Louisville's strength-of-schedule as #87. (In contrast, VU was 13-2 against a #13 SOS, as of last Tuesday, although the games against poorly ranked USF and ND will drag that number down a bit this week.)
It was reasonable for Pitino to figure he'd have enough problems with moving to the Big East, without a treacherous December slate as well. But there were only two major-conference opponents, scheduled for Louisville. One was @ #22 Kentucky (Louisville's archrival, as well as Pitino's former school, where he won a national title in 1996), where they lost by 12 on CBS. The other was @ Miami, now a sophomore member of the ACC, where the Cardinals won by 15. But that was it.
Louisville has cupcake wins over a series of dreadful teams (RPI ranks): Tennessee-Martin (#288), Prairie View (#334, one up from the bottom in fact, as there are only 335 Division I teams), Arkansas State (#206, but a 6-13 record already), Chicago State (#261), and Fairleigh Dickinson (#226), and UC-Davis (#274, and with a 4-13 record), all at home. They also have home wins over respectable Akron (#76), against whom they scored an incredible 111 points, as well as the middling Detroit (#187), College of Charleston (#220) and Middle Tennessee State (#113).
The bottom line is that Louisville needs to have a respectable Big East record, in order to get an at-large invitation, with that schedule. And currently, they don't have it, at 2-5 heading into tonight. In conference play, they have:
a loss to Villanova, a win @ Providence (one of Pitino's former realms, and whom he took to the Final Four back in 1987), a loss to Pitt, a loss @ St. John's, yet another home loss (their third home loss in BE play) to Connecticut, a win over Cincinnati, and most surprisingly, an upset at the RAC @ Rutgers on Saturday. In that most recent defeat, the game was deadlocked at 56 when RU scored the final nine points of the game to win 65-56. Thus, 2-5, with a very difficult game tonight against the Wildcats. In summary, Louisville started the year 11-1, and is now 14-6.
As a result, Louisville is going to face an uphill battle even to qualify for the Big East tournament. They already have five losses, and still have four nationally-ranked Big East opponents (VU, WVU, Syracuse, and Connecticut) - all of which are on the road, starting at the Wachovia Center, this evening.
G Taquan Dean (Sr, 6-3, 15 pts/game)
G Andre McGee (Fr, 5-11, 5 pts/game)
G Brandon Jenkins (Jr, 6-3, 12 pts/game)
F Juan Palacios (Soph, 6-8, 11 pts/6 rebs/game)
C David Padgett (Soph, 6-11, 12 pts/6 rebs/game)
Louisville is 8-0 when Dean (a preseason All-American and John R. Wooden Award candidate) scores 15 or more points, and 6-6 when he doesn't- so that fact concisely states the defensive priority for Villanova. Dean has been bothered by an ankle sprain, causing him to miss the games against UConn, St. John's, and UC-Davis, and he played only 12 minutes in the loss to Pitt. In the last two games, moreover, he still played only 27 minutes each, as it nagged him considerably against RU.
Padgett is having a great season, including a career-high 27 points in the loss to UConn. He's banged-up, too, having missed some practice this week with knee problems.
In general, the Cardinal attack has sputtered in recent games, screeching to a halt for minutes at a time. U of L shot just 34% against RU - their worst accuracy of the season, and they've been under 40% in each of their last five games. Predictably, they've lost four of those five.
I will provide a full 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Bad Luck of the Irish Continues, as #6 Villanova Yields 17-point 2nd Half Lead, But Escapes on Lowry Tip-in the Final Seconds, 72-70
This game never should have been so close. #6 Villanova was on cruise control in the second half, and threatening to turn the contest into a rout. The green-clad ND students - filling up a huge swath of the Joyce Center, behind one basket - had been silenced. The Wildcats seemingly had it in the bag, when freshman Dante Cunningham - who continues to impress, with his increased playing time - laid it in from underneath, to give 'Nova a 59-42 lead with 10:48 to play.
It should be noted that Notre Dame gave 'Nova all it could handle in the first half, and the teams entered halftime, with 'Nova leading by just a single point, 35-34. In fact, ND actually had a 24-17 lead, when Kyle McAlarney - off an assist by Chris Quinn - hit a three, with 5:23 to play in the opening stanza.
However, Mike Nardi answered by sandwiching triples around a Torin Francis layup, at about the two-minute mark, and VU retook the lead at 31-29. Kyle Lowry had a steal which led to an Allan Ray dunk, and Villanova had embarked on a 16-5 run to now lead 33-29. The teams continued to battle until 'Nova had the lead at the first buzzer, 35-34.
Nardi and Ray had outstanding first halves, and were carrying the team. At intermission, Nardi was 5-8 shooting overall, 4-6 from three-point range, and had 15 points. Ray - after missing Tuesday's frustrating struggle with South Florida with a hamstring injury - had 13 points on 5-9 shooting overall, 3-5 from three-point range - and had six rebounds, to go with two assists. For ND, star Chris Quinn led with eight points, four rebounds, and four assists, with Francis adding six points and four rebounds.
However, VU appeared to run ND out of the gym, when play resumed. The teams traded baskets during the first two minutes, and Francis's jumper at the 18:05 mark cut the VU lead to 43-39. But the Golden Domers did not score a single point, for nearly seven minutes. In that span, VU scored a dozen points, unanswered, and soon were holding a 55-39 lead with just under 12 minutes remaining. The Notre Dame drought finally ended when McAlarney, again fed by Quinn, hit a triple to cut it to 55-42 at the 11:44 mark.
But the Wildcats continued to extend their lead, scoring four more points, the last two of which came on Cunningham's aforementioned layup. Bottom line - it was 59-42 with 10:48 to play. VU had outscored ND 24-8 in the first nine minutes-plus of the second half. It appeared to be over - it really did.
Somehow, ND rallied. The key was that Ray reinjured his hamstring and had to come out of the contest, briefly. Although he wasn't gone long (he logged 37 minutes) Ray's absence helped make the ND resurgence possible. With their crowd egging them on, the Golden Domers went on a 22-4 run, to reclaim the lead at 64-63, with two free throws from Colin Falls - their outside sharpshooter who had recorded zero points up until that time. This came at the 2:22 mark.
Nardi airballed a three on the next possession, and ND rebounded. The Irish missed two three-point shots on the ensuing possession, but got a third try when Lowry and Will Sheridan both recovered the rebound and were called (correctly) for traveling with 1:41 to go.
After being fouled by Sheridan, Quinn then hit a pair of free throws with 1:38 to play, giving ND a 66-63 lead. It was now a 24-4 run; VU had scored a grand total of four points (and one FG) over a nine-minute span. Candidly, it was time for panic on the VU bench, and Lowry called timeout after getting it over halfcourt, at the 1:35 mark.
Fortunately, ND mistakes opened the door for VU to triumph. The trailing Wildcats were fouled on each of their next three possessions. Carter fouled Randy Foye with 1:24 left, and the senior converted both FTs (on a pressure one-and-one situation) to make it 66-65, ND. At the other end, Foye fouled Carter (a good foul, because Carter was going to have an easy basket, unimpeded, if Foye hadn't fouled him on the drive) who also made a pair to re-extend the score to 68-65, with just 1:04 to go.
A lot was going to have to go right for VU to win at this point - and it did. Carter committed a foolish foul on Foye; it was foolish not only because Foye didn't have an easy shot, trying to create off his drive, but because it fouled Carter out of the game (he finished with 14 points/6 rebs, and ND could have used him for the remaining 55 seconds). Foye once again kept the pressure on ND with a pair of FTs - 68-67, with 55.0 seconds left, ND ball.
After the Irish drained the clock for as long as they dared (VU was guaranteed another possession, with at least 20 seconds to go), Quinn took a gamble on a triple, that might have KO'd the 'Cats, if it had gone in. ND would have been up by four with 30 seconds left. But it didn't... and Ray grabbed the rebound with 30 seconds left. He raced up the court, and McAlarney fouled him on a drive, giving Ray a chance for a traditional three-point play when the ball went in. Ray hit the FT, and VU reclaimed the lead, 70-68, with 22.3 seconds to play.
Francis re-tied the game, on an assist from Quinn, with 13.5 seconds to go. Jay Wright used 'Nova's final timeout to discuss the situation at 10.8 seconds, after waiting to get over the line. ND had one timeout left.
Foye drained some time at the top of the key, then drove the lane and missed off the rim. Somehow, someway, Kyle Lowry (at six feet), managed to tip in the game-winning basket with 1.7 seconds to go. Since ND had no timeouts, they couldn't set up a play, and a Quinn desperation shot from just beyond half-court, didn't go in and it wouldn't have beaten the buzzer, anyhow. Villanova victory, 72-70.
But ultimately, a win is a win. Villanova improved its record to 6-1 Big East, 15-2 overall. 'Nova now trails first-place West Virginia by just half a game, in a three-way tie for 2nd place with Connecticut and Pittsburgh.
ND dropped to 10-8, 1-6 Big East. This is their 11th Big East campaign, and their worst start in conference play, since the maiden campaign of '95-'96 also started 1-6.
For the Irish, all six BE losses have been by a combined margin of 22 points - and their three most recent (@ Marquette, Georgetown in double OT, and Villanova) have come by a total of seven points. But all the agonizing losses will mean, is a third straight visit to the NIT. That is, if they're lucky, as ND would need to be at .500 overall, for a bid, and the Irish still have three ranked BE opponents on the road to face - finishing .500 overall, won't be easy.
They still might make the Big East tournament. After they have to travel to WVU and Louisville, the schedule grows easier. Of their final seven, only one is against a ranked team (@ #1 Connecticut) and so they'll be playing all the other bottom-feeders.
Looking at the Numbers
Ray clearly had the best overall game. Even with a lingering hamstring problem, he had a game-high 23 points (4-6 from three-point range), 10 rebounds (a great double-double), four assists, two steals, and didn't commit a turnover in 37 minutes. Nardi was also awesome: 22 points, on 5-11 shooting from beyond the arc. Foye had 18 points, three boards, and four assists. No other Wildcat had more than four points - but it was Lowry's third and fourth points in the dying seconds that made all the difference.
As a team, the 'Cats played well - they converted 13 of 16 FTs, 81.3%, and committed only seven turnovers. As a result, ND had to fight a lot harder for the points it did get, not getting many in transition or on fast breaks.
Three players came off the bench for 'Nova: Jason Fraser (14 minutes, three boards, and one point), Cunningham (19 minutes, two points, two boards), and Shane Clark (10 minutes, did not score, two boards). Will Sheridan, although he started, only played 19 minutes, but he chipped in big time with nine boards and two blocks in what was essentially a single half, for him.
For Notre Dame, Quinn again tried to carry the team like Atlas. He led the Irish in a remarkable diversity of statistics: minutes played (all 40), points (18), field goals (6), three-pointers (4), rebounds, both overall and offensive (9 and 3), assists (8), blocked shots (2), and less admirably, turnovers (6).
However, three other Golden Domers did reach double figures:
Carter (14 points, including 8-11 from the line, six rebounds, and two assists, before unwisely fouling himself out in the final minute);
McAlarney (coming off the bench to score 13 points and collect three rebounds, in just 22 minutes);
Francis (11 points/six boards in only 27 minutes).
Falls, the team's best perimeter threat, was completely shut down by the 'Nova defense. He was reduced to taking a lone, unsuccessful shot in each half, and thus finished the game with a total of just two points from the foul line, although he did deal five assists.
Villanova continues its remarkable dominance of Notre Dame in Big East play. It was Villanova's 10th victory in the dozen times the schools have faced each other, since ND joined the Big East for the 1995-96 season. The Wildcats also improved to 5-1 at the Joyce Center, all-time. Including pre-Big East clashes, VU now leads, 15-12.
Rank and File
The Wildcats spent the week of January 23-January 30, 2006, ranked #6 in both polls, including a first-place vote in the AP poll. When Monday's poll is released, the 'Cats would figure to advance to #5 in both. In the less-reliable ESPN/USA Today poll, current #5 Texas fell at #22 Oklahoma by 10 - whereas the AP puts the Red River Rivalry as #4 Texas falling at #24 Oklahoma.
Nonetheless, since UT is the only team ahead of Villanova, in either poll, that lost this week, it seems only logical that VU would take their spot and return to the top 5 (despite the head-to-head loss at Austin two weeks ago).
The ESPN2 Broadcast
I have to give a great deal of credit to former Utah coach Rick Majerus, who did the color analysis. Majerus did not rely on the typical ex-coach cliches ("Team X has to step up and begin scoring some points to get back into this basketball game", and the like...) Majerus used a lot of jargon. He often specified in detail, the players' strengths and weaknesses on both teams, as he explained the various matchups used by the coaches. (Indicating, clearly, that he had watched a lot of tape on both teams), and in general, did among the best color analysis I've heard in quite a while.
Next Up for the Wildcats
#22/23 Louisville (2-5 Big East, 13-5 overall) is not a lock to even reach the 12-team Big East tournament, despite being nationally ranked. The reeling Cardinals, who have lost four of their last five, will make a trip to the Wachovia Center on Monday night. The Cardinals will seek to avenge the loss Villanova handed them at Freedom Hall, in Louisville's first-ever Big East game.
I will provide a full preview...
Thursday, January 26, 2006
On Saturday, #6 Villanova will try to extend its three-game winning streak, when it takes on slumping Notre Dame in South Bend... the Irish have lost five of their last six contests.
The Viewpoint on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Villanova leads all-time, 14-12. Surprisingly, the schools did not face each other until Jan. 10, 1970, when the host Irish won 94-92 in OT (quite a barnburner for that era). For the next 14 years, there was an annual series, as Digger Phelps liked to bring his team to the Palestra to face VU and La Salle (at the time, a power). Presumably, the opening of the Pavilion in 1985-86 ended the series. This presumption is based on the fact that the last game took place in January 1984, and the teams did not meet again until Notre Dame ended its long-time independence by joining the Big East for the 1995-96 season, and has now been around for a decade (hard to believe). Of course, then as now, they remain an independent in ND's signature sport, football.
As members of the Big East, Villanova has dominated the series, winning nine of the 11 contests over the past decade (ND didn't win a Big East game against VU until Jan. 10, 2004). Last season, there were two regular-season encounters. On Jan. 8, ND won 78-72 at the Joyce Center, while Villanova won on Jan. 26 at the Wachovia Center, 65-60.
Mike Brey (6th season)
Brey (part of the Coach K/Duke family tree) was introduced at Notre Dame in July 2000, having received a seven-year contract. As the successful coach at Delaware for five seasons, Brey had been in the running, after John McLeod had been fired at the end of the 1998-99 season. But ND had decided upon Matt Doherty, then an assistant to Roy Williams at Kansas. However, Doherty unexpectedly resigned after one season, in order to become the coach at his alma mater, North Carolina, upon the retirement of Bill Guthridge.
Doherty undoubtedly has had second thoughts about that decision, after his disastrous tenure at UNC, which culminated with his head on the Chapel Hill chopping block in 2003 (ironically, to be replaced by his old mentor Williams, also a UNC graduate). But it was good news for Brey (a Dukie, also ironically, replacing a Tar Heel).
This added to some chronic instability in the program, as ND now had its third coach in three years. When Brey replaced Doherty in the summer of 2000, ND hadn't reached the NCAA tournament in a decade: its last dance had come in 1990. Digger Phelps, now an ESPN analyst, had gotten the Irish to 14 NCAA tournaments, including six straight appearances from 1985-90. And Phelps had done it all, without the benefit of conference affiliation and the chance at an automatic bid that comes with it. Moreover, for much of Digger's tenure, the tournament was a lot smaller than it is now. Accordingly, although football (of course) dwarfs basketball in South Bend, ND had always had a solid program. The fan base, alumni, and administration expect success on the hardwood as well as the gridiron.
Fortunately for Brey, he had a lot of success in the beginning. Coaching a heterogeneous mix of players, recruited by his two predecessors, Brey got the Irish back into the tournament, in each of his first three seasons. It was a particularly impressive feat, given that ND hadn't gone for ten years, prior to his arrival. And the Irish played well in those three NCAA appearances, too. The Irish got to the second round in 2001 and 2002 (in the latter year, losing to Duke and Brey's mentor, Coach K), and even making the Sweet 16 in 2003.
Naturally, ND was thrilled with Brey. Even after his fourth team only went to the NIT, he received, in October 2004, the second two-year extension of his tenure, and he is currently signed through the 2010-11 season. During Brey's first four seasons, ND and Syracuse were the only schools in the Big East to have posted winning conference records every year, so clearly he was doing something right.
However, the wheels have come off a little bit. After three straight NCAAs, Brey's teams have now gone to two NITs in 2004 and 2005. The Irish entered the 2005 Big East tournament, likely needing only a single win over woeful Rutgers to get into the NCAAs. But they promptly lost, and were relegated to the NIT. (After which, they quickly folded against Holy Cross in the first round, at home.)
This season does not look any more promising. Notre Dame won't make the NCAAs, unless they win the Big East tournament - and frankly, even making the new Big East tournament is going to require a substantial turnaround, as we shall see, below. Of course, Brey certainly isn't in any current danger (he's got five years on his contract, after the conclusion of this one). And he's reached a postseason tournament, in each of his five seasons. For better or worse, his roster is now composed entirely of players he recruited (and his critics pointedly note that his most recent teams have tapered off, compared to the first three). The honeymoon has worn off a bit in South Bend. Moreover, the recent revival of ND's football fortunes has not helped matters, as its success is juxtaposed against the hurdles that the basketball team still must overcome.
How They've Done So Far
1-5 Big East, 10-7 overall.
(Note: all ranks are this week only.)
Seven of ND's wins have come against cupcake competition, at home: Lafayette, Hofstra, Florida International, Niagara, Columbia, Fordham, and Wofford (the last of whom, they defeated, by only three points). They also have a cupcake victory @ Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, where they defeated the Mastodons (yes, that is IPFW's actual nickname) by just two points.
Among major conference competition, their one decent victory is @ Alabama, and a good loss @ #15/14 NC State. They also suffered a home loss to #32/26 Michigan.
Nonetheless, ND entered Big East play with a respectable 9-2 record, and a fighting chance at reaching the NCAA tournament. Then the roof caved in. All five of ND's Big East defeats (@ #12/10 Pitt, @ DePaul, #25/24 Syracuse, @ Marquette, and most recently, #21/#27 Georgetown in double OT) have been by single digits. The lone victory was a 15-point triumph over Providence, at the Joyce Center.
As a result, ND is already in such a hole that even finishing in the top 12, will be very difficult. Their next stretch is absolutely brutal: #6 VU, @ #9/13 WVU, @ #22/23 Louisville- all of which they will be expected to lose. Thus, they could easily be 1-8 by Feb. 5. Plus, to top it off, having to go to #1 Connecticut in February. So even before the Super Bowl takes place, this season may very well be effectively over.
What To Look For
ND is slow, even by Big East standards, and also plays three guards. While playing three guards, rather than two, will to some degree mitigate VU's four-guard attack, ND will have nowhere near the speed and quickness to keep up with Villanova, even if Allan Ray isn't available. Having seen the USF tape, Brey would probably opt to pack in a zone and deny Villanova penetration, praying that Ray won't be available and that the other shooters have an off-night. USF, a team not blessed with talent or depth, has given opponents a solid strategy for defeating 'Nova.
Chris Quinn has to carry the Irish on his shoulders (against Georgetown, he played all 50 minutes, scored 26 points and dealt 10 assists). Torin Francis and Colin Falls (a good three-point shooter, clicking at over 40%) also average scoring in double-figures.
Also, the fact remains that there are no easy games in the Big East. Despite its 1-5 record, ND has been competitive in all of its Big East games and overall, has only one loss in double-digits (@ NC State in December).
I'll provide a full recap after the game.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
It was the first-ever meeting between #6 Villanova, and the Bulls of South Florida. And undoubtedly, coach Jay Wright and the Wildcats are very thankful, that there won't be a second meeting this season. Despite their narrow losses, in all but one of their conference games, USF is 0-6 in Big East play. Thus, the Bulls are obviously likely to finish in the bottom four of the new, 16-team Big East, and miss the trip to Madison Square Garden, where there could be a potential rematch with the Wildcats.
(In an atypical section of the USF media game-day notes, they specifically requested that their team be referred to initially as "the University of South Florida", then either as "the Bulls" or "USF". With equal specificity, they asked that such variants as "South Fla.", "S. Florida", or the like not be used. And since they asked so politely, and the USF SID did a great job with the game notes - it was easy to get up to speed on USF, thanks to them, I will cheerfully comply with their request, throughout this article.)
The visiting Wildcats trailed by as much as seven, 45-38, with just over six minutes to play. The Bulls, who had lost four of their five previous Big East contests by single digits, were undoubtedly intoxicated on the scent of the school's first-ever Big East victory. The Wildcats were sorely missing Allan Ray, who did not play due to a hamstring injury he suffered in practice this week.
However, the Wildcats went on a 10-0 tear to reclaim the lead at 48-45, with 3:22 remaining, with the big strikes being triples from Randy Foye and Mike Nardi. Nonetheless, the Wildcats were not out of the woods at the Sun Dome, until the final buzzer sounded.
USF's McHugh Mattis (as noted in the preview, what a great name!) converted the first of two free throw attempts, to pull the Bulls within 48-46, at the 1:47 mark. But Villanova couldn't make a field goal the rest of the way. Jason Fraser rebounded Mattis' miss, and VU called timeout. But Will Sheridan missed a shot, and USF's Solomon Jones grabbed the rebound.
Villanova forced a turnover, calling its final two timeouts with 46 and 37 seconds remaining, respectively. Foye missed a shot that would have made it a two-possession game with 32 seconds left, and Jones once again retrieved the rebound. USF called its final timeout with 21 seconds to play, to discuss its strategy. A two-pointer would tie it, a three-pointer would win it. What undoubtedly figured strongly, in coach Robert McCullum's analysis, was that the Bulls were in serious foul trouble, and would lose a battle of attrition if it went into OT. They were better off trying for the three, and it was not surprising that both of their final two shots were three-pointers.
Accordingly, James Holmes tried a three-pointer that went in and out with 4 seconds remaining, and the rebound went to Foye, who was immediately fouled. Foye kept USF's hopes alive by missing the first one; he made the second one (Villanova's only point in the last 1:43), to give USF one last chance, this time down by 3. A desperation shot by Mattis did not go in, and so the Wildcats managed to scamper out of the Sun Dome with a victory - that, speaking frankly - they probably didn't deserve, even without Ray.
One major concern is how inept the offense was, without Ray. With the team's best shooter off the floor, and the Wildcats thus playing bigger, USF simply plugged the inside lanes shut, and forced the Wildcats' perimeter shooters to beat them. It was a wise strategy by McCallum, and it came within one three-point shot of succeeding. Villanova's shooting was abysmal: the Wildcats shot just 29.6% from the floor and slightly worse from beyond the arc, at 28.6%. Randy Foye finished with a game-high 24 points (nearly half of VU's total) on 8-23 shooting. Nobody else reached double figures for Villanova. But Foye was only 2-11 in the first half, the major reason why USF took a 21-18 lead into the locker room.
The bottom line: on no fewer than three possessions, in a one-possession situation, the Bulls could have tied or taken the lead in the last two minutes. The victory by the Wildcats tonight was by a very precarious margin.
Defense, of course, was the key to the Villanova triumph. They allowed only 46 points, holding USF to equally dismal 29.2% shooting from the floor, and also forced 17 USF turnovers (which committing only nine, themselves.) For the Bulls, Melvin Buckley scored a team-high 12 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds. However, the real star of the game was USF center Solomon Jones. Jones had seven points, five blocked shots, an incredible 17 rebounds (and five assists, from a center!). He continues to be one of the best big men in the Big East. Both Buckley and Jones played all 40 minutes.
USF's Colin Dennis went 0-13 from the floor, but 6-6 from the line. (How can that happen?) Or if you look at it another way, the rest of the Bulls shot a respectable 40% (14-35) from the floor.
As Wildcats assistant Patrick Page noted after the game, "everyone on the bench moved up a spot", due to the Ray injury. His 35 minutes were distributed down the line, so freshmen Shane Clark (19 minutes, 2 points, 5 rebounds and a block) and Dante Cunningham (14 minutes before fouling out) made substantial contributions. Also, Chris Charles and Dwayne Anderson came off the bench for a total of three minutes.
Villanova improved to 5-1 Big East, 14-2 overall, and continued to solidify its Big East standing. The Bulls fell to 0-6 Big East, 6-13 overall, but their first-ever conference victory is going to turn up at some point. They have had a lot of close calls, all of which they lost, and eventually the basketball gods will reward USF with a victory. At 0-6, it would be very difficult for them to qualify for the conference tournament (they'd probably need to go at least 5-11, to avoid the bottom four) but it's not impossible.
Up Next For Villanova
The Wildcats will travel to South Bend, Indiana, to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, on Saturday at 6 PM, EST. ND, which had been viewed as an up-and-coming program under former Delaware coach Mike Brey, has been sagging in the standings. It hasn't helped that ND has gone to the NIT in both 2004 and 2005.
While Villanova was struggling at the Sun Dome, suddenly red-hot, #21 Georgetown overcame ND in South Bend, 85-82, in double OT, with Irish star Chris Quinn playing all 50 minutes. While the Hoyas (4-2 Big East, 13-4 overall) will be dancing come March, Notre Dame is now 1-5 Big East, 10-7 overall. ND is vulnerable and if the Wildcats get Ray back in one piece, things should go better than they did in Tampa.
I will provide a full preview...
Monday, January 23, 2006
Both major polls were released on Monday, as always. Last week, Villanova was ranked #8 in the Associated Press media poll (the more reliable of the two), and #7 in the ESPN/USA Today poll.
Villanova's pair of victories last week, over Seton Hall and then-#20 Syracuse, impressed the voters. The 13-2 Wildcats are now the sixth-ranked team in both polls, leaping two spots in the AP and one spot in the ESPN/USA Today poll. Best of all, Villanova received a first-place ballot in the AP poll.
Associated Press - #6 (1 first-place vote) ranking, 1,429 points, up from #8, 1,350 points.
Villanova leapfrogged Illinois, which fell from #7 to #8, due to a loss to Indiana. The Wildcats also jumped over Gonzaga, which fell from #6 to #7, despite two victories - the Zags escaped USD with a one-point victory and it cost them some votes as a result.
ESPN/USA Today - #6 ranking, 606 votes.
Villanova moved ahead of the Illini, who tumbled from #7 to #5.
CollegeRPI.com - #4 ranking, #13 strength-of-schedule. (As of Wednesday, January 18, the most recent update.)
Villanova will face the Bulls of South Florida on Tuesday night, in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. Obviously, USF is not well-known to us as Villanova partisans, given that the school is a newcomer to the Big East and was admitted explicitly to give the football wing of the conference enough teams to survive. And so one consequence is that Villanova will be traveling to USF on Tuesday night, rather than to Providence, let's say - a long-time Big East rival that the Wildcats won't even face this season, unless fate matches the two schools in the Big East tournament.
There will be another - and more interesting - innovation for tonight's VU/USF game: the game will be carried solely on ESPN360. There will be no other television or Internet video feed available, although of course we can still catch the radio broadcast, on 990 AM, with Ryan Fannon and Whitey Rigsby...
The Viewpoint On South Florida
This is the first meeting between the schools.
Coach and Context
Robert McCullum (3rd season, 27-48 record at USF).
Had previously had success during three seasons as the head coach at Western Michigan, as well as serving as an assistant at Illinois, Florida, and Kansas State. (Worth noting: the USF AD who hired McCallum in 2003 was Lee Roy Selmon, the former star linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, back in the day.)
How the Bulls Have Done So Far
0-5 Big East, 6-12 overall, on a seven-game losing streak.
USF began the year by beating Alcorn State and Jacksonville at home, before losing their third home game to Florida International (the Golden Panthers, one of the great nicknames in Division I) in double OT.
The Bulls then headed for a holiday tournament, known as the "Price Cutter Classic" (not quite the same ring of prestige, as, let's say, the Jimmy V or Maui Classics), which is staged by Missouri State in Springfield, Missouri. In the opener, they fell to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi by 12, and won the consolation game against Georgia Southern.
They won a true road game at Stetson, boosting their record to 4-2. Returning home, they were blown out by Michigan, and blew out Florida Atlantic, in turn.
The Bulls were invited to a more dignified holiday tournament, the 42nd Rainbow Classic in Hawaii, where they played their next three contests. USF lost to Iowa State and Oregon State before beating Loyola Marymount for 7th place. Their record now stood at 6-5. But LMU has been their last victory.
Returning home to Tampa, the Bulls lost to Bethune-Cookman in OT and UAB in successive contests, falling below .500 at 6-7.
In light of such a dismal nonconference record (all six victories had come against cupcakes and they had no wins in true road games), it would be reasonable to think that their maiden voyage in the Big East would be pretty rocky - as a matter of fact, I would have guessed that they would lucky to win more than one of the 16 games.
However, that assumption has not turned out to be true. Although, as expected, the Bulls have lost all five of their BE contests thus far, four of the five games have been close. Their first game was against nationally-ranked West Virginia, in Tampa. The Bulls gave WVU a surprisingly stiff fight, given that they had no wins over any major-conference opponents, and lost just 57-53.
The Bulls then went to the Carrierome, facing another ranked opponent, and lost to the Orangemen by just six. Returning to Tampa, the Bulls experienced their first thrashing in the BE, losing to St. John's by 19.
But then the Bulls continued to play surprisingly well, on a two game road trip to the Northeast. They lost to Georgetown in the MCI Center, by a narrow 50-47 margin, and then nearly sunk the Pirate Ship at the Meadowlands. The Bulls actually had a 13 point lead, with less than four minutes to play, but the Pirates rallied, forcing overtime and finally triumphing, 94-89.
So although USF is 0-5 BE, 6-12 overall, they are a far more dangerous team than that record would indicate. On the road, they've battled Syracuse, Georgetown, and Seton Hall right down to the end, and at home, they played well against WVU. Only the St. John's game was a blowout.
G 6-2 Soph Colin Dennis - 3 pts/game
G 6-2 Senior James Holmes - 18.7 pts/game
F 6-6 Junior Melvin Buckley - 12.4 pts/5.8 rebs/game
F 6-6 Junior McHugh Mattis (great name!) - 10.4 pts/7.8 rebs/game
C 6-10 Senior Solomon Jones - 13.5 pts/9.7 rebs/3 blocks/game
It is important - after facing the top-shelf competition of Texas and Syracuse over the last ten days, that 'Nova (ranked #6 in both polls) not look past these Bulls, despite a seven game losing streak they drag into the game. As noted above, they've almost won four of their five games, three of them on the road.
Also, Allan Ray is listed as "doubtful" for the game, due to an injury. Ironically, VU will be playing a more conventional three-guard lineup, if Ray is unavailable. Obviously, despite USF's gallant battles, if Ray had to miss one game in particular, during the rest of the season, tonight's game would be the optimal one...
I will provide a full recap after the game...
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Tonight's game at the Wachovia Center was unusual, in several respects. One was the atypical 6 PM tip-off, which actually worked out well, as it permitted post-game revelry in Philadelphia while the evening was still young (although Jim Boeheim did his best to delay the post-game fun for the Villanova faithful. Boeheim opted for the game to die a slow, painful death, continuing to foul in the last two minutes, despite trailing by double-digits). The 6 PM start, of course, was to accommodate ESPN's wishes, as they wanted a doubleheader with four Big East teams in the Top 25 - Connecticut traveled to Louisville in the nightcap.
Another was the fact that the announced attendance (20, 581) was the largest crowd to ever see a college basketball game in Pennsylvania, as Villanova broke its own record in that department once again. The tipping point was probably Gerry McNamara. Last season, approximately 5,000 members of "McNamara's Band" from his hometown of Scranton, Pa., made the trip down the Northeast Extension to see their hero. They were undoubtedly gratified by the Orangemen's 90-75 triumph over the Wildcats. And with McNamara a senior, and the Wildcats now in the top five, there weren't 5,000 McNamara fans there, but just enough, probably, to break the attendance record.
Still another quirk was the fact that Villanova blew Syracuse out of the building early, taking an early 20-4 lead and ultimately winning the game by 15. However, the second half was far closer and more competitive than those facts would indicate. Villanova led by as many as 21 in the first half and took a 39-20 lead into the locker room. However, the Orangemen threw quite a scare into the Wildcats, getting as close as four points, when Syracuse opened the second half on a 17-2 run. The Wildcats finally subdued them, and began to resume pulling away as the second half progressed. But it was not a breeze of a second half, by any stretch of the imagination. Only Boeheim's stubborn insistence on fouling, pushed the final margin as high it was.
The big stars, as usual, were the four guards. The entire quartet turned in strong performances and those made the victory seem to be so lopsided. Allan Ray had 22 points and collected eight rebounds, an outstanding performance. Randy Foye had 20 points and five rebounds. Kyle Lowry scored 11 points, including a perfect 7-7 from the line, and Mike Nardi also reached double figures with 10, along with dealing seven assists.
The four guards also played tough on the defensive end. McNamara's Band had the opportunity to see one of the worst games of the senior guard's career (he has now started 119 consecutive games, the longest active streak in Division I). McNamara finished with just four points on 1-8 shooting, and his seven assists were nearly offset by the half-dozen turnovers he committed in his 37 minutes.
Worth noting: Will Sheridan had an outstanding game, despite the fact that he played 35 minutes, before fouling out, and took no field goal attempts. Sheridan still managed to score seven points, by going 7-8 from the foul line. He also made two other major contributions, grabbing seven rebounds, posting a career-high for steals (four), and making a pair of assists. (Sheridan had three thefts in two previous games, most recently against New Mexico, in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament.) There's no way to check this, of course, but I would submit that:
a) This was probably one of the greatest games in Villanova history, for a player who took no shots.
b) This was probably the VU record for minutes played without taking a shot (35) and points (seven).
Villanova improved to 4-1 Big East, and 13-2 overall. Syracuse fell to 3-2 Big East, 15-4 overall. This game was also important for the Big East tournament, as the top four finishers will receive precious first-round byes, and the Wildcats will still have to go to the Carrier Dome later this year. Also, just for bragging rights, it was an important win, just in principle. 'Nova hadn't defeated Syracuse since March 6, 2002, in the Big East tournament, during Jay Wright's first season.
Rank and File
The Wildcats should receive at least a slight boost in the polls this week, as all three of the remaining unbeaten teams went down in a single day, a remarkable occurrence. Fellow Big East school Georgetown shocked #1 Duke, while St. John's upset Pittsburgh in Big East play, and Tennessee beat Florida later on Saturday night. I speculate that the Wildcats, with two victories this week, move to #7/#6, up from their current #8/#7.
Up Next for the Wildcats
Villanova will finally get a breather, after all of these games against other nationally ranked teams and emotional, traditional City Series contests. The Wildcats will travel to South Florida to take on the Bulls on Tuesday night, in the first-ever meeting between the schools, as South Florida is another of the conference newcomers this season.
A full preview is on the way...
Friday, January 20, 2006
by Craig Dimitri
Here is a preview for Saturday's showdown between the Wildcats and Orangemen...
ESPN (Sean McDonough, Len Elmore), 6:00 PM tip-off
The Viewpoint on the Syracuse Orangemen
#20 in both AP and ESPN/USA Today
How They've Done So Far
15-3 overall, 3-1 Big East (tied for 3rd place, with Villanova and Connecticut, out of 16)
What's Gone Well
Victories over major-conference opposition (@ Texas Tech) as well as a surprisingly easy, 19-point victory @ #25 Cincinnati.
What's Gone Badly
Home loss to Bucknell, narrow loss @ Florida, eight-point home loss to #4 Connecticut (don't be fooled by the 88-80 score; the Huskies led 45-25 by halftime, at the Carrier Dome, beating the Orangemen for the sixth time in eight tries).
PG Gerry McNamara - senior, 17.6 pts/6.3 assists/2.1 steals/36 min per game
SG Eric Devendorf - freshman, 10.5 pts/2.2 rebs/23 min per game
SF Demetris Nichols - junior, 16.2 pts/6.4 rebs/33 min per game
PF Terrence Roberts - junior, 11.2 pts/8.6 rebs/32 min per game
C Darryl Watkins - junior, 6.0 pts/6.9 rebs/28 min per game
Off the Bench Contributors
Junior Louie McCroskey (16 min/game) started the first five games, before being replaced in the starting lineup by Devendorf, a freshman. Josh Wright, Andy Rautins, Arinze Onuaku, and Matt Gorman all average between 9 and 13 minutes a game, completing Jim Boeheim's nine-man rotation.
McCroskey was a teammate of Allan Ray's, at St. Raymond's HS in the Bronx, NY.
Keep McNamara off the line - he's at 86.4% for the season.
McNamara has started 118 consecutive games, the longest active streak in Division I.
McNamara is the 10th all-time leading scorer in Syracuse's illustrious history, with 1,856 points; he'll easily clear 2,000 by the end of the season.
Lawrence Moten holds the SU record for most points against VU in a single game, scoring 36 to help beat VU on St. Valentine's Day, 1995. It was an apt day for a heartbreaking loss, as the Orangemen triumphed 89-87 in overtime at the old Spectrum.Villanova/Syracuse Series History
Syracuse leads the series all-time, 32-23. The schools had played only four times (all won by Syracuse), prior to the formation of the Big East in the 1979-80 season and Villanova's entry the following year. As members of the Big East, during the regular season, Syracuse leads 21-19, but has owned VU in the conference tournament, knocking 'Nova out of it eight times in eleven meetings.
Syracuse has visited the Wachovia Center (under three different names), five times. It has won on four of those occasions, including last season's 90-75 victory (VU's only lopsided loss). The Wildcats' only Wachovia Center victory was on February 27, 2002, when they triumphed 67-61.
Syracuse is the fifth nationally-ranked opponent for the Wildcats this season, who enter the game with a record of 12-2 overall, 3-1 Big East, and ranked #7/#8. Villanova has lost two of its last four games, after winning the first 10. Its most recent contest was an unpleasantly close Pavilion victory over Seton Hall on Tuesday night.
What to Expect
Boeheim sticks to the tried-and-true, mundane 2-3 zone, that has gotten him a national championship and membership in the Hall of Fame. McCroskey may play more than usual, in order to counteract Villanova's unusual four-guard lineup. He also has played well of late, recording a double-double against UConn in the Orangemen's most recent game, including 14 rebounds, a career-high, and logging 32 minutes. The Orangemen, by playing passive zone all the time, are uniquely vulnerable to Villanova's three-point barrages. So if Ray, Foye, Nardi, and Lowry bring their A game, Villanova should emerge with a victory.
There will be a full recap after the game.Go Wildcats!
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
It appeared, for a half at least, that the Pirates of Seton Hall had successfully boarded Villanova's metaphorical, Final-Four-bound, talent-laden sailing vessel on Tuesday night at the Pavilion. Fortunately, the Wildcats fought back the North Jersey buccaneers, eventually subduing the would-be plunderers, by the deceptively large margin of 73-64.
Villanova entered the contest, with a bit of a chip on its shoulder as well. For five weeks, the Wildcats had held steady in the national rankings at #3 in both the AP and ESPN/USA Today polls. However, despite a tenaciously fought loss, on the road, at then #8 Texas on CBS on Saturday, the voters sent the 'Cats tumbling, all the way to #8 by the AP, a marginally better #7 by ESPN/USA Today. While of course, one would always expect the ratings to drop after a defeat, dropping so far after a narrow road loss to another Top 10 school, did not seem warranted.
Of course, falling to #8/#7 was the least of Jay Wright's problems last night at intermission. A loss to mediocre Seton Hall - on the Wildcats' true home floor, no less - would undoubtedly spiral the 'Cats out of the Top 10, regardless of the outcome of the showdown with #20 Syracuse this Saturday.
But the Wildcats pulled through. Randy Foye overcame his first-half inaccuracy and led the team with 19 points, on 6-15 shooting (not great, but enough to beat Seton Hall at home.) However, Will Sheridan and Kyle Lowry were the real stars of the game for 'Nova, turning in superb all-around performances.
Sheridan finished with a dozen points and seven rebounds (including four on the offensive glass). He also made it to the foul line seven times (going 4-6) and blocked three shots, while not committing a turnover. Lowry had 14 points, six rebounds, two assists, three steals, three blocks (he's 6'-0"!)
For Seton Hall, Kelly Whitney (12 points on 6-9 FG shooting, 5 rebounds, 39 minutes logged) and Donald Copeland (14 points, three rebounds, four assists) were the standouts. Whitney ate Villanova alive underneath during the first half, and was the main reason why the Pirates had attained a 41-35 lead at halftime. The Wildcats rarely lose in the Pavilion, and even more rarely when the students are in session, but it looked unpleasantly dicey for a while. Seton Hall was, of course, overmatched, but they battled gallantly, before the Pirate ship took on too much water and went down for good. ("Aargh!") But they will probably look back at it as one of their finest performances this season.
Villanova improved to 12-2 overall, 3-1 Big East, and might enjoy a boost in the polls, with a victory against #20 Syracuse on Saturday. Tip-off is at 6 PM at the Wachovia Center, which is sold out. The Pirates fell to 9-6 overall, 1-3 Big East, and will be fortunate if they reach the NIT.
Sunday, January 15, 2006
In front of a CBS television audience, #3 Villanova had a chance to carry off a Top Ten scalp, on the road. A victory in Austin would undoubtedly have helped (and might very well have cemented) the Wildcats' chances of being awarded a sufficiently high seed, to stay in Philadelphia for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, come March.
Alas, it was not to be. Villanova ran out of gas, despite a superb defensive effort, and fell to #8 Texas, 58-55, on Saturday afternoon. It was the first-ever meeting between the two schools, and Texas will presumably visit Philadelphia next year to play at the Wachovia Center.
This game was played on a Saturday the 14th, immediately following a Friday the 13th. While we, of course, laugh at triskadekophobia (the Greek word for fear of the number 13) as a superstition, the basketball gods seem to look at the issue differently, proving that they have a sense of humor. In addition to having the game played immediately after a Friday the 13th, Villanova had the statistical oddity of having three players score 13 points apiece, as the trio led the team in scoring. And Villanova was defeated.
The Wildcats shot a pathetic 27% from the floor (17-62) and 23% (7-30) from beyond the arc. The onus for the low accuracy falls on the senior backcourt of Allan Ray and Randy Foye. Arguably the best starting backcourt duo in the nation, they combined to shoot 7-37 from the floor and 5-23 from three-point range, and each finished with only 13 points. Kyle Lowry matched their 13s with one of his own, on respectable 4-9 shooting, all for two-point buckets.
Villanova is now 12-2 overall, having lost two of their last four contests, after starting the season with ten consecutive victories, virtually all by large margins. Texas, in contrast, is heading in the opposite direction. The Longhorns (14-2) opened the season ranked #2. Texas rattled off eight victories to begin the season, including home wins over then-#13 West Virginia and then-#17 Iowa. However, the Longhorns quickly sank in the polls, due to shellackings from #1 Duke, and less understandably, unranked Tennessee - and both losses coming in Austin, no less. But Texas, now #8, has won six straight contests, including wins @ #4 Memphis and today's victory over the third-ranked Wildcats.
Up Next For the Wildcats
Big East play resumes for Villanova, as the Seton Hall Pirate ship sails into the Pavilion on Tuesday night.
Thursday, January 12, 2006
After making it look easy for the first 10 games, the #3 Wildcats have fishtailed across the Big East highway over the last four days. Villanova had been perfect, launching the team's best start since 1962, but fell to #24 West Virginia on Sunday. And on Wednesday night, the mediocre Rutgers Scarlet Knights forced the Wildcats into overtime, before the 'Cats escaped back down the New Jersey Turnpike with a 84-78 victory.
Villanova improved to 2-1 Big East, 11-1 overall; Rutgers fell to 1-1 Big East, 11-4 overall. Granted, the RAC (officially the Louis J. Brown Athletic Center) at Rutgers is a very intimidating environment for an opponent, probably the toughest in the conference, other than West Virginia. However, when Villanova arrived at the RAC last year, the Wildcats incinerated the Scarlet Knights by 33 points, in the worst defeat RU had ever suffered there, in the 27 years of the venue's existence.
What was particularly bothersome, was how regulation ended. Allan Ray made two clutch free throws to boost the Wildcats' lead to 70-67 with 19 seconds remaining. Then Jimmie Inglish, a sophomore center and bench player, who had never even attempted a three-point shot in his tenure at RU, managed to bank in a Desperation 3 (and when you have a player like this one, taking a potentially game-tying shot at the buzzer, it really is "Desperation, with a capital D", to paraphrase Dick Vitale). Inglish's shot went in with 2.5 seconds remaining, and the RAC crowd exploding with joy.
Fortunately, the Wildcats were able to restore order in OT, ultimately winning the extra session 14-8 after initially trailing, when RU made two free throws to begin overtime.
On Monday, the new polls were released, and Villanova retained its #3 ranking in both polls, despite the loss to then-#24 West Virginia. The Wildcats will now momentarily step out of Big East competition and fly to the sunnier climes of Austin, Texas, to take on the #9 Longhorns, in a made-for-CBS intersectional contest on Saturday.
Monday, January 09, 2006
"It's So Tough to Go Undefeated"... #3 Villanova Proves Dick Vitale Right, As #24 West Virginia Wrecks #3 Wildcats' Perfect Season
No NCAA Division I team has gone undefeated, throughout the NCAA tournament, since Bob Knight's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers accomplished the feat, during that Bicentennial celebratory year. In one of his most frequent musings, Dick Vitale often notes that "it's so tough to go undefeated," and he's absolutely right. And, accordingly, I would not be surprised to see the nation's Tricentennial come and go, without another team having matched the attainment.
And, regrettably, the 2006 Villanova Wildcats won't be the ones to do it, for the first time in three decades. On Sunday, #24 West Virginia handed the third-ranked 'Cats one of the rarest of all defeats - namely, a Pavilion loss, by the close margin of 91-87.
Granted, the students are still on break, so the Pavilion atmosphere was marginally less raucous, but just marginally. WVU's Joe Herber (23 points), Kevin Pittsnogle (22 points), and Mike Gansey (21 points) were the triumvirate responsible for pulling off the Mountaineers' upset, as Villanova simply could not shut them down. However, the Wildcats also fatally wounded their cause, by committing a season-high 22 turnovers. The two bright spots for 'Nova, were Randy Foye and Mike Nardi, who poured in 24 and 23 points, respectively.
West Virginia improved to 2-0 Big East, 10-3 overall; Villanova fell to 1-1 Big East, 10-1 overall. It was West Virginia's second defeat of a Top 10 school this year. Due to this defeat, the Wildcats failed to match the 12-0 start of the 1961-62 squad, as well as the 11-game winning streak of the 1995-96 team.
At this point, #3 Villanova can only await to see how far the national-ranking voters will drop them, due to this defeat, although it would be difficult to imagine how they could fall out of the Top 10, particularly since the loss was to another ranked school.
Friday, January 06, 2006
In a rare Thursday night game (few conferences wish to compete with the temptations of the broadcast networks' top-shelf offerings on Thursday night), #3 Villanova continued its unbeaten season, by coming up with one of the best wins of the Jay Wright era, defeating #9 Louisville (on the road, no less), by the impressive margin of 76-67.
It was Villanova's first test against top-of-the-line competition, as all nine previous games had been played in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey, with the only genuine challenge, coming from the road game at Bucknell. Villanova has now embarked on its best start in over 40 years, since the 1961-62 squad won its first dozen games.
It was the Big East season opener for both teams, but was the inaugural Big East game for Louisville, one of the five new schools to join the bloated 16-team hyperconference this season. Of course, coach Rick Pitino has already been intimately familiar with the premier conference, as his first explosion on the national scene came when he took Providence to the Final Four in 1987.
Randy Foye had a game-high 24 points, while Allan Ray added 17 points, leading the strong Villanova performance. But the most significant contribution came from Jason Fraser, who had 13 points on perfect 6-6 shooting. The Wildcats scooted out to an early 21-9 lead, and didn't need to look back, as they never trailed in the contest.
Villanova improved to 10-0 overall, and Louisville dropped to 10-2. It was the first time the teams had faced each other since the 1996 NCAA tournament. The victory was at least a consolation for longtime Villanova faithful, who vividly remember the 1995-96's team being ousted by Louisville in the second round of the NCAA tournament on St. Patrick's Day. It was the final game for Kerry Kittles, who completed his stellar career with only one NCAA tournament victory, despite two appearances as a #3 seed in a region. There was no luck for the 'Cats that day, as sharpshooter Eric Eberz had the worst game of his career, and it ultimately sunk the 'Cats' Sweet 16 hopes. Ironically, the Wildcats' current 10-game winning streak is Villanova's longest, since that season a decade ago, when that Kittles/Jason Lawson/Alvin Williams squad won 11 straight.
Villanova will try to tie that mark, when they return to the Pavilion to take on another ranked team, #24 West Virginia, on Sunday.
Monday, January 02, 2006
What a way to end 2005....
#3 Villanova had little trouble with Temple, pounding the Owls at the Palestra, 75-53, and sending the Villanova faithful off to celebrate New Year's Eve on the town, with plenty of time to spare (tip-off was at 4 PM, and despite a sluggish second half, it was over around 6:15 PM).
Villanova avenged their one-point loss at Temple's hands last season, which took place at the Palestra as part of the Big Five Classic. They also retied the all-time series, which dates back to Villanova's inaugural season of 1920-21, at 39 victories apiece.
It was the Wildcats' ninth consecutive victory this season, as it seeks to be the first team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to go undefeated... It also puts the Wildcats in the driver's seat in the City Series, having now defeated Pennsylvania, La Salle, and Temple in their last three games. The Wildcats will seek a 4-0 sweep on Feb. 7 at the Palestra, against St. Joseph's.
Temple's decline has been remarkable. While Villanova usually will have more talent in these annual contests, a gulf has widened this season... Villanova was never challenged, taking a 37-25 lead at intermission, and the way Temple plays, they rarely can rally from a large deficit. The Chaney system is all about long possessions, and if they fall behind by double-digits, it's usually over, as they don't have the outside shooters or the speed to score a lot of quick, easy baskets (especially against a superior opponent, such as Villanova).
The four-guard lineup spearheaded the Villanova assault once again. Allan Ray had a game-high 20 points and five rebounds. Mike Nardi had 17 points, three rebounds, and two assists (in only 26 minutes). Randy Foye just missed the rarity of a triple-double: he finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. And Kyle Lowry had 15 points, five rebounds, and four assists.
A pair of freshmen played significant roles, as well. Dante Cunningham logged 18 minutes, scoring two points and hauling in five rebounds. Shane Clark, newly eligible for the second semester, had 10 minutes of action, in which he had four points, four rebounds, and two blocks, which is very impressive for such limited playing time. Frank Tchuisi, Bilal Benn, Dwayne Anderson and Chris Charles also all made brief appearances.
For Temple (6-4, 1-1 City Series), Mardy Collins played all but one minute, scoring a team-high 19 points. Mark Tyndale was the only other Owl to reach double figures, as he had 14 points and eight rebounds. 'Nova forced an atypical 15 turnovers, as one of Chaney's tenets is maintaining possession until a shot is taken (even if it isn't a very good one).
Villanova will tip off the New Year at #9 Louisville, on Thursday.