Friday, February 23, 2007

Preview of Senior Day, Rutgers @ Villanova, Saturday, February 24, 2007, 4 PM

Senior Day Against Rutgers

The Wildcats will face the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday, February 24, 2007, at 4 PM at the Pavilion, with TV coverage provided by ESPN. Senior Day ceremonies will honor seniors Curtis Sumpter, Will Sheridan, and Mike Nardi, three huge contributors who have been instrumental in Villanova’s back-to-back Sweet 16 NCAA tournament appearances, including its stellar top-five-ranking and Elite Eight appearance last year. The ceremonies will also honor senior walk-on Ross Condon. According to the press release, those who wish to see the ceremonies are asked to be in their seats by 3:40 PM, when they will take place; in addition, the senior players will address the senior members of the ‘Nova Nation prior to the game. A comprehensive preview…

The Viewpoint on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Coach: Fred Hill
(1st season) - record @ RU, 10-17

2006-07 season analysis - 3-11 Big East, 10-17 overall, RPI rank #191, SOS #90, as of Monday, February 19, 2007,

Nonconference Schedule

Rutgers is observing their basketball centennial this year, the same way Georgetown is. The Hoyas have had a lot to celebrate with their centennial commemoration - national ranking and a sure bid to the NCAA tournament. However, in contrast, Rutgers' 100th anniversary has not provided much of a lift for the fan base, even under new leadership.
The Scarlet Knights’ first quest under its new king, got off to a disastrous start, and from which the season ultimately never recovered. Of their first half-dozen games, one was against a non-Division I opponent – and it was the only game that they won. They started out the year with five losses to Kansas State, Jackson State, a 29-point-loss @ the Chicago Invitational Challenge to Bradley (in which they allowed 101 points), a 13-point loss to Miami (OH), and a 23-point loss to Fran Dunphy’s Temple squad, a former Atlantic 10 rival.

Then Hill managed to right the kingdom, at least temporarily. After a 1-5 start, the Knights suddenly ripped off five straight wins: Nebraska, New Hampshire, @ Princeton (the longest-running-rivalry in the nation), Iona, and Lehigh, surging back over .500 at 6-5. Then the roof caved in. They traveled to then-#2 North Carolina and lost by 39 points at the DeanDome (albeit without two starters in the lineup, suspended for academic violations). They returned to the RAC to beat cupcake South Carolina State, lifting themselves back over .500 at 7-6 and with the hope of finishing the top dozen in the Big East and getting to New York. (RU will now be missing the BET for the third time in the seven years that the BET has excluded teams from participation, and for most of that span it was only the bottom two, not the bottom four, that were omitted.)

Big East Schedule

When Big East play started, the losses began to mount. Rutgers started the season by losing six of its first seven Big East games, with the lone win being @ woeful Cincinnati in the second game (they lost narrowly to in-state rival Seton Hall in the opener). After the Cincy win, there were five straight double-digit losses: perhaps the worst loss was to mediocre DePaul – at the RAC – a game which the Scarlet Knights managed to score only 37 points to DePaul’s 60, the second-worst was a 22-point loss @ South Florida.

At 1-6, the Scarlet Knights managed to split with Seton Hall by sinking the Pirates, 74-70. They did so in exciting fashion, in double OT, at the RAC- undoubtedly the high point of the year. They have now lost five of their last six, with the only victory completing the sweep of Cincinnati. (In other words, RU’s three Big East wins are all against teams that won’t go to New York, either.)

Overall Analysis

Rutgers has little to play for, and the reason is the bloated Big East and its consequent need to limit the conference tournament to the top 12. There was always a hope, before, always a reason for the league’s struggling programs to keep practicing, that maybe you could get hot in New York and atone for the whole season. Unfortunately for ‘Nova, the scuffling UConn Huskies managed to win at the RAC, rendering RU’s season over, as the Scarlet Knights have now been officially eliminated from the Big East tournament. The only silver lining was the removal of any reason for RU to have optimism for their trip to the Main Line, but I would have preferred that RU win, to knock UConn off the bubble and lower their intensity level for Villanova’s trip to the Nutmeg State on Wednesday (and plus, I always prefer that UConn lose whenever and wherever possible). The Scarlet Knights now have officially confirmed that they have just two games remaining, the first being Saturday’s clash at the Pavilion.

From a narrow Villanova perspective, two facts are clear. One is that Rutgers is 10-17 overall and with a RPI rank - as of Monday, February 19, 2007 - of #191, almost lower than I could imagine any Big East team having. Should the Wildcats lose this game – against a team that has historically struggled to win away from the RAC and the home court advantages it brings – their NCAA tournament hopes would go from solid to dangerously low. This would happen not only because of the RPI dip: there is the inescapable fact that if ‘Nova can’t defeat a team with a #191 RPI rank, playing out the string, at the Pavilion on Senior Day, the Selection Committee could justifiably claim that they don’t deserve one of the precious at-large bids, regardless of what happens the rest of the way. (Rutgers has only two non-RAC wins all year, @ Princeton and @ Cincinnati).

A Capsule on Recent Rutgers History

Rutgers, in theory, should be at least average in Big East basketball, due to the resources of a big state school, central location in the Northeast’s prime recruiting territory, and a home court that is extremely difficult for opponents, even with the Scarlet Knights’ poor records, over the last decade and a half. In spite of these advantages, the Scarlet Knights haven’t reached the NCAA tournament in 16 years, however – their last bid was in 1991. Bob Wenzel was the last coach to do it, and that was when RU was still in the Atlantic 10 for basketball. Kevin Bannon and Gary Waters were both fired, after failing to come close to the NCAAs (this will be RU’s 11th losing record in the last 15 seasons). Hill is in his first season as head coach (although Waters was forced to have Hill on his staff, prior to his departure, in an unusual arrangement of forcing a head coach to harbor his likely heir). Moreover, the high-profile success of the school’s football program in 2006, has only served to juxtapose the chronic weakness in basketball.

Rutgers actually went into the season with some optimism. Hill, as the third new head coach to arrive in Piscataway, with a dream of taking RU to the NCAA tournament and with all three of his immediate predecessors having been fired for not doing so, either on a regular basis (Wenzel) or at all (Bannon and Waters), there was a new sense of a chance at renewal. Hill has a reputation (many would argue as to whether it is exaggerated) as a fantastic recruiter in the NYC/North Jersey corridor, precisely the area where Rutgers needs to obtain talent. He also inherited a reasonably talented team: the Scarlet Knights were returning four starters from last year’s dreadful team, including two that made the All-Big East rookie team. J.R. Inman, the team’s current leading scorer, made the team even while missing nine games with a broken fibula; he’s also a good shot blocker, especially for a 6-9 forward – he had 42 blocks as a freshman, tops among BE newcomer. The other honoree was Anthony Farmer, the point guard whose 124 assists last year were likewise the best for any BE freshman. Farmer is a product of New Jersey’s St. Augustine Prep, which also produced former Wildcats Brian Lynch (1997-2000) and Andrew Sullivan (2000-2003).

The unofficial goal for 2006-07 was just to reach the Big East tournament. But they aren’t even going to come close to doing so, being mathematically eliminated with just two games remaining.

Scarlet Knights Starters and Rotation

J.R. Inman # 15 - 6-9 – Sophomore (Pomona, NY) - Forward - 32.9 min/12.3 pts/game

Marquis Webb # 1 - 6-5 – Senior (Paterson, NJ) - G-F -36.5 min/9.9 pts/game

Adrian Hill # 4 - 6-8 – Senior (Canton, OH) F - 24.9 - 39.6 min/9.6 pts/game

Jaron Griffin #32 - 6-7 – Sophomore (Manchester, NJ) - G-F - 30.4 min/8.9 pts/game

Anthony Farmer #2 - 6-1 – Sophomore (Millville, NJ) - G - 33.5 min/8.1 pts/game

Off the Bench

Ollie Bailey # 13 - 6-7 – Junior (Chicago, IL) - F

Courtney Nelson #3 - 6-1 – Sophomore (Newark, NJ, via University of Richmond) - G

Hamady N'Diaye #5 - 6-11 – Freshman (Dakar, Senegal) - C

Hill uses a fixed starting lineup, with the original five intact for the balance of the season. He uses an eight-man rotation. Although I have not seen RU play this year, I surmise from the numbers that the team suffers from two major weaknesses:

a) the lack of a reliable perimeter shooter – the best three-point shooter is Farmer, who shoots only 34% from long-range and only 33.5% from any range;
b) the lack of size in the paint – the only big man in the rotation is N’Diaye, a freshman who plays only 13.4 minutes/game.

In conclusion, it’s a game that the Wildcats need to win quickly, over a team with little to play for, and move on to the more formidable challenge of winning at Connecticut next week. The only wild card is the fact that Hill knows Villanova’s players and coaching staff far better than any other opponent, and that gives RU an advantage they wouldn’t have otherwise. In addition, the players recognize that defeating Villanova would be high on their coach’s wish list, in a season where the program’s dreams were cruelly shattered in the middle of January. So RU might have a revenge factor in mind, and thus might be a more intense opponent, than their record and status as an eliminated team would indicate.

Villanova Update

The ‘Cats enter Senior Day having lost their momentum, as they suffered twin losses to ranked opponents Georgetown and @ Marquette over the last week. Their record stands at 18-9 overall, 6-7 Big East, and today’s just a must-win.

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