Sunday, February 22, 2009

#12 Villanova @ #24 Syracuse - VU/SU Rivalry History

To the Wildcat faithful-

Looking back at the first game, here's a summary:

It took 63 meetings – but on Saturday, February 07, 2009, #17 Villanova reached the century mark for the first time ever against Syracuse, and did so in a memorable way. The Wildcats walloped a very good, then-ranked #20 Orangemen squad, 102-85, at the Wachovia Center.

There were a surprising number of empty seats at the beginning, at least in view of the ESPN cameras, but some of that was probably attributable to the early, noon tip-time.

Dante Cunningham tied his career-high by scoring 31 points, leading the way for the Wildcats, who never trailed in the contest. The senior nearly attained yet another double-double, finishing with nine rebounds, while shooting a torrid 12-15 from the floor.

The game was witnessed, as all Syracuse visits are, by former Orangeman football (and basketball) star Donovan McNabb, the long-time quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, sitting at courtside.

The Wildcats improved to 7-3 Big East, 19-4 overall, winning their fifth straight contest. Syracuse dropped to 6-5 Big East, 18-6 overall.

One key element - in the first game, Jonny Flynn filled up the box score, although he did not have a good afternoon from the floor, making only five of his 14 attempts and one out of four from three-point range. Of course, Flynn scored 22 points (going 11-13 from the line) eight rebounds, and five assists, so he certainly did a great deal to further his team's cause, but they'll be looking for a better shooting day at the Carrier Dome.

Despite the Big East's inflated size, this will be the fourth consecutive season that the Wildcats and Orangemen are meeting twice in the regular season. The Wildcats will be seeking to defeat Syracuse twice in one regular season for the first time since 2006; they also will be seeking their third straight victory at the Carrier Dome. Last season, the Wildcats won there, 81-71, although Syracuse triumphed at the Wachovia Center. The Wildcats won the third meeting in the Big East tournament.

Given the long and intense rivalry between these two Big East powers, I thought that it might be of some value to look back at some of the more memorable aspects of their entwined history. And of course, this year is an opportunity for nostalgia, for those who remember when Big East rivals faced each other twice every year (and sometimes three times in the Big East tournament or as in 1985, in the NCAA tournament)... Villanova and Syracuse revive their home-and-home series on Sunday at the Carrier Dome...

Prior to the formation of the Big East three decades or so ago, Villanova and Syracuse had rarely faced each other. This was understandable, given that the schools are not particularly close together geographically. There were only four pre-Big East meetings, in 1946, 1966, 1974, and 1980, all won by Syracuse, the final game of which was in the NCAA tournament. However, Villanova joined the Big East in its second year of existence, 1980-81, and began to play the Orangemen regularly. All-time, Syracuse leads 34-29; as members of the Big East, they lead just slightly, at 30-29. Villanova can even it at 30 each with a victory on Sunday. The Wildcats have also won four of the last five meetings.

In regular-season Big East contests, VU leads 25-22; in Big East tournament play, Syracuse holds a decided 8-4 advantage. However, in last season's BE tournament, the Wildcats crushed the 'Cuse, 82-63, at Madison Square Garden, in a game which undoubtedly preserved Villanova's hopes of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, which they eventually received as one of the final teams in, as a #12 seed.

Given Syracuse' long-time status as a power, it's interesting that Villanova actually won five of the first six contests. However, the single loss ranks among the most heartbreaking in Villanova history: a triple-OT loss at the Carrier Dome in Villanova's first-ever Big East tournament on March 12, 1981. (This was only the second Big East tournament; it wasn't even played at Madison Square Garden yet.) I have no doubt that it was a very thrilling game but undoubtedly depressing for 'Nova fans.

Villanova also has had remarkable success at the Carrier Dome, the site of Sunday's game. The Wildcats are 12-13 there, which must rank among the strongest records for any visiting team, given that Syracuse has been a perennial titan for nearly the conference's entire existence and also captured two national championships. In particular, the Steve Lappas-era teams of the 1990s had a great three-year run at the Carrier Dome during their three consecutive NCAA tournament seasons from 1995 to 1997, the teams featuring Kerry Kittles, Jason Lawson, Alvin Williams, Jonathan Haynes, Chuck Kornegay, Eric Eberz, and Zeffy Penn, at various stages...

On Valentine's Day, 1995, 'Nova won in overtime, 89-87; the following year, on January 29, 1996, they repeated the overtime feat @ Syracuse, triumphing 72-69. On February 1, 1997, they did not require overtime to beat Syracuse in a down year for them, winning 70-60. In doing so, the Wildcats avenged a narrow 62-60 loss at the then-CoreStates Center a month earlier, in Syracuse's first trip to the newly-opened building.

In Jay Wright's first season of 2001-02, he defeated Syracuse twice, once at the then-First Union Center and then in Madison Square Garden.

Although it is highly unlikely that Villanova would ever host Syracuse at the Palestra again, they did so five times from 1981 through 1985, sweeping all five contests. (Syracuse did win at the Palestra prior to the formation of the Big East, however.) In the Connelly Center on campus, in fact, there is a photograph of one of those games.

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