Villanova received the #9 seed in the dozen-team Big East tournament, as a result of Providence's unexpected loss @ St. John's on Sunday afternoon. If PC had won, as was anticipated (St. John's had already been eliminated from any chance of entering the Big East tournament), Villanova would have ended up as the #10 seed.
As a result, Villanova will play DePaul at noon on Thursday. If the Wildcats prevail, they will play once more at noon, on Thursday, against top seed #1 Georgetown. This worked out very well, with the PC loss. Villanova not only drew a weaker opponent (albeit one to whom they lost in the Pavilion back in January) in the first round, but will now receive an opportunity to play top-seeded Georgetown (as opposed to Pittsburgh) in the quarterfinals. The Wildcats match up far better with the Hoyas than the Panthers, and so the basketball gods cut Villanova a break, by providing Georgetown as a potential quarterfinal opponent. But let's concentrate on DePaul first, which needs tournament wins far more than the Wildcats do. Here's a comprehensive preview:
The Viewpoint on the DePaul Blue Demons
Coach: Jerry Wainwright (2nd season at DePaul)
2006-07 Season Overview
9-7 Big East, 18-12 overall, RPI rank #61, Strength-of-Schedule (SOS) #19 (as of CollegeRPI.com’s Sunday, February 25, 2007 rankings, which will be updated soon.)
DePaul launched its season in November 2006 with a terrible start. For that reason, it is astonishing that DePaul even has a ghost of a chance of an at-large NCAA bid by now. They lost their opening two games, @ Bradley and @ Northwestern, in dreadful fashion. They were blown out at Bradley by 20 points, and lost @ cross-town rival Northwestern, one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, by 10 points. They returned home to Rosemont to crush cupcake Eastern Illinois by 30, and then traveled to Maui for a holiday tournament. Against Kentucky, they played pretty well, losing by just six points to the then-#21 Wildcats. After cruising past host Chaminade, they fell against Purdue. In summary, the Blue Demons ultimately won just two of their first half-dozen games - granted, with two good neutral-court losses to Kentucky and Purdue - in the month of November.
For some reason, though, when the calendar page shifted to December, the Blue Demons started to improve drastically, after the 2-4 start. They acquired their signature victory, a stunning upset of then-#5 Kansas, on December 2, 2006. (One would not think that a team with a 2-4 record would be able to pull that off, but DePaul deserves a lot of credit for doing so.)
Moreover, the post-Kansas momentum continued. DePaul easily beat crosstown rival Chicago State; traveled to UAB, losing by just one. With their record at 4-5, the Blue Demons then took five in a row: beating Wake Forest; winning @ Rhode Island; beating two California schools, UC-Irvine and Cal itself, and ended the calendar year with a 30-point blowout of cupcake Northwestern State. DePaul in November: 2-4. DePaul in December: 7-1. Thus, the Blue Demons entered 2007 with some self-confidence and a respectable 9-5 record.
Big East Schedule
DePaul finished Big East play with a 9-7 record, and qualified for the #8 seed over Villanova by virtue of their victory over the Wildcats at the Pavilion on January 6, 2007. Although in this era of 16-team conferences, identical records aren't always identical. Mike Adam of WeareDePaul.com called my attention to the fact that DePaul ranked 7th in BE schedule difficulty, within the conference itself; I had mistakenly thought that DePaul's Big East slate was much easier than it actually was, so I'd like to give him credit. Returning to my own team, Villanova had the most arduous BE schedule of any team in the conference.
Once 2007 began, the Blue Demons did very well in their first five contests. They lost @ St. John's in the opener, but then defeated 'Nova at the Pavilion (where 'Nova is all but invincible when the students are around, which they were not on January 8), and lost @ then-#7 Pitt by only 10 points. The Blue Demons followed up with an impressive 23-point victory @ Rutgers, where they held the Scarlet Knights to only 37 points. They then split the series with St. John's by defeating the Red Storm in Rosemont - a 3-2 record, with three road games (of varying shades of difficulty) out of the way.
DePaul then began to sputter, losing four of its next five: Louisville, @ Georgetown, @ West Virginia, and @ Syracuse, with the only victory coming at home against UConn. Their record stood at 4-7 Big East and they were nowhere near the bubble. But then they again reversed course, and heated up once more. Beginning on February 8, the Blue Demons won five of their final six BE contests, to close out the regular season: Notre Dame, then-#12 Marquette, Cincinnati, and a sweep of the home-and-home with South Florida. The only loss was @ Notre Dame (although it was by 24 points - at Rosemont, DePaul had won by a single point).
NCAA Tournament Bubble Analysis
DePaul would need to win two games in New York, to qualify with an at-large bid. They have been fortunate in that they drew Villanova, a team that already has a bid clinched and whom they've already demonstrated they can defeat (on the road, no less). Their RPI rank of #61 (as of Feb. 25, pending update), despite an impressive SOS of 19, is not going to get them in. They do have some good wins: @ Villanova, Notre Dame, Marquette, and their signature win, Kansas. But they need at least two more. No team with a RPI rank in the high 50s with DePaul's profile is going to get in, unless they not only get past 'Nova Wednesday, but the Hoyas on Thursday.
They also have two bad losses: to Northwestern (#167), @ UAB (#111). But to their credit, DePaul did assemble a very formidable OOC slate: Purdue, Kentucky, Kansas. The wins over Wake Forest, Rhode Island, and California, don't look all that great because those opponents have weak RPIs, but they weren't cupcake victories. The Blue Demons just don't have enough wins - yet. If they were able to add a second win over Villanova plus a win over Georgetown, though, they would make it.
It's better to think of DePaul as having an atypical 11-man rotation, rather than a fixed starter/bench setup. Only three players started on a consistent basis throughout the season (at least as measured by the DePaul statistics). As for the rest of the rotation, they are listed below that trio of Blue Demons. The other eight players, while there is a broad spectrum of minutes played, tend to have their minutes distributed equitably, so there's no true fourth or fifth starter. DePaul's official game notes did not list a starting lineup, so there's not really much for me to go on.
The Three Starters
#11 Sammy Mejia – Guard – 6-6 – Sr – Bronx, NY – 14.0 points/6.3 rebounds/2.8 assists/33.3 min/game
#3 Draelon Burns – Guard – 6-4– Jr – Milwaukee, WI - 11.1 points/2.9 rebounds/25.0 min/game
#22 Wilson Chandler – Forward – 6-8 – Soph - Benton Harbor, MI - 14.1 points/7.0 rebounds/1.5 blocks/31.3 min/game
The Rest of the Blue Demon Rotation
#5 Karron Clarke – Forward – 6-6– Jr – Brooklyn, NY, via Miami (FL) - 7.2 points/3.6 rebounds/21.3 min/game
#21 Marcus Heard – Forward – 6-7 – Sr – Springfield, IL - 6.8 points/4.7 rebounds/20.8 min/game
#1 Jabari Currie– Guard – 6-4– Soph – Detroit, MI - 3.6 points/1.2 rebounds/18.6 min/game
#30 Will Walker – Guard – 6-0 – Freshman – Bolingbrook, IL - 3.6 points/1.3 rebounds/16.1 min/game
#4 Wesley Green – Center -6-9 – Junior – Eustis, FL - 3.2 points/2.7 rebounds/13.1 min/10.6 min/game
#12 Cliff Clinkscales – Guard – 6-1 – Jr – Queens, NY – 1.6 points/1.2 rebounds/12.2 min/game
#44 Keith Butler – Center – 7-1 – Sr – West Medford, MA via Temple University - 1.7 points/2.3 rebounds/8.7 min/game
Worth noting: Butler played three seasons at Temple, prior to transferring to DePaul; he sat out the 2005-06 season, while practicing with the Blue Demons. He missed the first half-dozen games for violations of team rules (which in effect, means that he sat out a transfer year, in order to play about 80% of one season). He's not likely be to a huge factor, but the Philadelphia connection was interesting.
#32 Lorenzo Thompson – Center – 6-8 – Sr – Chicago, IL – 1.4 points/1.2 rebounds/7.3 min/game
What to Expect, Based on the First Game
The trio of starters - Mejia, Chandler, and Burns - all excelled at the Pavilion back on January 6, in DePaul's 73-65 victory. It was the Blue Demons' first trip ever to the Pavilion, and DePaul's first win in the Philadelphia region in over three decades, since the Bicentennial year of 1976. On February 25 of that year, DePaul defeated Villanova at the Palestra, 72-63. Mejia finished with 23 points on 8-14 shooting, including five triples. Chandler posted a double-double with 18 points and 11 boards, while Burns finished with 13 points on 5-9 shooting.
Scottie Reynolds had no trouble scoring for 'Nova, finishing with 25 points, including 7-11 from three-point range. Curtis Sumpter (15 points, eight rebounds, but on just 6-18 shooting) and Mike Nardi (13 points, on just 4-13 shooting) also reached double figures, while Will Sheridan added six points (on perfect 6-6 shooting from the line) and nine rebounds. With just under six minutes to play, 'Nova trailed by only three, but fell into an all-too-common scoring drought, not scoring again until there were only 50 seconds remaining.
From a team aspect, it is easy to see why Villanova lost. Jay Wright's entire philosophy is based upon defensive intensity and rebounding. For that reason, Wright's teams are virtually never blown out of games, even when facing more talented opponents. And Villanova neither played strong defense, nor rebounded effectively, against the Blue Demons. Villanova's ordinarily stingy defense was subpar: DePaul shot 49% from the floor and an appalling 42% from three-point range. Candidly, DePaul could have easily scored more points in that game- the only reason they didn't ,was that the Blue Demons shot just 15-26 (58%) from the line. Ironically, that is the one area, obviously, where Villanova's defense can't take any credit. The Wildcats also let the Blue Demons outrebound them, 36-31. On the offensive end, VU - the Big East leader in FT% - only shot 10-16 (62.5%) from the line. Moreover, the fact that they only took 16 FTs indicates that the Wildcats had enormous trouble getting fouled, a sign of a struggling offense. (DePaul took 26 FTs, as noted above.)
Villanova's starting five of Dante Cunningham, Sheridan, Sumpter, Nardi, and Reynolds played the bulk of the minutes, with Shane Clark and Bilal Benn coming off the bench for 16 and 14 minutes, respectively. Dwayne Anderson and Casiem Drummond, who have not played much recently, did get into the game, briefly. For a VU personnel perspective, the biggest change is the addition of freshman Reggie Redding, the product of St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia. Jay Wright loves Redding's defensive skills and intensity; he also has taken over the duties of inbounding the ball. As a result, Redding has become a key member of the rotation since then; he shut down Syracuse's Demetris Nichols on Saturday, playing 30 minutes. However, Redding did not play at all against DePaul, and consequently he will draw the assignment of shutting down one of DePaul's main scoring threats - so that's the wild card in the equation. DePaul has no film of Redding defending their own players, so that will be something to keep an eye on.
Another potential question mark, which involves Redding, is Nardi's availability. Nardi injured his ankle and suffered back spasms against Syracuse, consequently playing just 13 minutes, including just a minute and a half after intermission. The three-day break probably will help Nardi's recovery, but it's not certain, as of this writing, as to whether the senior guard will be available. If Nardi isn't available, or is only available sparingly, both Redding and Benn will play more than they otherwise would. In addition, Villanova is already IN the tournament. Therefore, there is no reason for Wright to take a chance on playing Nardi against DePaul (or Georgetown), if he's not 100%. Instead, Wright would vastly prefer for him to skip the entire conference tournament, if need be, and rest up for the now-assured trip to the NCAAs.
Villanova leads all-time, 9-7. As member of the Big East, it stands split at 1-1. Last year, DePaul's first season in the Big East, Villanova won in Rosemont, 61-51, on February 11, 2006. Prior to that meeting, the two schools hadn't met since 1979, when DePaul thrashed visiting Villanova, 99-66. The first meeting in the series came on January 21, 1939, at Philadelphia's now defunct Convention Hall (now the mothballed Civic Center in University City); DePaul won 36-29.
Surprisingly, the schools have met at Madison Square Garden before - over four decades ago, in fact. In the 1963 NIT, on March 14 of that year, Villanova won 63-51. (In that era, the NIT was still the more prestigious of the two postseason tournaments.)
The Wildcats (9-7 Big East, 21-9 overall) are coming off an NCAA-clinching victory against Syracuse in the regular-season finale, in which Curtis Sumpter had one of the finest performances of his career, scoring 20 points and pulling down a career-high 15 rebounds. (For more on the victory, please see the story below, which recaps a very entertaining regular-season finale.)
I’ll have a full recap after the game.
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