Sunday, March 26, 2006

"Crikey!" #1 Villanova's Title Hopes End at Teeth of the Fearsome Florida Gators in Elite Eight

By Craig Dimitri

Well, it’s all over, now, regrettably…

On Sunday afternoon at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, top-seeded Villanova’s dream of a second national championship came to an end, at the hands of the odious Florida Gators, the third seed. It must have been sweet revenge for the Gators, since ‘Nova had flattened Florida in last year’s second-round contest.

Even more disappointing, were the events in Washington, which had transpired just prior to tip-off. #11 George Mason completed the greatest Cinderella run to the Final Four in NCAA history, by stunning the top-seeded Hated Huskies in overtime. A huge cheer went up from both sides in the Metrodome when the news was flashed up on the screen –as the Villanova/Florida winner would take on Cinderella in the Final Four next Saturday.

Villanova completed a tremendous season, of which Jay Wright, his staff, and the Wildcats should be justifiably proud. They were regular-season Big East co-champions, a 4-0 winner in the City Series, a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and reached the Elite Eight for the first time in 18 years – and all without Curtis Sumpter, to boot.

I will return with a more comprehensive recap of today’s loss, soon…

Go Wildcats!

Saturday, March 25, 2006


By Craig Dimitri

I was part of the legions of Villanova partisans who were crammed into Kelly’s in Bryn Mawr last evening, who shouted ourselves hoarse due to the Wildcats’ thrilling 60-59 overtime victory. It was really one for the ages, even by Villanova’s illustrious standards.

Villanova had won 40 of its previous 66 NCAA contests, entering last night. However, its 41st victory may have had no rivals in terms of an overall fan experience. Villanova trailed by 16 points in the first half, had to face a team with whom it was quite familiar, and struggled to find their shots throughout much of the contest. And it all culminated with a seesawing duel of baskets, both down the stretch and in overtime. Its grand finale featured Will Sheridan scoring a basket underneath, that did not actually go in, but counted due to an accurate whistle on BC for goaltending. Sheridan summed up the contest aptly, noting afterward that “it was the biggest shot of my career – and it didn’t even go in.”

There was an extremely late return from Kelly’s last night, and since I have a previous engagement on Saturday, this short article will serve as a placeholder for the proper chronicle of the contest, which will appear as soon as possible…

In addition, a comprehensive preview of the NCAA rematch with Florida, scheduled to tip at 5:05 PM Sunday on CBS, will be offered on the site, as soon as I can compose it. Villanova defeated Florida by 11 points in the second round last season, in a triumph that was far more lopsided than the final score indicated.

As always, comments, feedback, opinions, positive or negative, are always welcomed. You can e-mail me at

Go Wildcats!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Preview of #1 Villanova/#4 Boston College, NCAA Sweet 16, Minneapolis, Friday, March 24, 2006

by Craig Dimitri

One of the many downsides to this era of conference upheaval, is the increasing possibility of meeting old rivals in the NCAA tournament. BC and Villanova faced each other twice in 2004-05, so the usual crapshoot element of not being able to prepare fully for an unknown opponent is a nonissue.

There also is a revenge factor. BC betrayed the Big East by first agreeing to remain in the conference in the long-term – and then in October 2003, doing a 180 and announcing that they were defecting to the ACC anyhow, stunning the Big East and the member schools.

BC had to play two lame-duck seasons in the Big East -one more than the other two schools (Miami -FL and Virginia Tech) which left honorably – and without inducing sorrow among the remaining schools. But Miami (which had only arrived in 1991-92) and Virginia Tech (the most recent addition, in 2000-01) were not considered important members from a basketball perspective; they were schools which had been added solely for football.

But BC – one of the earliest members of the conference, and sharing the same medium-sized, Catholic, academically-prioritized traits as Villanova, Georgetown, and Providence – for them to leave under such circumstances, was gravely disappointing.

So BC was a pariah for two years, with administrators excluded from taking place in BE conference calls and decision-making. Not surprisingly, when the 2005-06 schedule was announced, not a single BE school was on it. Nobody is willing to play them any more, and that animosity may last for decades. Even Providence, whom BC has played a hundred times, in a series dating back to 1942, won’t play them. (BC has played only one opponent, Holy Cross, more times than Providence.)

Whether the NCAA selection committee slyly scripted this potential Sweet 16 contest is a matter of conjecture. However, they were hardly unaware of BC’s outcast status (Craig Littlepage, the former Penn coach and now AD of ACC member Virginia, was the head of the selection committee). And given the “chalk”, it could be reasonably surmised that both #1 VU and #4 BC would win their first two round contests and face off in the Sweet 16. It certainly doesn’t seem like an accident – and it will give CBS and the other media outlets a great storyline, leading up to the battle.

But these decisions go on, way above the heads of the players or even the coaches.

For the moment, let’s take a look at BC’s pair of NCAA tournament victories, the first of which they were extraordinarily fortunate to obtain.

Thursday, against #13 Pacific / Saturday against #12 Montana

In this case, I’m going to quote the BC sports information notes directly, since they are the best summaries for recently concluded games…

GAME #34 -- March 16, 2006
Huntsman Center -- Salt Lake City, Utah
Boston College 88, Pacific 76 (2ot)

Senior Craig Smith tallied 25 points and juniorJared Dudley totaled 23 points and five assists to lead the fourth-seeded Eagles past 13th-seeded Pacific. Senior Louis Hinnant contributed 14 points and nine rebounds, while freshman Tyrese Rice added 11 points (including 8-for-8 from the foul line). The victory was BC’s second double-overtime win of the season and the program’s ninth consecutive overtime triumph.

The game was tied at 34-34 at halftime. BC began the second half with a 15-5 run to claim a 49-39 advantage. The Eagles extended the lead to 13 points -- 53-40 and 55-42 -- just more than midway through the half. The Tigers answered with an 18-6 run to trim the difference to one point -- 61-60 -- with 46 seconds to play. Hinnant and Rice both sank two free throws in the final 40 seconds, but Pacific answered with a lay-up and a three-point field goal to force overtime.

The Tigers hit two treys to take a sixpoint margin in the extra session. One Smith free throw and a Hinnant three-pointer narrowed the margin. After Pacific answered with another three-pointer, Dudley hit a trey and Smith sank two free throws with 4.3 seconds on the clock to force another overtime. BC scored the first nine points of the second overtime -- five by Rice and four by Sean Williams -- to secure the victory.

GAME #35 -- March 18, 2006
Huntsman Center -- Salt Lake City, Utah
Boston College 69, Montana 56

Senior Craig Smith registered 22 points and 16 rebounds and junior Jared Dudley posted 20 points and seven rebounds to pace the fourthseeded Eagles past the 12th-seeded Grizzlies. The game marked Smith’s fifth consecutive doubledouble. BC jumped on top early, scoring seven of the game’s first nine points, before Montana answered with its own 7-2 run to even the score at 9-9. Midway through the half, the Grizzlies used a 12-7 run to claim a 25-20 lead. BC evened the score at 28-28 and led 32-30 at the intermission.

Led by seven points from Dudley, the Eagles began the second half with a 14-5 rally to take a 46-35 advantage with 12:40 to play. BC extended the margin to 20 points -- 66-46 -- on a Dudley jumper with 4:49 to play ... Game Notes: Smith tallied 16 points and 11 rebounds in the first half ... BC outrebounded the Grizzlies by a commanding 44-29 margin ... For the second straight game, BC committed just eight turnovers... Freshman Tyrese Rice played a key role as BC extended its second-half lead. Rice hit three three-pointers -- with 11:17, 10:38 and 6:38 to play.

So that’s what they’ve done in the last week. But to get some context, let’s look back at 2004-05, BC’s final Big East season, in order to gain perspective on what the Eagles have achieved in 2005-06...

Boston College in 2004-05

It was particularly galling to BE partisans, that BC ended up winning the regular-season title with a 13-3 record, and taking the #1 seed in Madison Square Garden for its last-ever Big East tournament. Their only three regular-season defeats were @ Notre Dame, @ Villanova on February 23 (while ranked #9), and at home versus Pittsburgh.

The Eagles entered the conference tournament with a 24-3 record overall, having posted a perfect 10-0 mark against non-Big East opponents (Maine, New Hampshire, soon-to-be ACC foe Clemson, Long Island, UCLA, Holy Cross, BU, Yale, Duquesne, Kent State, and UMass). Ironically, the two toughest battles were against long-time rival Holy Cross (a win in overtime) and against Yale (!), who managed to force double overtime before finally succumbing.

Thus, it was sweet revenge when the top-seeded Eagles were upset by eighth-seeded West Virginia, in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. BC was packing its bags with the regular season crown, but wouldn’t have the opportunity to cut down the nets at what would be their final Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.

BC did not have a strong OOC schedule, outside of UCLA (and to a lesser degree, Clemson). This fact, coupled with the quarterfinal exit to West Virginia, was the rationale for the NCAA Selection Committee issued the 2004-05 Eagles just a #4 seed. A #4 seed was probably far lower than BC expected, given that the Eagles were regular-season Big East champions, had a 24-4 record overall and didn’t have a single bad loss (the worst being to a slightly below average WVU team).

They went to Cleveland to take on #13 Pennsylvania, and blew out Fran Dunphy’s Quakers by 20, 85-65. They thought they had caught a break when #12 UW-Milwaukee had upset the #5 seed in the first round, and probably figured they had a clear path to the Sweet 16 – what would have been BC’s first trip there since 1994. But they were wrong. UW-Milwaukee pulled a stunning upset, triumphing 83-75, and advancing to the Sweet 16 – and BC was left to ponder an 11th straight season without a Sweet 16 appearance.

What was particularly infuriating to BC fans (and thrilling to Big East fans) was how it had happened. BC started out the UW-Milwaukee game with an 11-0 run and appeared ready to blow the Panthers out of the building. But the Panthers rallied and actually were ahead 41-37 at halftime.

Moreover, the Eagles collapsed down the stretch in the second half. BC took its final lead at 75-74, with 1:46 to go, after Jared Dudley hit two free throws. But the Eagles plummeted to earth, permitting the Panthers to score the final nine points of the game, to win 83-75.

All in all, what had been a remarkable, in-your-face swan song in the Big East, had now turned into a complete fiasco. After entering the Big East tournament at 24-3, the Eagles had proceeded to lose two out of three games to clearly inferior opponents on neutral courts, ending their season.

So it must be in this context, that we analyze BC’s current campaign, its inaugural one in the ACC…

BC’s 2005-06 Season (28-7 overall, 11-5 ACC)

The one silver lining from last year’s post-season meltdown, was that the Eagles were bringing back four starters from a team that had finished 25-5 and won a Big East regular-season title. Center Nate Doornekamp was the only starter to graduate.

Before we break down BC’s players, let’s look at their overall results this year. Accordingly, here is an analysis of what happened to BC this year on the court, in their new ACC wanderings, where they undoubtedly enjoyed much nicer weather than they did playing in the Big East.

Non-ACC Schedule

On November 18, the Eagles blew out Dartmouth in the season opener. At Thanksgiving, they flew to Nevada for four contests in the Las Vegas Invitational. In the first two rounds, they had little trouble routing Shawnee State and Buffalo. In the semifinal, they had some trouble with Drake, winning by just three. They had to do battle with another power-conference team, Oklahoma State, in the final, but vanquished the Cowboys, 76-68, to take the title.

After routing Sacred Heart at home, they momentarily returned to the familiar confines of MSG to face Michigan State; the Spartans handed them their first loss, 77-70.

With the reconfiguration of the conference, they actually had their ACC opener at Maryland on Dec. 11, with the Terrapins winning by two. BC then buzz-sawed through five weak opponents, including three Atlantic 10 schools (Texas Southern, Harvard, @ Duquesne, @ Rhode Island, and Massachusetts), in which the closest victory was a dozen-point margin versus Duquesne in Pittsburgh. BC now stood at 11-2 overall, 0-1 ACC, as it got ready to test its mettle down South.

The Eagles promptly dropped their next two ACC contests (a close loss @ Georgia Tech, and a humiliating Conte Forum loss to NC State by 18 points), and dropped to 11-4, 0-3 in conference play.

BC turned it around, however, turning torrid in a hurry. The Eagles, 0-3 in ACC play, suddenly ripped off 13 victories in 15 games, all but two over ACC opponents. First, they knocked off five straight opponents: Florida State, @ Holy Cross, @ Miami, @ North Carolina, and Georgia Tech. The record now stood at an impressive 16-4, 4-3 ACC.
They lost a very tough battle to mighty Duke, 83-81, at Conte Forum, and fell to 16-5, 4-4. However, the Eagles shrugged off the loss and then swept the next five: @ Virginia Tech, @ Wake Forest, Clemson, cupcake Stony Brook, and Miami.

The Eagles lost by 14 @ Virginia, and then had to head into the rematch @ NC State, BC was back up to 8-5 in the ACC,21-5 overall. After losing by 18 at Conte Forum, BC battled NC State into double overtime in front of CBS’ cameras, before triumphing 74-72.

In their final two regular-season contests, BC completed season sweeps of Wake Forest and Virginia Tech at Conte Forum. Thus, entering the ACC tournament, BC had posted a 24-6 record overall, 11-5 ACC, taking the #3 seed in the swollen, dozen-team ACC.

In their first ACC tourney, BC defeated Maryland and North Carolina, before falling to Duke for the second time.

BC qualified with an at-large bid as a #4 seed, and faced #13 Pacific in the first round. The Eagles were extraordinarily fortunate to escape with a double overtime victory, outlasting the Tigers, 88-76. Pacific had a five-point lead with less than a minute to go in the first OT and couldn’t hang on. In the second round, BC had less trouble defeating #12 Montana, 69-56 (Montana had upset #5 Nevada in the first round.)

So that’s the season, as a whole. Let’s analyze the BC Eagles, now, and how they will fare against Villanova.

Friday’s Sweet 16 game will be very unusual, for two reasons. One is that under NCAA bracketing principles, teams from the same conference cannot meet until the Elite Eight – but it doesn’t say anything about teams that used to be from the same conference. The entire point of the tournament is to mix it up a bit, play intersectional contests, etc. VU and BC will be far more familiar with each other than any other dueling Sweet 16ers.

To make matters worse, is our second reason – not only did BC and VU play twice last year, but both schools brought back virtually their entire teams this season. BC’s only significant player who faced VU last year, but won’t on Friday, is Doornekamp. With the huge exception of Curtis Sumpter, who played last year but has opted to take a medical redshirt this season, due to a knee injury, VU had no significant losses at all.

The only variable, from last season’s pair of clashes, are the newcomers. BC will not have seen Wildcat freshmen Dante Cunningham or Shane Clark before, but they are role players. Conversely, VU will not have seen Eagle freshmen Tyrese Rice (21 minutes/game) or Marquez Haynes (10.5 minutes/game), but they are role players as well.

The Viewpoint on the BC Eagles’ Starters

Coach Al Skinner has gone with the same starting lineup in all 35 previous contests, so we can expect these five at the opening tip:

Craig Smith - #1 – Senior – 6-7 Forward

(First-team All-ACC Regular Season, ACC All-Tournament Team)

The captain, heart and soul of the BC squad. Smith leads the team in scoring, rebounding, and steals, with 17.7, 9.3, and 42 respectively – great numbers, and also ranks second in blocks with 27 He is the go-to guy, leading the Eagles in field goal attempts as well. He has literally no perimeter skills, taking only a dozen three-point attempts and missing all but one of them.

Smith gets to the line a lot (144-241) and does OK when he’s there, for a forward (65.2%).

Jared Dudley - #3 – Senior – 6-7 Forward

(Second-team All-ACC Regular Season, ACC All-Tournament Team)

Along with Smith, a fellow Californian, Dudley provides the other half of BC’s dynamic duo. Wildcat fans will not forget the first contest against BC last season, when Dudley scored 36 points to fuel BC’s victory at Conte Forum.

Dudley scores, rebounds, and steals only a little less than Smith (16.7, 6.7 per/game, 41 total), but unlike Smith, he’s also a mild threat from the perimeter. Dudley went 31-91 from beyond the arc (a rate of 34%) but you can’t just give him open looks out there. Also unlike Smith, he doesn’t block anywhere near as many enemy shots. And Dudley’s a better foul shooter (71.3%, very good for a forward).

Sean Marshall – Junior – 6-6 Guard

The final of BC’s trio of key Californians, Marshall averages 27.7 minutes, 11.0 points, and 3.9 rebounds per game. He is the weakest free throw shooter of BC’s rotation, converting only 61.4% of his chances.

He is one of BC’s three major perimeter weapons, as he knocked down 45 of 122 attempts (36.9%). He also is remarkably durable; he’s started every game of his three year career at BC.

Lewis Hinnant – Senior – 6-4 Guard

One of only three Eagles to average over 28 minutes/contest, along with Smith and Dudley, Hinnant handles the point very well, logging 32.4 minutes/game. He has loads of experience at the point, having played it at BC for three seasons now. His assist- to-turnover ratio is very good, 163-70, a better than 2-1 ratio. He’s generally not expected to score (he’s just fifth on the team in scoring, at 7.6), but he’s an extremely dangerous three-point shooter (42-94, a lethal rate of 44.7%).

John Oates – Sophomore – 6-10 Forward/Center

This coincidence of events is 100% true, as astonishing as it is:

If that name sounds familiar, particularly if you’re from Philadelphia-

Yes, the BC starting center does in fact share the name of one half of the Philadelphia-based 1980s duo Daryl Hall & John Oates, who sold a ton of records in their heyday…

And by remarkable coincidence and timing:

On the same day (Saturday, March 18) that Oates was helping his BC teammates defeat Montana during the second round of the NCAAs, with the eventual opponent of Philadelphia Big Five member Villanova-

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street had officially proclaimed Saturday, March 18 to be “Daryl Hall and John Oates Day” According to the newspaper Philadelphia Weekly:
"Many local artists have brought a great deal of recognition to our City and we are proud to honor those who have blazed the lyrical trails and have inspired others to follow in their footsteps," Street said in a statement "Local Philadelphia natives and former Temple University students, Daryl Hall & John Oates are truly one of our city's most celebrated musical success stories."

(You really can’t make this stuff up…) Had the BC Oates been from Philly, I’m sure that the mayor would have graciously included him in the proclamation, but the BC media guide lists him as a native of Harriman, NY, and having attended Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey.

Since this poor guy has undoubtedly heard these jokes thousands of times in his life, I’ll restrain myself to one bad pun on a Hall & Oates song in this profile:

Coach Al Skinner has probably said, “I Can’t Go For That, No Can Do”, in response to Oates’ play, very often this season, because he averages just over 15 minutes a game. Although Oates has officially started all 35 of BC’s games this season- that’s very misleading, in light of his limited playing time.

His role appears to serve as being big and wide underneath, if for no other reason that he was whistled for 89 fouls, second on the team to Smith, despite the fact that Oates ranks only sixth in minutes played. For a 6-10 player, he’s not afraid to hoist the occasional three-ball: he’s 17-52 (32.7%) in that department. Thus far in the NCAA tournament, he’s had eight total rebounds in the two victories.

The Rest of the BC Rotation

If one were to look at the aggregate numbers, Skinner uses a nine-man rotation; here is a look at the four others who comprise it. However, as a practical matter, looking at the minutes played in the most recent contests – BC essentially uses only six players; the starters, plus Tyrese Rice. So those six are the players to watch for.

#4 Tyrese Rice – Freshman – 6-0 Guard

Rice is the team’s sixth man, and their most important outside shooter. He leads the Eagles in both three-point shots, and three-pointers attempted, by a wide margin. He fires at a 39.9% clip, so controlling him on the wings is vital for Villanova.

Not surprisingly for a freshman, Rice turns the ball over a lot; he’s tied for 3rd on the team in turnovers, despite playing only 21 minutes per contest. However, his near-double-figure scoring average (9.4) is very impressive for a player who plays only half the game.

#5 Akida McLain – Sophomore – 6-8 Forward

McLain, a lefty, averaged just over a dozen minutes a game, so don’t expect to see him much, unless Smith or Dudley sinks into foul trouble. In the NCAA tournament, he has played only a dozen minutes so far.

His 4.3 pts/2.8 rebs aren’t bad, though, for a guy who plays so little. (Project that into a 36-minute player with 13 pts/9 rebs – not bad at all.) His outside threat is nil – he missed all five three-point attempts he’s taken. Good foul shooter: 72.1%.

He did not play in the first seven BC games this season, due to a suspension.

(Historical note: shares the same last name as Gary McLain, the point guard who helped Villanova win the national championship in 1985.)

#51 Sean Williams – Sophomore – 6-10 Forward

A looming, shot-blocking, thunderous-dunking post player, but he won’t play much. Although his minutes/game average is high (17.0 minutes), the vast majority of it was compiled against cupcakes in December. Since playing a dozen minutes against Stony Brook on February 13, Williams hasn’t played more than single-digit minutes against any subsequent BC opponent (his high was nine against Duke in the ACC tournament). Williams played only six minutes – combined – against Pacific and Montana. -

When he does play, it obviously permits BC to gain an even greater size advantage, as the two star forwards can guard smaller players- but BC needs ballhandlers, not size, against 'Nova.

Like McLain, Williams also served a long suspension (in this case, nine games) at the start of the year, which obviously hindered his development into the rotation. The university-imposed suspension was due to legal charges regarding marijuana possession.

#00 Marquez Haynes – Freshman – 6-3 Guard

Haynes is a spare point guard, who plays the least of any player in the nine-man rotation (10.5 minutes). As with the aforementioned Williams, he hasn’t played more than single-digit minutes since the Stony Brook victory on February 13, and played only six minutes thus far in the NCAA tournament. A very poor outside shooter (6-26, 23.1%) and mediocre free throw shooter (60%, not good for a guard). He probably just comes in to run the point for a few minutes, which he does very well: 32 assists against 15 turnovers.

An Analysis of the Two VU/BC Meetings Last Season

Every Villanova fan remembers Dudley scoring 36 to defeat the Wildcats at Conte Forum on January 19, 2005. Dudley hit four free throws in the final minute to help BC escape with a 67-66 victory, in what was likely VU’s final appearance at Conte Forum for decades, if not generations.

What’s also remembered is that after trailing 40-34 at halftime, VU had a 66-60 lead with two minutes to go and allowed BC to rally and score the final seven of the contest, with the key breakdowns being two Wildcats missing the front ends of one-and-ones in that stretch.

Randy Foye was awesome in that game – he had 22 points and seven boards. Sumpter, ironically, didn’t play that much – just 17 minutes, so it’s a good barometer for how the ‘Cats will attack BC on Friday. Allan Ray and Mike Nardi each had a dozen points for the Wildcats. For the Eagles, Smith was the only other player in double figures, finishing with a dozen points and seven boards. Both teams committed a lot of turnovers (18 apiece).

But every Villanova fan remembers (and with much more relish) the victory over BC at the Pavilion on February 23, 2005, when the 3rd-ranked Eagles swooped in for what would likely be their final appearance at the Pavilion for decades, if not generations. The 23rd-ranked Wildcats established themselves on the national radar and assured themselves of a NCAA bid – the school’s first since 1999 – by beating BC, 76-70.

With the students on campus, and a highly-ranked opponent coming to the Pavilion, rather than the Wachovia Center, the Pavilion was as raucous as it’s ever been, particularly since Villanova was now nationally ranked, as well. Unlike the first game, Sumpter was the star, torching BC for 20 points and 8 rebounds. Foye also had a superb performance, with a game-high 23 points and adding five rebounds and four assists. Kyle Lowry also began his emergence, playing 39 minutes, scoring 11 points and grabbing five rebounds.

Villanova once again had a halftime lead, this time 43-36 – but unlike the contest at Conte Forum, this time they were able to hold onto it at the line, come crunch time. In fact, it was a game that ‘Nova won at the foul line – the stripe was the most important factor in the game. It was a late tip time of 9 PM to accommodate ESPN, and all of the fouls stretched the contest well past 11 PM. BC committed 26 fouls, and as a result, Villanova shot an incredible 36-41 from the line (the Wildcats had eight two-point baskets, and eight three-point baskets, totaling 40 points, but they also had 36 just from the line.)

For BC, Smith and Dudley were – as usual – the stars, scoring 18 and 15 points respectively, and they both hauled down half a dozen rebounds. The whistles blew for Villanova, too – they had 18 fouls and BC went 17-23 from the line.

It was assumed, of course, that VU and BC wouldn’t cross each other’s paths for quite a while – but then fate (and the NCAA Selection Committee, which is largely the same thing, when it comes to March Madness) intervened. And so the Wildcats and Eagles will tangle once more, on Friday in Minneapolis.

For a BC internal debate on the outcome, I highly recommend the BC student newspaper's Point/Counterpoint on the issue:

As always, comments, feedback, opinions, positive or negative, are always welcomed. You can e-mail me at

Go Wildcats!

Monday, March 20, 2006

#1 Villanova Ekes Out 82-78 NCAA Second-round Victory over #8 Arizona, Advances to Sweet 16!!!!!

By Craig Dimitri

In a tremendously thrilling contest, #1 Villanova somehow eked out a hard-fought, tenacious, 82-78 victory over #8 Arizona, in the second round of the NCAA tournament, on Sunday at the Wachovia Center. Despite the thrilling finish, the Wildcats never trailed in the contest, although they were tied four times. And thus, somehow Villanova has made it through the entire first two rounds, without ever trailing on the scoreboard.

However, this fact was of little consolation, while viewing the tournament game itself, when it seemed alarmingly likely, that VU might end up trailing at the only time it matters: when the buzzer sounds. It was nerve-racking to watch, as Arizona made a late charge, but enough clutch Wildcat free-throw shooting was sufficient to save the season. The Wildcats (now 27-4) will now advance to the Sweet 16 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they will take on old nemesis #4 Boston College, at 7:10 on Friday, March 24, 2006, on CBS.

The two squads of Wildcats battled back and forth to a more or less standstill, and VU held a slight 58-57 lead, after Friends’ Central product Mustafa Shakur drained a three to cut the ‘Nova advantage to a single point, with just over 11 minutes to play.

However, after Shakur’s shot, Villanova appeared to be pulling away, late in the second half. Over the next four and a half minutes, Villanova embarked on an 11-2 run, culminating when Will Sheridan – off a fantastic feed from Kyle Lowry, underneath– converted a layup with 6:37 to play. The Sheridan layup propelled ‘Nova’s lead to 69-59, and the crowd (now far more pro-Villanova, than it had been on Friday against Monmouth, with the departure of the other six schools’ fans) was rocking the Wachovia Center.

Arizona (whose season ended at 20-13), regrettably, was not dead. Over the ensuing five minutes, the other Wildcats went on a 13-7 run of their own, closing in on the home Wildcats, 76-72, when Shakur fed Radenovich, who stuffed it, closing the deficit to four with 2:23 remaining. On Villanova’s ensuing possession, Ray was stripped, driving into traffic. Claiming possession, Arizona charged the other way in transition.

On the following play, the game – and perhaps the seasons of both teams – pivoted.

Arizona had a four-on-three, going the other way – the ball was passed to Adams just inside the arc, who calmly drained a jumper to cut the lead to 76-74 (presumably). But there was a whistle. CBS analyst Jim Nantz speculated that it was a travel.

However, it wasn’t. In fact, the whistle had come because Arizona coach Lute Olson had unwisely decided to call timeout (when his own team had a four-on-three break going) – and the official granted it, just before Adams buried the jumper that would have cut it to two points, 76-74, with 1:55 to go.

CBS went to timeout with a chagrined picture of Olson. The Adams basket was disallowed, the Arizona timeout granted, the score restored to 76-72, VU, and Arizona received possession of the ball with 1:55 left. In one fell swoop, Olson had both taken his own team’s points off the board, and wasted one of his precious three remaining timeouts, for no discernible benefit.

On the ensuing possession, Adams drove the baseline, and was fouled on the side by Cunningham, with 1:37 to play. As the tenth team foul on ‘Nova, he was automatically entitled to two free throws. Adams made the pair of free throws. So Olson’s blunder didn’t matter, right?

Wrong! Although Arizona had now recaptured the lost territory (it was now 76-74, just as it would have been if the jumper had counted), it had wasted a timeout, as well as 18 precious seconds, in recovering those two points, which would have cost them nothing, if Adams’ shot had counted. (The only conceivable benefit that might have come to Arizona, would have been if the Cunningham foul had put Villanova into the double-bonus. But it didn’t, as his was the tenth foul, so any subsequent foul would have meant two shots; or if Cunningham had been in foul trouble – but he wasn’t.)

That timeout completely changed the complexion of the endgame. It would have permitted Arizona at least one more foul of Villanova, and subsequent possession, or a chance to go for a stop, rather than a foul, and only the basketball gods know what would have happened in those circumstances.

With 16.8 seconds to go, Radenovich laid it in to get back to 78-76, and Arizona was obviously forced to use its final timeout to set up its defense. Mike Nardi was unable to inbound the ball and called timeout. (During that timeout, aptly, the VU pep band played Kansas’ “Carry On, Wayward Son”, as ‘Nova was going to need some clutch foul shooting to survive the last 16.8 seconds.)

After Ray was fouled at 14.2 seconds, by Shakur, he hit them both. (Ironically, after Ray’s second free throw, Wright vociferously and frantically tried to call timeout, but the officials did not acknowledge it.) Shakur then drove, virtually uncontested, and scored with 8.5 seconds left (the score now 80-78, VU), and it would obviously have been useful for Arizona to have had the vanished timeout. But they didn’t.

There seemed to be an issue as to whether Shakur himself had tried to call timeout, anyhow (which would have been granted, a la Chris Webber and Michigan in 1993, and a technical foul would have been charged to Arizona). Instead, Wright called it, with 8.5 seconds left.

Ray was fouled, coming out of the timeout, with 7.1 seconds left, with ‘Nova still clinging to an 80-78 lead. Ray then hit another pair. Game over, since Arizona had no timeouts left. Williams hoisted a three-pointer which rimmed out (and it wouldn’t have mattered, down by four, anyhow.) Game officially over.

As documented above, the final 3:55 (the time after CBS returned from the final, under-four-minute timeout) were the most excruciating 235 seconds, all year, for any Villanova Wildcats fan. (The only stretch run that would even be competitive, would have been the final seconds against then-#1 Connecticut, but if ‘Nova had lost that game on February 13, the season obviously wouldn’t be over. On Sunday, in marked contrast, it would have been.)

It was all the more excruciating, because the initial developments of those 91 seconds began so favorably. VU sprang Randy Foye loose for a layup to boost the lead to 78-74 with 1:04 to play. Then Arizona’s Marcus Williams missed a triple, with VU pulling down the rebound with just 44 seconds to play.

Foye, a seasoned senior and Big East Player of the Year, was sent to the foul line for two shots, with 31 seconds to play, and a 78-74 lead. Unfortunately, he clanged them both. Arizona raced down the other way; Adams missed a layup, and Ivan Radenovic missed a layup – but on Arizona’s third chance on that possession, Radenovic finally put it in. 78-76, 18 seconds left. Arizona had no timeouts remaining, but VU couldn’t inbound the ball and Jay Wright had to use a timeout.

Wright set up a good play out of the timeout, ensuring that the ball went to Allan Ray, the team’s best foul shooter. Shakur fouled Ray with 15 seconds to go, and the senior drained them both, pushing the lead to 80-76. Shakur responded with a layup, cutting it back down to 80-78 with 11 seconds left. VU called another timeout.

Ray was fouled once again – and once again he delivered with two huge free throws. 82-78, with 10 seconds to go. When Williams missed a triple, the contest was over. Villanova would return to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season.

Obviously, with so many timeouts being called and so many free throws being taken, it was a very slow, deliberate final minute, and for a Wildcats partisan, there existed a nagging fear that this tremendous season might be wiped out by a couple of bricked free throws. But, fortunately, the basketball gods smiled upon ‘Nova once again. Minneapolis, here we come…

Speaking of the basketball gods…

The Lute Olson timeout, may very well be viewed in retrospect, as an omen, a positive augury for Villanova’s Final Four/NCAA title prospects. Nobody wins the NCAA tournament without luck. Of course, you need talent, but everyone has talent. (These #15 seeds wouldn’t be able to hang with the #2 seeds if they didn’t.) To win six games in a row, at three different sites, amidst arduous travel, against largely unfamiliar opponents, on short notice – is very difficult. And luck plays more of a role in it, than we often give it credit for.

Of course, none of us will ever know what would have happened, if that Adams basket had counted and the timeout restored. Villanova still would have had the lead, still was shooting well at the line, and it may not have mattered. ‘Nova might have won, anyhow. But conversely, it could have been the play that turned the contest around. Even though Arizona recovered the points, there’s a lot more momentum carried by hitting a transition jumper to pull within two, than shooting free throws to pull within two. Villanova could have become the only #1 seed to fall – on its quasi-home floor, no less – and the entire direction and history of the 2006 tournament would have changed completely.

Looking at the Second Round Victory More Dispassionately

Will Sheridan exploded once again, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The junior forward finished with one of the greatest games of his career, finishing with 16 points on 7-8 shooting, plus four rebounds. Arizona had a lot of size, and Jay Wright was forced to play a big lineup against the other Wildcats (Cunningham, Clark, Charles, and Fraser all saw more time than normal.) But Sheridan, as the keystone of the Villanova frontcourt, turned in an exemplary performance, one which more than any other, catapulted Villanova into its second Sweet 16 in as many years.

The backcourt of seniors further cemented their already storied place in Villanova’s illustrious history. Allan Ray scored a game-high 25 points on 7-16 shooting from the floor, including 4-9 from beyond the arc – and most importantly, 7-8 from the line. And he did it all in just 30 minutes. (20 of the 25 points came in the second half.)

In addition, when Ray converted the second of two free throws at the 4:42 mark of the second half, he scored his 2,000th career point at Villanova. He is just the seventh player in Villanova’s illustrious history to achieve the plateau. Next on the list: Ray is 19 points shy of tying John Pinone (1979-83), for sixth place.

Randy Foye had 24 points (including 20 in the first half) on 9-19 shooting, including 4-8 from beyond the arc, and added six rebounds. (The one flaw was his seven turnovers.)

Kyle Lowry had a decent contest, but was not the offensive spark that he has been in the past, probably due to Arizona’s towers in the Wachovia Center paint. He finished with eight points, with four coming at the foul line, dealt four assists, but had no steals.

However, the Wildcat most adversely affected by Arizona’s size was Mike Nardi. Since he couldn’t match up defensively, Nardi played just 10 minutes, with his minutes going to the four frontcourt bench players (Cunningham, Clark, Fraser, and Charles). Nardi scored three points on a single triple, and had three assists.

The Bench

Dante Cunningham made a huge contribution on the glass, playing 31 minutes and corralling nine rebounds, including four on the offensive end (plus one blocked shot). Despite its massive advantage in size, Arizona won the battle of the glass only narrowly (25-23) and Cunningham was a major reason why.

Shane Clark played 17 minutes, focusing on defense (he had four fouls in those 17 minutes), making two steals and blocking a shot.

Jason Fraser came off the bench briefly, logging five minutes, in which he had two points, one rebound, and one block.

Bilal Benn got in briefly to permit one of the guards to rest; he played just one minute.


Arizona played extraordinarily well; if they hadn’t faced the additional disadvantage of playing in Philadelphia, they probably would have won. The other Wildcats committed just nine turnovers, while forcing 14 VU miscues. They also shot 43.1% from the floor, and scored 78 points against Villanova, a team with a very stingy defense. In a statistical oddity, both teams shot a stellar 17-20 (85%) from the foul line. In another one, both teams achieved 28 field goals, although Arizona required 65 attempts, to Villanova’s 52.

Marcus Williams led the way for Arizona with 24 points, although he did so on just 6-18 shooting overall, while missing all six of his three-point attempts. Many of his points came at the line, where he went 12-15, while grabbing eight rebounds and dealing four assists.

Mustafa Shakur made his Philadelphia homecoming a memorable one, scoring 21 points on 7-11 shooting, and nailing all four of his three-point attempts. He also had three rebounds and five assists, playing in all but one of the 40 minutes.

Hassan Adams completed the Arizona triumvirate, posting 20 points on 9-19 shooting, four rebounds, four assists, and three steals.

Up Next for the Wildcats

Villanova will now take on #4 Boston College at the Metrodome. BC nearly fell to Pacific in the first round, as the #13 seed had a five-point lead at the end of the first OT and couldn’t finish, with the Golden Eagles rallying to win in double OT. Should ‘Nova escape BC, they would face either Florida or Georgetown in the Elite Eight.

Go Wildcats!

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!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Ultimate #1 Villanova/#16 Monmouth Preview, 2:50 PM Friday, 3/17/2006, Wachovia Center, Philadelphia, CBS

The Viewpoint on the Monmouth Hawks

By Craig Dimitri

Villanova, as we know, sits on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia, but Monmouth University, located just off the beach in the town of West Long Branch, in Monmouth County, New Jersey, is just 82 miles away from Philadelphia.

Were one to travel from Villanova to Monmouth, it would take about an hour and a half to cover the 91 miles between the campuses, according to And most of it is highway – I-195 and the Garden State Parkway. And so perhaps the NCAA Selection Committee decided to reward the Hawks for their fine play this year, by assigning Monmouth a site where its thousand or so fans lucky enough to obtain tickets, could travel there very easily.

Obviously, it would be one of the greatest – and from a Villanova standpoint, the most infamous- games in the 67 year history of the tournament, if Monmouth somehow defeated Villanova at 2:20 PM Friday afternoon- in Philadelphia, no less.

The Northeast Conference champion has never won a first-round tournament game, against 24 losses. Monmouth’s play-in victory over Hampton was only the second time that any NEC team had won any NCAA game, play-in or otherwise. The only other NEC team to even win a play-in game was Robert Morris in 1983.

Monmouth’s triumph over Hampton was also a milestone in school history, which has been Division I for just over two decades. It was the first victory for the school in the NCAA tournament, including play-in games. It had previously lost true first-round games to Marquette in 1996, to Duke (the eventual winner) in 2001, and to Mississippi State in 2004.

Of course, Villanova fans never take any NCAA opponent lightly. It is not far from the Villanova faithful’s minds, that notorious St. Patrick’s Day in 1995, when the Kerry Kittles-led squad (red-hot and everyone’s trendy pick to reach the Final Four) fell to #14-seed Old Dominion and Petey Sessoms in triple OT. It took a decade – until last year’s Sweet 16 run – to lift the malaise that had descended on the Main Line, after the ODU fiasco.

Actually, this loss would be exponentially worse than the ODU game. That game wasn’t in Philadelphia, it was a #3/#14 contest as opposed to #1/#16, and ODU hadn’t had to play another team in Dayton on Tuesday and then travel. So, on those terms, it would be the worst loss in Villanova’s illustrious 86 seasons of intercollegiate competition. (So let’s REALLY hope it doesn’t happen!)

So here’s a comprehensive look at the Monmouth Hawks (and unlike the Hawks from City Avenue, these Hawks are blue and white…)

Coach and Context

Dave Calloway (Monmouth, 1991)

(Note: Geoff Billet, whom we all remember as a star at Rutgers in the late ‘90s, is an assistant coach at Monmouth.)

Although this is now his ninth season coaching in West Long Branch, Calloway is only 37. When he was hired at his alma mater for the 1997-98 season, he was only 28 and a rising star in the coaching ranks. He’s had a lot of success recently, as this is Monmouth’s third NCAA bid under his leadership. And in a one-bid conference like the Northeast, going three times in nine years is not an easy accomplishment.

Calloway’s alma mater wisely showed patience, when the former player returned to the Hawks’ nest. The three NCAA bids came eventually – but his first two seasons had been disasters; according to the Courier-Journal article, he won just nine of his first 45 games, a winning percentage of .200.

But Monmouth stayed the course, and they are now savoring the rewards – three bids.

2005-06 Season

This year, the Hawks will be making their second NCAA appearance in three seasons. In the 2004 tournament, Monmouth was shelled by Mississippi State, 85-52. Obviously, they will be hoping for better luck this time.

However, in mid-December, it seemed extraordinarily unlikely that the Monmouth Hawks would be returning to the NCAA tournament. On December 12, the Hawks fell on a visit to the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, and their record also fell to a dismal 1-7.

It should be noted, though, that the Monmouth’s 1-7 included some unusually stiff competition for a Northeast Conference school. In November, they lost their opener @ San Francisco. Afterwards, Monmouth traveled to the Top of the World Classic in Alaska, where they faced Southern Illinois, South Carolina, and Oral Roberts. SIU and Oral Roberts subsequently reached the NCAA tournament, while South Carolina missed it by a single game, falling in the SEC tournament final to Florida.

And the Hawks acquitted themselves quite well, against such formidable competition. Monmouth solidly defeated SIU, winning by a dozen points. They then fought hard against both South Carolina and Oral Roberts, giving up an identical 62 points in each, while scoring 56 and 54, respectively – so the games were close. Monmouth returned to New Jersey with the idea that despite a 1-3 record, a Northeast Conference title was not out of reach.

Surprisingly, traveling through New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, the Hawks were unable to replicate their Alaska performances. In succession, Monmouth lost to Rider at home, then @ St. Peter’s, @ Seton Hall, and @ Lehigh – and thus they were 1-7. The rest of the season did not look promising.

Things turned around, however. The most memorable game of the season came against in-state rival Princeton – at Jadwyn Gymnasium, the Hawks triumphed, 41-21, in a game that seemed to have emerged from the pre-shot-clock, pre-three-point-line 1980s. They continued that momentum, defeating visiting Sacred Heart in their NEC opener. The Hawks followed it up by winning a nonconference game @ Hartford. From 1-7, to 4-7. They capped off 2005 with a New Year’s Eve loss to Bruiser Flint’s Drexel squad, falling to the visiting Dragons, 53-49.

4-8 isn’t great, by any stretch of the imagination – but it was the Northeast Conference, and anything could happen.

The Hawks rocketed out to a great start in the NEC, winning four of their next five NEC contests: @ St. Francis (NY), a home loss to Robert Morris, a narrow two-point win over visiting St. Francis (PA), then @ Central Connecticut State and @ Quinnipiac. (Note: showing that the basketball gods have a sense of humor, there is in fact both a St. Francis – New York and a St. Francis – Pennsylvania in the same conference. The PA St. Francis, located in rural Loreto, has one of the best nicknames in the sport: the Red Flashes.)

So after winning @ Quinnipiac on January 14, the once 1-7 Hawks were now 5-1 NEC, 8-9 overall, and very much in the hunt for the NEC’s automatic bid.

Monmouth then stumbled a bit, losing two of its next three – losing at home to Mt. St. Mary’s, completing the season sweep of Quinnipiac, and then being swept by Robert Morris. After the road loss to the latter, the Hawks were back down to 6-3 NEC, 9-11 overall.

But then the situation reversed itself, and the Hawks started soaring again, capturing four of their next five. They completed sweeps of St. Francis (PA) and Central Connecticut State; faced Wagner twice in eight days, and swept them, with the only loss coming to LIU-Brooklyn.

(Note: In 1996-97, the 4th-seeded Wildcats defeated #13 seed LIU in the NCAA first round at Wake Forest’s Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C., the first NCAA tournament game ever attended by the author. The final score was 101-91, but ‘Nova was in control throughout. That was known in retrospect as the “Tim Thomas year”, when the freshman joined Alvin Williams and Jason Lawson, but regrettably falling to #5 California two days later. Cal’s Tony Gonzalez, who went on to a distinguished career as a tight end with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, thoroughly outdueled Thomas in the latter game.)

Thus, on Feb. 13, after defeating Wagner for the second time, the Hawks now perched at 10-4 NEC, 13-12 overall. Of the four remaining NEC regular season games, there loomed an enormous home-and-home series with the first-place squad, Fairleigh Dickinson; the Hawks and Knights would battle twice in eight days, including the regular-season finale.

The Hawks stumbled in the return game with Mt. St. Mary’s, as legendary Jim Phelan’s former squad swept the Hawks. But on Feb. 20, Monmouth stopped visiting FDU, 96-89, and then finished up a sweep of visiting St. Francis (NY). The Hawks were now 12-5 NEC, 15-13 overall.

When Monmouth traveled to FDU for the season finale on Feb. 27, it was the biggest game of the season. The Hawks held their destiny in their own talons, so to speak. Should they defeat FDU, they would be the top seed in the NEC tournament. However, this was not just a matter of bragging rights, as it is for a major-conference tournament – or even for the slight advantage of being the #1 seed, as opposed to #2 or #3. For the NEC tournament, every game would be held at the home floor of the higher seed (NFL-style). Thus, if Monmouth could top FDU on the road, the Hawks were assured of home-court advantage throughout the tournament.

Of course the Knights already had assured themselves of a share of the regular-season title, at 13-4. Tied for second, one game behind, were both Monmouth and Central Connecticut State, each sporting 12-5 records. Central Connecticut State was playing its finale @ Quinnipiac. If the Hawks triumphed, they were guaranteed at least a third of the regular-season title, regardless of what CCSU did; if CCSU won, the Hawks would get half the title. However, most importantly, Monmouth was guaranteed the top seed in the NEC tournament with a victory @ FDU, regardless of what CCSU did. If Monmouth won, they would be 13-5, tied with FDU and possibly CCSU. In that case, Monmouth would win tiebreakers over both opponents, since Monmouth had swept both FDU and CCSU in the regular season. Thus, Monmouth could enjoy not only the competitive advantage of being the top seed, but the right to play all of its games at home.

So on February 27, the Monmouth/FDU showdown came – but the host Knights knocked off Monmouth, pounding the Hawks and emerging with a 17-point victory. To make matters worse, the Blue Devils of CCSU won their finale – and thus vaulted ahead of Monmouth. FDU took the regular-season title (and top seed) outright, at 14-4. CCSU finished second at 13-5, with Monmouth third at 12-6. Heading into the NEC tournament, the Hawks also stood at a respectable 15-14 overall.

As the #3 seed, they hosted #6 LIU and defeated them in the quarterfinals, and then traveled to #2 CCSU. The Hawks defeated the Blue Devils for the third time, setting up Round 3 with top-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson – on the Knights’ home floor.

Of course, Monmouth pulled off the upset of FDU, as we all know, winning 49-48 in front of ESPN’s cameras on March 7.

The Play-In Game

The play-in game is inherently unjust, in my view. It recurs periodically throughout Marches, depending on the constant fluctuation of conference alliances. The NCAA – for whatever reason – won’t permit more than 30 automatic bids to be issued. Back in the mid-to-late ‘90s, the disappearance of conferences like the Southwest was able to push the number of automatic bids down to 30 or below, thus temporarily abolishing the play-in game. However, now that it sits at 31 once again, the NCAA feels compelled to take the two worst teams, and make them play each other. Then they must travel and get prepared to play a #1 seed, often at a geographic site that drastically favors that #1 seed (as is the case this season.)

(Note: This is sometimes known as a “pigtail game”, due to the fact that it extends off one of the four brackets, like a pig tail. The brackets are very neat and elegant, except for the play-in game bracket, hanging off the region to which it is attached – hence “pigtail game”.)

About the only upside to the play-in game, I imagine, is that it does give the little schools who participate a chance – albeit a temporary one – to play a NCAA tournament game against an opponent of their own caliber. Both teams have a legitimate chance to win on the neutral court at Dayton (the permanent site of the play-in game, due to the rabid basketball passion of the denizens of Dayton). And so it’s a chance for them to have some fun. They get to have ESPN televise the contest (obviously, these schools will generally only be on ESPN in holiday tournaments or in the finals of their conference tourneys) and that helps their program’s exposure (TV is everything when it comes to recruiting).

This final point is more of a rationalization, but nonetheless: it does make it more difficult for the #1 seed to prepare, since it won’t know until Tuesday night which of the two teams they’ll be playing on Friday (a disadvantage not shared by the other 62 teams in the tournament, who all know the identity of their Thursday/Friday opponent the instant CBS unveils the bracket. However, if they were to be asked for a candid reply, most top seeds would be more than happy to wait until Tuesday evening to learn which of the two they’ll be playing. The tradeoff for the #1 seed is the advantage gained by the fact that the little school will have to travel to Dayton, play on Tuesday, and then hop on a plane and travel to the next site, and spend less than three days preparing for the top-seeded opponent (as opposed to the four or five days the other #16 seeds have to prepare to defeat the top-seeded teams.)

So let’s look at the Tuesday night play-in game:

Monmouth had no trouble at all, flattening Hampton 71-49, after racing out to a 35-20 advantage at the break.

The Hawks (now 19-14 overall) played their trademark stifling defense, holding Hampton to under 50 points, the third straight contest in which a Monmouth opponent was restricted to under the half-century mark. Hampton (whose season ended at 16-16) shot a dreadful 19-63 (30%) from the floor, and just 4-13 (27%) from beyond the arc. Most impressively, the Hawks swatted 10 Hampton shots (with five coming from John Bunch off the bench). Jaz Cowan was Hampton’s leading player, scoring 14 points and just missing a double-double with nine rebounds.

Monmouth coach Dave Calloway – to his credit – acknowledged that Monmouth had a very unfair advantage. The Hawks hadn’t played since Wednesday, March 8, the day they knocked out FDU – giving them almost a week to rest. In contrast, Hampton didn’t even win its MEAC championship until Saturday evening, its fourth game in four days – and then had to travel to Dayton and play once more on Tuesday. An excellent critique of the injustice of the play-in game can be found at

Probably the most striking statistic from the box score, is what ESPN analyst Steve Lavin (the former coach at UCLA) described as “the thrill of the pass”. Monmouth plays a Princeton-style offense, with skilled ball movement, and so the Hawks had 27 field goals – and 21 assists. A high ratio of field goals to assists is the hallmark of an unselfish, well-coached team in the Princeton style, where the emphasis is on interchangeable parts, players who can readily shift from one position to another.

Another indicator of the Princeton style is a low number of trips to the foul line. Fouls tend to be generated by driving to the hoop and feeding the low post, neither of which Monmouth does much. In contrast, the Princeton offense is designed to free up players for back-door, bounce-pass, easy baskets, as well as unguarded shots out on the perimeter – none of which are likely to trigger trips to the foul line. As a team, Monmouth took only nine free throws, making seven. And center John Bunch, the only Hawk to spend a lot of time in the low post, unsurprisingly went 3-3 from the line – so the rest of the team went just 4-6 of the line. Putting it another way – there are 200 minutes in each game. Bunch played just over 10% of the minutes (21), but took 33% of the team’s free throws.

Analyzing Monmouth’s starters, in the victory over Hampton:

For Hampton, Chris Kenny – the hero of the NEC championship against FDU – scored a game-high 20 points on 7-14 shooting, including a stellar 6-9 from beyond the arc (all but one of his seven field goals were triples), while playing only 32 minutes (once the game was well in hand, Calloway probably decided to rest him a bit).

Forward Dejan Delic was the second-leading scorer for Monmouth, logging 27 minutes, finishing with 14 points and a pair of rebounds.

Point guard Tyler Azzarelli played only 28 minutes, scoring four points but dealing nine assists against just three turnovers.

Marques Alston (a name which was easily confused with former Wildcat Marcus Austin, who was on the team when Monmouth visited the Pavilion in December 2004) finished a strong all-around game with seven points, eight boards, six assists, and two blocks in just 31 minutes.

Corey Hallett, who started at forward, played just 14 minutes and had little impact, finishing with two points and three rebounds.

Off the bench:

The Hawks benefited from 24 bench points as well, notably from John Bunch, who contributed seven points and six rebounds (plus his five blocks) in just 21 minutes of action. M Shipman also came off the bench to score 11 points in just 20 minutes, on 5-9 shooting. (It seems apparent, after Villanova received two bench points against Pitt in the Big East semifinals, Monmouth is going to receive more help from its reserve troops than the Wildcats will).

The Viewpoint on the Hawks, In General

Coach Dave Calloway goes deep into his bench, considerably deeper than Villanova does, in fact. Nine Hawks play on a semi-regular basis. The balance is reflected in the fact that nine different players average at least 11 minutes/game – but every player on the roster plays less than 30 minutes/game. This deep bench – full of largely interchangeable parts – makes them difficult for opponents to wear down or sink into foul trouble.


#3 Guard – Tyler Azzarelli – 6-1 Senior

Azzarelli runs the point and is the keystone of the offense. His role is not to score (he averages just under nine points/game), but to keep the Monmouth offense well-oiled and mistake-free. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.9-1, an outstanding figure.

However, Azzarelli’s importance can be inferred by looking at the Monmouth assist-to-turnover ratio as a team. Monmouth – surprisingly for a team with their slow tempo – commits a surprisingly high number of turnovers, averaging nearly 15 a contest. Since Azzarelli himself averages less than two miscues a contest, it means that all of the other Hawks are turnover-prone, and so when Azzarelli is not on the floor, it is a golden opportunity for Villanova.

Surprisingly for a point guard in such a fundamentally sound system, Azzarelli has been a poor free throw shooter this season, converting just 60% of his attempts.

#35 Guard – Chris Kenny – 6-3 Senior

Kenny was the hero in the NEC championship game against FDU. Overall, he is one of Monmouth’s two perimeter weapons, with Delic being the other. Kenny is not, quantitatively speaking, a particularly accurate shooter from beyond the arc (he averages only 33%) but he has developed a reputation as the go-to player at crunch time. He also is a fine foul shooter, as his 78.1% at the line is tops on the team.

#23 Forward – Marques Alston – 6-4 Junior

As I noted in the December 2004 regular-season game story on VU/MU, Marques Alston’s name is remarkably similar to former Wildcats player Marcus Austin, who graduated in 2005. (Say them both quickly, and you’ll see.)

Alston is arguably Monmouth’s most important player. In the NEC title game, his double-double (14 points/10 rebounds) was instrumental in Monmouth’s triumph. He also has been heating up of late, reaching double figures in nine of the last 11 contests (and one was the play-in contest against Hampton, when he wasn’t needed as badly). Alston leads the team in points scored, rebounds, field goals, free throws (made and attempted) and tied for first with Delic for field goals attempted.

#1 Forward – Dejan Delic – 6-6 Junior

A native of Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, Delic leads the team in scoring average, at just over a dozen points/game. He also is the team’s leading perimeter threat, leading the team in triples with 64. Like Kenny, he isn’t especially accurate (he shoots only 33% as well), but he takes a lot of shots on the outside. At 6-6, he probably will be guarded by Big East Player of the Year Randy Foye, who can sky like a forward at 6-4.

#55 Center – John Bunch – 7-2, 320 lbs - Junior

Bunch is the most interesting Hawk, both due to his personal story and the problems he might cause for ‘Nova on Friday. Bunch has swatted 73 shots this season, an incredible figure for a player who plays only about half the time, and here we’ll explore why.

I must credit the Courier-News article, to which I have previously referred, for this one player’s astonishing path to reach the opening steps on the Road to the Final Four….

Bunch will be appearing on CBS this Friday, causing headaches for Jay Wright, solely because of the fact that the wife of a Division III head coach opted to see the 2002 animated film Ice Age…. That’s a fact.

How did such a turn of events take place?

The coach of Lincoln University (Pa.), a Division III program, is Robert Byars. One day, Mrs. Byars decided to head to the local movie theatre to catch Ice Age. While she was there – being the spouse of a basketball coach – she could not help but notice the 7-2 guy working at the theater. She informed her husband-coach, who decided to recruit Bunch for Lincoln. He found himself as the new center at the Division III program. Bunch subsequently transferred to Monmouth, and started playing this season, as a junior.

Bunch didn’t play much earlier in the season, but he found himself with more and more minutes as it progressed. (MU is only 3-6 when Bunch doesn’t play, 15-8 otherwise.) He averages 8.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest, and those numbers are exceptional, when one considers how few minutes he averages (less than 21 per game). Bunch is eighth on the team in minutes played, but he’s second on the team in rebounds. And when it comes to blocking shots – Bunch has 73 blocks, while the entire rest of the team has 47. And he’s a part-time player.

Obviously, it can be anticipated that Bunch is probably going to see more than 21 minutes against Villanova on Friday. Will Sheridan will be at a considerable size disadvantage facing a 7-2 (and wide) player. Moreover, Bunch can strike at Villanova’s central weakness – depth in the low post. Jason Fraser’s availability may be nil; Wright has stated publicly that they are saving Fraser for one last finale in the NCAA tournament, and would prefer not to have to use him in the Monmouth game. The most important thing for Villanova is that Sheridan not fall into foul trouble, because it would be difficult to contain Bunch without him. However, Bunch is a terrible foul shooter (52%), and if the game stays close, that could be a factor.

The Rest of the Rotation

#5 Guard Whitney Coleman – 6-2 – Freshman

Coleman plays a lot (27.6 minutes/game), and is Monmouth’s best perimeter shooter, when he gets the opportunity (45% from beyond the arc). His biggest weakness is that he’s turnover-prone (2.2/game, second-worst on the team).

#10 Guard Mike Shipman – 6-1 – Freshman

Monmouth’s backup point guard is the seventh Hawk to average over 20 minutes per contest, Shipman averages over two assists/game, good numbers in light of his minutes.

#13 Corey Hallett – 6-10 – Junior
#34 Brent Wilson – 6-8 – Senior

Hallett and Wilson are both forwards. Hallett is bigger, plays more often, and scores more points. Wilson is a junior-college transfer brought in for some size off the bench, but he’s the ninth of the nine-man rotation. An extra big body for Calloway.

Final Roster Note: freshman center Shawn Barlow won’t play much, but he is from St. Augustine’s in New Jersey, the alma mater of former Wildcats Brian Lynch and Andrew Sullivan.

Series History

Villanova has won all four contests against Monmouth. In what hopefully is a good omen, one of the four meetings came during the 1984-85 season, which of course culminated in a Villanova national championship.

Villanova vs. Monmouth, All-Time

November 29, 1981 (Jake Nevin Fieldhouse) VU 96, MU 48

December 7, 1984 (Jake Nevin Fieldhouse) VU 77, MU 62

February 25, 1986 (The Pavilion – a rare late-season OOC contest against a team from a lesser conference) VU 85, MU 52

December 7, 2004 (The Pavilion - ironically, 20 years to the day from the second meeting) – VU 70, MU 50

It might be of some value, to read the story I wrote on the December 2004 Pavilion clash. Most of the players, obviously, who participated in the game, are still on both rosters:

Wildcats Ground Hawks, 70-50, At the Pavilion

By Craig Dimitri

In a solid, albeit unspectacular, effort, the Wildcats overcame some atrocious first-half turnovers to ground the Monmouth Hawks, 70-50, at the Pavilion on Tuesday night. 'Nova committed an appalling 11 miscues in the first half, and led by just seven at intermission. However, the Wildcats blew the game open early in the second half and breezed to victory, maintaining a comfortable double-digit lead for most of the second stanza.

The sluggish start may have been due to some letdown after the difficult City Series loss to Temple at the Palestra on Saturday. Villanova improved its record to 2-1 on the young season, while Monmouth fell to 1-5 overall.

Four Wildcats reached double figures in the contest. Allan Ray and Curtis Sumpter each scored 14 points to lead all scorers, while Randy Foye (12 points) and Mike Nardi (10 points) also made significant contributions on the offensive end. Tyler Azzarelli led the Hawks with 10 points.

Villanova filled up the stat sheets very well. The bigger Wildcats crushed the Hawks on the glass, outrebounding them 36-22, and swatting eight Monmouth shots (three of those courtesy of Will Sheridan). 'Nova made 53% of its shots overall and a formidable 46% from beyond the arc, as well as a nearly-perfect 13-14 from the free throw line (93%).
Perhaps more importantly, 'Nova has played very tenacious defense thus far this year. In three games, the Wildcats have yet to yield more than 53 points. UMBC scored 41, Temple 53, and Monmouth 50; that's a good sign for the future. Also, the Hawks weren't strangers to Big East competition; in fact, in their last outing, Monmouth had actually led Seton Hall at the Meadowlands at halftime, before the Pirates fought back and eventually blew them out by 20 - ironically, 70-50, precisely the same score as tonight's contest. However, familiarity and short road trips haven't helped Monmouth against Big East opponents; the Northeast Conference school is now 0-24 all-time against the Big East.

It was Monmouth's first game against Villanova, since the Hawks came to the Main Line for the Pavilion's inaugural season in 1985-86. Villanova improved to 4-0 all-time against the Hawks. (As a New Jersey-based, nearby cupcake opponent, one would think we'd see them more often.) The Hawks also were an opponent of the 1984-85 Wildcats, who went on to capture the national championship; Villanova won a 77-62 decision that year.

The final minute of the first half was interminable, due to a couple of timeouts and a mistake by Randy Foye. Attempting a long pass on an inbounds play with less than two seconds remaining, Foye hit the scoreboard overhanging center court. This 11th and final turnover of the first half gave Monmouth an additional possession, and the Hawks capitalized upon it, with Chris Kenny scoring at the buzzer to trim the 'Nova lead to 29-22.

'Nova's defensive statistics at halftime were awesome. Monmouth was held to a shooting percentage of just 28.5%, on 8-28 shooting, and the Hawks also committed nine turnovers in being limited to just 22 points. Unfortunately, 'Nova's torrid 58% shooting percentage was offset by the 11 turnovers. Allan Ray was leading the way with nine points.

Fortunately, the 'Cats took quick control as soon as play resumed. At the under-16 timeout, VU led 42-30; at the under-12, 'Nova was up 49-32, after leading by just seven at the half. The rest of the game was uncompetitive. The best play came when Foye hit a shot as the shot clock expired at the 8:33 mark, pushing the Villanova advantage to 20. Ross Condon and Mike Grace received some playing time at the end; Condon scooped up a rebound and had an assist Chris Charles dunked, on an assist from Marcus Austin in the final minute.(Coincidentally, Monmouth had a player with the similar-sounding name of Marques Alston, who finished with seven points.)

Allan Ray moved closer to the milestone of 1,000 career points. The junior guard had entered the game 51 points shy of the mark; he finished with 14. With 37 points still to go, it would appear that he'll clear the millennial hurdle on Dec. 22 at the Pavilion, against Albany. He'll be the first Wildcat to join the club since Ricky Wright did so in 2002-03.

One oddity: Mike Nardi had 8 points at halftime, but didn't score again until just after the under-4 minute timeout.

Villanova will resume City Series play at the Palestra on Saturday afternoon, when they take on the La Salle Explorers. Both teams will be seeking to rebound from disappointing losses in last Saturday's 4th Annual Big Five Classic; the Explorers fell to Penn, prior to 'Nova's loss to Temple.

What to Look for Friday Afternoon

Villanova, of course, enjoys substantial (in fact, overwhelming) advantages in this contest. It will be played on its quasi-home floor, although he crowd will not be unanimously for ‘Nova. Arizona and Wisconsin fans that remain for the second half of the doubleheader will obviously be pulling for the underdog Hawks, as well as Monmouth’s thousand tickets or so will be going to their partisans. Nonetheless, I would estimate that 75% of the fans there will be cheering for the Wildcats.

Ironically, usually the best opportunity for a little school to defeat a big one is – counterintuitively – in the NCAA tournament. (I credit this insight to a Sports Illustrated College Basketball preview issue back in the late ‘90s.) It was noted in the article that during the Novembers and Decembers of the regular season, the small program has to go to the big program’s home floor, and play with the big program’s conference officials, and in exchange for getting crushed, the small program receives a nice check.

In contrast, usually, in the NCAA tournament (outside of the top seed) the contests will be played on a neutral court, with neutral officials, and with many of the fans rooting for the underdog.

Of course, some things have changed since that article was written. At the time, only the top seed in a region was usually given the de facto home court advantage. However, under the new “pod system”, it permits many more high seeds to stay in nearby venues – and thus stack the deck even more in their favor. Under the old system, either Villanova or Connecticut would have been in Philadelphia – but since they were both #1 seeds, only one of them could play there. No longer. They are both here, now. (Although one side benefit for Monmouth is that its campus is only 82 miles away from Philadelphia, and so its fans will be able to see the Hawks in the NCAA tournament, live, and will have that memorable experience for the rest of their lives).

And if that weren’t a big enough problem for Monmouth to overcome, it also lacks another key element for a NCAA upset: surprise. In most cases, the #1 and #16 are from disparate regions and are totally unfamiliar with each other. Not this time – Monmouth had the bad luck to be paired with Villanova, and the teams had already faced each other in the recent past – i.e., the beginning of last season, December 7, 2004. So both coaching staffs, as well as the vast majority of the players, are already familiar with each other. Monmouth would have been far better off drawing Duke or Memphis, neither of whom has seen the Hawks recently. And this fact is even more significant, because of the unusual style Monmouth uses. It’s a lot more effective against teams that haven’t seen it before – but Jay Wright and his staff already have seen it in person, less than 18 months ago, and know how the Wildcats can best defeat it.

According to the Asbury Park Press article by Tony Graham (

“Calloway noted that Monmouth has held its last three opponents to under 50 points."If we hold the next team under 50 points I'm going to be making a lot of defensive clinics down at the Final Four,'' he said.”

Truer words have never been said. The Wildcats were held under 50 points only once this season, at Big East cellar-dweller South Florida, where they edged the Bulls 49-48 – in a game when Allan Ray was unavailable due to a sore ankle. In fact, there were only two other games where they were held under 60 – the Jan. 14 loss @ then-#9 Texas, 58-55; and the Big East tournament semifinal loss to Pittsburgh, when Ray suffered the horrible eye injury – the final score, as if it mattered after such a horrific incident, was 68-54.

So it would severely strain Monmouth to even hold the ‘Cats under 60. But you never know.
As noted above, Monmouth plays an extremely elegant, complex, Princeton-style offense that is often fun to watch. It relies on long possessions and slowing the tempo, two factors which are well-suited to a team facing a much more athletic and powerful opponent such as Villanova.
The Hawks, who rank well in terms of opponents’ field goal and three-point shooting percentage, will try to slow down the speedy ‘Nova quartet of guards as much as possible. Incredibly, they surrendered only 21 points to Princeton earlier this season, which tied the record for the fewest points allowed in the shot clock era, according to Andy Glockner of And they are used to hostile environments; Glockner also reports that they were the first team in NEC history to win the conference tourney semifinals and final on the road.

Of course, that all having been said – there is no way that Villanova should lose this first-round matchup- the first time that VU has ever received a #1 seed. The most important thing is for VU to take a big lead early (with the deliberate way MU plays, they certainly won’t be able to catch up) and thus permit Allan Ray to rest for as long as possible. It would also be beneficial to get the bench players some minutes in NCAA action and excitement, to better prepare them for subsequent rounds against more formidable foes.

Should Villanova win, they would take on the winner of the previous contest, #8 Arizona/#9 Wisconsin, on Sunday afternoon, in the second round, for the right to go to Minneapolis for the Sweet 16.

I’ll have a full recap after the game, as well as a preview of Villanova/Arizona or Villanova/Wisconsin.

Go Wildcats!

Addendum: The author’s personal experience, regarding #1 - #16s throughout NCAA history

The simple reality is that no #16 seed has yet defeated a #1 seed, in the 21 NCAA tournaments which have taken place, since the expansion of the field to 64/65 in 1985 (of course, the glorious year of Villanova’s national championship). In fairness, there have been some close calls.

I had the extraordinary opportunity to see one of those close calls in person, during the 1996-97 tournament, mentioned earlier in this article. Since Villanova was a #4 seed, there was a #1 seed at the Winston-Salem, NC site hosted by Wake Forest – i.e. North Carolina, with its huge fan base in the state. The Stags of Fairfield (who had entered the tournament with a sub-.500 record) were the #16 seed facing the Tar Heels. Coincidentally, Dean Smith was only one win away from tying Adolph Rupp for the most career victories. He could tie the record against Fairfield, and would break the record by winning the second round game on Saturday.

I was, naturally, thrilled to have a chance to see two contests of such historical significance. And the crowd (90% of which was pulling for UNC, with only the other schools at the site rooting for Fairfield) was stunned when Fairfield took a 35-28 lead at halftime. I recognized, at that point, that I was going to witness history firsthand, one way or another. Either I was going to be there when Smith tied the win record (and possibly break it, when we returned on Sunday, as UNC would be playing Colorado before VU/Cal).


I was going to be at the venue for the first time that a #16 seed had ever defeated a #1!

Either way, I was going to witness a tremendous historical milestone. And I really wanted to see Fairfield win, so I added my voice to the pro-Fairfield chorus. Regrettably, UNC rallied in the second half and took control, but the overmatched Stags put forth an admirable effort in defeat. (As it turned out, I did get to see Smith break the win record against Colorado on Sunday – although unfortunately, Bob Knight at Texas Tech will probably break it next year).