Wednesday, January 20, 2010

#4 Wildcats Easily Slay Scarlet Knights at the RAC at Rutgers, 94-68, Behind 17 Points From Dominic Cheek

To the Wildcat faithful-

On Wednesday night at the RAC, #4 Villanova had no trouble in slaying the Scarlet Knights, 94-68.  It was a different pair of stars for the Wildcats, as freshman Dominic Cheek had a career-high 17 points, with Corey Stokes contributing 16 points.

Villanova improved to 17-1 overall, 5-0 Big East.  Rutgers continued its free fall, sinking to 9-9 overall, 0-6 Big East.

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This was a contest between #4 Villanova, who hadn't lost since December 13, 2009, to Temple - and Rutgers, which entered the contest 0-5 in Big East play.  Had Rutgers managed to win, it would have been one of the most stunning upsets in the long basketball history of both schools.

What factors could provide Rutgers hope for an upset?

Of course, there is the complacency of any team who is a heavy favorite.  But the one specific wild card was the RAC - Rutgers' home court, one of the most intimidating venues for a visitor, not just in the Big East, but anywhere on the East Coast.  That is, when Rutgers has a decent squad, and/or the building is jammed with students cheering on the Scarlet Knights.  If ever there was a chance for the gallant Scarlet Knights to slay the Top-5 Villanova dragon, it would have been tonight.

Unfortunately for coach Fred Hill and Rutgers, they don't have a decent squad, and the students did not show up en masse (there were plenty of Villanova fans, though). 

As a result, Villanova - which has stumbled at the RAC before, to inferior Scarlet Knights teams - did all of the slaying, tonight.  The Wildcats walloped Rutgers, a snakebitten program coached by Jay Wright's former associate head coach, the recruiter who helped to land Wright's first ballyhooed recruiting class - Curtis Sumpter, Allan Ray, Randy Foye, and Jason Fraser - all from New York and North Jersey.  That is to say, the very area Rutgers needs to recruit well, in order to wake up the "sleeping giant" - the favorite metaphor for anyone who has studied the possibility of a potential powerhouse program in Piscataway.

So how did Villanova's lopsided victory happen?

Rutgers's best hope came when the Scarlet Knights' Hamady Ndiaye dunked for the first basket of the game.  But that 2-0 lead would be one of only two leads, Rutgers would have, all evening.  Their second and final lead was 4-3, after a jumper by James Beatty.  It was all downhill for Rutgers from there.  Villanova took its first double-digit lead, 21-10, at the 11:53 mark after a layup by Stokes.

Rutgers scored five straight points to pull to within six, 21-15, after a triple by Mike Rosario.  But that was the closest they would come for the rest of the night.  Villanova responded with a 6-0 run of its own, to push the lead back to 27-15 with 7:47 to play, as Corey Fisher's pair of free throws led to the under-8 TV timeout.

At this point, Rutgers made its final foray into single-digit territory.  Ndiaye converted a traditional three-point play to cut it to nine, 27-18, with 7:21 to play, after being fouled by Taylor King.  But Fisher responded with a layup, pushing the lead back to eleven, 29-18, at the 6:48 mark.  Villanova would hold a double-digit lead, for the entire rest of the game, all 26:48 of it.

Fisher's layup sparked a 14-5 run over the next 4:28, culminating in a offensive rebound and putback of a Fisher miss from Antonio Pena.  Pena's basket at the 2:20 mark gave Villanova a 20-point lead, at 43-23.  Rutgers was never remotely in the game the rest of the way.  Villanova led 47-25 at halftime, and cruised during the entire second half.

At intermission, Stokes - the Bayonne Bomber, returning to New Jersey for this contest, already had 10 of his 15 points.  And the only Wildcats in foul trouble were Cheek and Pena, with two each.  (This had been a significant problem, in the victory over Georgetown on Sunday.)  For its part, Rutgers - in a statistical oddity - had shot 2-7 from the line and from three-point range, as well (Villanova was 10-17 from the line).  Villanova led in points in the paint, 24-14; points off turnovers, 12-3; and bench points, 23-4.

The Scarlet Knights continued to collapse, after play resumed.  The Villanova lead ballooned from 20 points at halftime to as high as 32, after play resumed.  The Wildcats embarked upon a 12-2 run to start the second half, with a triple by Stokes rendering the lead 59-27 with 16:38 to play, and forcing Hill to take a timeout.

To their credit, Rutgers was able to go on some runs of its own.  Trailing by 32, over the next eight minutes they managed to reduce the lead to 17 with 8:05 to play, after a free throw from Dane Miller made it 67-50.  But the closest they ever got in the second half was a 16-point deficit, after a tip-in from Miller made it 70-54 with 6:30 to play.  Villanova had no trouble at all, at any point in the second half (that 16-point lead was the smallest in the second half).  The Wildcats - despite having the second team on the floor for much of garbage time - won the remaining 6:30, by a score of 24-8.

Looking at the Box Score

With the game completely secured by halftime, Wright was able to provide his bench with valuable minutes.  Every player on the roster entered the game.  Ten of the eleven scholarship players saw at least a dozen minutes; the only Wildcats who didn't were Maurice Sutton, who played half a dozen minutes, and walk-on Russell Wooten, who saw one minute.  (I'll make my usual complaint about Wooten's lack of playing time; Wright could have easily put him in at the 5:00 mark, or at least at the under-4 TV timeout.)  Only three Wildcats played more than 19 minutes, in fact; and the highest total was 28, from both Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding.

It was a fitting irony, given that Cheek, Stokes and Fisher all played high school basketball in the Garden State, that they had the three best games for Villanova - and all three were exactly 6-10 from the floor, and scored 17, 16, and 15 points, respectively.

Certainly, the big story was the performance by Cheek.  His 17 points blew away his previous best of 10 - and he did it all in just 17 minutes!  His 6-10 shooting also represented career-highs for field goals and field goals attempted.

Stokes also had a superb performance with his 16 points, but his 6-10 differed from the other two, in that it included 4-7 from three-point range.  Fisher also had a great all-around game, grabbing half a dozen rebounds and dealing four assists against no turnovers.

Another standout was Mouphtaou Yarou.  Mouph logged 18 minutes, tied his career-high with half a dozen points, and set a career-high with nine rebounds.  The 18 minutes are the second-most he has played and the most since he returned from his hepatitis on January 6 against DePaul, five games ago.

Isaiah Armwood also turned in a strong performance off the bench.  Playing just 15 minutes, he scored nine points on perfect 4-4 shooting, and had four rebounds.

As a team, Villanova clobbered Rutgers on the glass, winning the rebounding battle by nearly two-to-one, 52-28.  In fact, Villanova's 23 offensive rebounds alone, compare very favorably to the Scarlet Knights' 28 total rebounds.  This factor, more than any other, explains the 26-point margin of victory.  Other factors, of course, was Villanova's 50% from the floor (33-66) and 47.1% from three-point range (8-17).

Villanova Superlatives

With Pitt's loss to Georgetown last night, the Wildcats are the only member of the 16-team Big East to remain undefeated in conference play.

Their 6-0 record also ties the school record for Big East conference starts, as it's just the third season where Villanova has started 6-0 in the Big East..  The 1982 and 1983 Wildcats also started 6-0, under Rollie Massimino; both finished the season with 24 victories and Elite Eight appearances (in the pre-64/65 team tournaments).  I wouldn't mind another Elite Eight, although another Final Four would be even better...

The Fred Hill Factor

Villanova has dominated its series against Rutgers, both historically and since Rutgers basketball joined the conference back in 1995-96.  The victory boosted Villanova's lead all-time to 25-8, all-time; 13-4 in the Big East regular season, - and a Villanova victory in the 2006 Big East tournament, in their only conference tournament meeting. 

In all, the Wildcats have gone 7-1 against the Scarlet Knights in the past eight games, since January 25, 2005.  During that span, Villanova has also won three of the four games at the RAC.  Rutgers' only victory in the last five years, was on January 23, 2008, by an 80-68 score at the RAC.

For those of you who don't remember the Fred Hill saga here, the gist of it was that he was Wright's primary recruiter from his arrival with Wright in 2001-02, through the 2004-05 season (Wright's first NCAA bid, which culminated in the heart-breaking loss to eventual champion North Carolina in the Sweet 16 up at Syracuse.)  For the 2005-06 season, in a bizarre move on Rutgers' part, they forced his struggling predecessor, Gary Waters, to hire Hill as his assistant coach, to groom him for a year to replace Waters (which he accepted, largely because he had no choice).  And Villanova permitted Hill to leave, even though it was a lateral move to another Big East school in the heart of Villanova's recruiting territory.

After the 2005-06 season, Waters was fired and replaced by Hill.  Rutgers has been struggling for a long time; its last NCAA bid was 17 years ago, in 1993, when it was still in the Atlantic 10.  It has never made it as a member of the Big East, in the last 14 seasons (and obviously, will not be going this year unless it somehow wins the conference tournament).  Bob Wenzel, who occasionally now calls Villanova games on the ESPN+ syndication TV broadcasts, was fired; he was replaced by the highly odious Kevin Bannon, who was a complete disaster and was fired; he in turn was replaced by Waters, who was fired.

After Bannon was fired at the conclusion of the 2000-01 season, Rutgers athletic director Bob Mulcahy - a Villanova graduate - was on the verge of hiring Wright (then the coach at Hofstra and a red-hot commodity) - until Villanova came up with a plan to induce a resignation from then-head coach Steve Lappas, and bring Wright to the Main Line, where he had served as an assistant to Massimino.

Rutgers undoubtedly regrets its inability to land Wright, both at the time, and now.  Hill's tenure as the head coach, after one year as an assistant, has not gone well at all.  The Scarlet Knights' last respectable season was Waters's final year with Hill at his side - Rutgers went 7-9 in conference play and got a NIT bid.

But once Hill took over as head coach in 2006-07, the seasons have been dreadful.  Hill's first season in Piscataway was 10-19 overall, 3-13 Big East, a tie for 14th place  His second season (2007-08) was even worse, finishing 11-20, 3-15 Big East (the Big East schedule had been expanded from 16 games to 18), a tie for 15th place (i.e., a tie for last place).  Last year (2008-09), represented another slide, if that could be imagined.  The Scarlet Knights managed to lose 21 games, against 11 wins, and went just 2-16 in league play, once more finishing in 15th place.  (The only team worse was DePaul, which went 0-18 before winning its first game in the Big East tournament.)

Hill's tenure has been significantly worse than Waters.  Waters struggled, but Rutgers was not permanently in the basement.  Waters' five seasons brought three NIT bids, and in three of his five years, he went 7-9 or 8-8 in the Big East. Not great, and probably enough to get him fired, but certainly better than the three-plus years under Hill.

In light of the fact that Rutgers is 9-9 overall, 0-6 in conference play in the most rugged conference in America (a fourth disastrous season) it seems that the Hill era in Piscataway, is not likely to last much longer. 

One defense cited for Hill, was that Hill didn't inherit much from Waters.  This is a valid point, but a) Hill was already recruiting for Rutgers during Waters' final season, and b) as more and more Hill recruits enter the program, the Scarlet Knights are actually regressing - from an already-very-low position.  It undoubtedly did not help matters tonight, that the three stars for Villanova were all from the North Jersey/New York territory that Hill - at least when he was an associate coach at Villanova - used very effectively in bringing players to the Main Line all those years ago.

Probably, the main bright spot was Hill's victory over Wright's Wildcats in 2008.  It was one of the three Rutgers victories that year, against 15 losses.  (That loss, ironically, was one of the reasons that Villanova was precariously perched on the NCAA bubble that year - a loss to a bottom-feeding Big East team didn't help, but Villanova managed to squeak in, possibly as the last at-large bid - and, naturally, went to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual champion Kansas.)

Next Up for the Wildcats

The Wildcats continue their visit to the New York sphere of influence, facing St. John's at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, January 23, at high noon.

Go Wildcats!

Comments, reactions, feedback are welcome (positive or negative.)



Anonymous said...

17-1. 6-0 in Big East. My, my my. This is shaping up to be a superb team

I've checked the records quickly. Everyone is saying this is the best start since the great Jack Kraft-coached team started 17-1 in 1963-64. That's correct from what I can see.

As I eyeball the records, another great team coached by Al Severance in 1959-60 also started off 17-1 before being knocked off its pedestal by NYU (then a power in b'ball). That's a full half century ago.

We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves and I don't want to jinx the team, but if we can get to 18-1 it will be a very special beginning for this year's squad.


Villanova Viewpoint Publisher said...

Hello, Seamus-

Thanks for the comment on the history. My two cents:

I concur that this is the best Villanova start since that 1963-64 team under Jack Kraft.

On the 1959-60 team that you mentioned:

I just looked at the 1959-60 team under the legendary Al Severance (his penultimate season, as his final team was 1960-61). It was also noteworthy as Severance's final good team, as his final team was 11-13.

Looking at its records, it's amazing how quickly that team went south. It started out 17-1 and finished just 20-6. It lost three of its final five regular season games at the Palestra, in fact.

After that loss to NYU (62-50), they lost to St. Bonaventure, 72-70, with both losses at the Palestra. They went down to Winston-Salem, NC, and were thrashed at Wake Forest, 89-74.

The Wildcats recovered at the Palestra to crush Toledo, 74-52. They fell to St. Joseph's, 78-75, at the Palestra, but triumphed over La Salle, 68-52, to end the regular season.

The Wildcats qualified for the dozen-team NIT, which was a considerable honor back then. The top four seeds got first-round byes, and Villanova was not one of those teams.

At Madison Square Garden in the NIT opening round, they edged Detroit 88-86 (the future coaching home of one Dick Vitale) in what I'm sure was a very exciting game.

They then lost in the quarterfinals, in overtime, to the second-seeded Utah State Aggies (!) 73-72. (That must have been a thriller, too...) I guessed that it was the only time (before or since) that Villanova and Utah State have clashed - and it was...

Finally - 18-1 would be great - and it would also be the first time - ever - that we started the Big East slate, 7-0...

Go Wildcats!

Anonymous said...

BTW: I see Syracuse is 18-1. You have to take your hat off to them. That is a really, really, really hard record to reach.

It is surprising how quickly that Severance team "went South" as you say. Did the NYU loss knock the confidence out of them?

I wonder if something else wasn't going on. To go 17-1 and then fall apart like that, to be followed by horrible season, makes me wonder what was happening behind the scenes or in the locker room.

When I got to Villanova in '62, Severance had been forced out the year before. I didn't even know he existed. Jack Kraft received the benefit of Severance's great recruits (at least two of whom -- Jones and Leftwich -- would have been on the freshman squad in Severance's last year). Jones, Leftwich and Hubie White were magic on the court in Kraft's first year.

Maybe I should look more closely at the early post-war years under Severance, but it surprises me that he was pushed out after a brilliant year like '59-'60 with a great freshman class on tap. What else was going on?


Villanova Viewpoint Publisher said...

Hello, Seamus-

Obviously, all of this was way before my time, so I have to look through the dry records to have any semblance intelligent opinion on it...

Alexander Severance, the founding father of Villanova basketball, was the coach from 1936 to 1961. He was not the first coach ever (the fourth, in fact), but the most important one, before or since.

Looking through his final six seasons, here's the pattern I noticed:

Severance had a very good year in 1954-55 - the Wildcats made the much-smaller NCAA field (just 24 teams and no seedings, although some teams received byes). The Wildcats beat Duke, headed to the Palestra, lost to Canisius, but beat Princeton.

Severance's teams struggled - at least by Villanova standards - for the next three seasons (1956, 1957, 1958). The records were 14-12, 10-15, and 12-11, with no postseason bids.

The 1959 and 1960 teams were back to normal. In 1959, the Wildcats went 18-7 and qualified for the NIT, although they lost in the first round. In 1960 (the year we're discussing), they had that great start and ended up with a NIT bid.

Severance's final team was in 1961, which went 11-13.

At least from the dry records, it appears to have been three lean years, two great ones, and then another lean one. Obviously, I have no understanding of the politics that went into the decision to replace Severance with Jack Kraft, or of the dynamic that caused the 1960 team to stagger down the stretch after starting 17-1...

Well, food for thought, anyway...

Go Wildcats!