Sunday, February 28, 2010

#4 Syracuse Obliterates #7 Villanova, 95-77, As Saturday Night Showdown Snuffed Out Early

This is the placeholder article, please check back for updates...

For a helpful, Syracuse-centric perspective on the game - and one written with the euphoria of victory, I'd highly recommend the tremendous Syracuse SB Nation blog, Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician.... I had exchanged a question-and-answer set with its publisher, Sean Keeley, and his insights were very helpful, as I prepared for the game...  so check out Troy Nunes - it's well worth it...

To the Wildcat faithful-

It was a wild weekend in college basketball, with the #1 and #2 teams (Kansas and Kentucky, respectively) falling, before the Wildcats even emerged, to take their first shootaround at the Carrier Dome.  Undoubtedly, this scenario was wandering throughout the thoughts of every Villanova fan: "If we win tonight, we'll move up a couple of spots."

Naturally, there's going to be a lot of speculation, as to who will take over the top spot on Monday.  Tonight's game offered this clear - albeit, highly unpleasant - certainty, on that question - it won't be the Wildcats...

The #4 Syracuse Orange - backed by the largest on-campus crowd ever to see a college basketball game, 34,616 fans, some of whom could not even remotely see the court - clobbered the #7 Wildcats tonight, 95-77.  The disaster marks the third defeat in the last four games for Villanova - after starting the season 20-1.  The Wildcats have also lost four of their last seven contests.

Villanova might consider itself fortunate, to even stay in the Top 10 after this loss, one which was highly conspicuous nationally, due to the game taking place in prime time, and with extensive hype and publicity about the size of the crowd.

The Ghosts of Syracuse Past were there, in profusion: The Dome Ranger (described on the ESPN broadcast, as an individual who once regularly roamed the sidelines of Syracuse football games back in the 1980s, but rarely seen since), Derrick Coleman (who had a less-than-stellar run in Philadelphia with the 76ers, back in the day), Billy Owens, and John Wallace, to name but a few.  And, of course, the old standby, Otto the Orange, who could been seen gallivanting on the concourse, just above the court, throughout the contest.

The Dome Ranger appeared in an orange Syracuse football jersey with #44 on it, along with an orange cowboy hat and a blue mask for the school colors, and was cheered lustily by the throngs of spectators, as he ran onto the court, prior to tip-off.

Another reason for the surprising loss (or at least the uncompetitive final margin of the loss) was Villanova's strong record at the Carrier Dome, all-time.  Even with this dreadful loss in the books, Villanova is 13-14 all-time in the building, and has won three of its last five visits there.

The only real bright spot for the Wildcats tonight was the performance of freshman Mouphtaou Yarou.  Mouph was in the starting lineup for the first time since November, prior to his contraction of hepatitis, which had sidelined him for several weeks.  And Mouph delivered, big-time, for Jay Wright, on a night when many of the more reliable players did not.

Mouph set a career-high with 13 points on 6-8 shooting, grabbing eight rebounds, plus a pair of blocks (and a pair of assists!) - and he did it all in just 22 minutes...  Considering that against Pitt on Sunday, he played only a single minute, it was a remarkable performance.  I had noticed that Mouph received considerable minutes in the victory over South Florida on Wednesday; clearly, Wright thought that he'd need Mouph against the formidable Syracuse frontcourt (and they were quite formidable tonight).  So, enormous props to Mouph.

Scottie Reynolds had a solid game: 16 points, on 6-14 shooting, including 4-8 from beyond the arc.  As did Antonio Pena - 13 points, half a dozen rebounds, a blocked shot, and three steals... Corey Fisher had a hot start, scoring 10 points in the first half of the first half, but then cooled off.  He would finish with 14 points, but do so on just 3-12 shooting, including missing all five of his three-point attempts.  But he made a lot of plays (six assists against one turnover), plus five rebounds and two steals.

Taylor King saw 17 minutes, and was a rebounding machine, coming up with eight boards.  But his shot was highly erratic: he finished with six points on just 2-7 shooting (all from three-point range), including two air balls.

The irony being, that if we had been told, prior to the game, that Pena and Mouph, out of the "five" spot, would combine to score 26 points on 11-16 shooting, with 14 rebounds and three blocks, all of us would have been very confident of either victory, or an extremely narrow loss.  Instead, we had a lopsided loss.  The rest of the Wildcats really struggled, this evening...

It's hard to believe that the Wildcats not only were ahead in this game, but actually held a significant lead for much of the first half, as much as nine points, in fact - in a game in which Villanova subsequently trailed by 10 points at halftime, and that it ultimately lost by 18 points.

NCAA Seeding Implications - This Loss Was A Complete Disaster

Our hopes of a #1 seed come Selection Sunday, were gravely damaged (and perhaps extinguished) by this defeat.  A couple of weeks ago, when the Wildcats were 20-1, Villanova seemed very well-positioned, to emerge from the high holy day of the hoops year, brandishing one of those coveted top seeds.  Now, at 23-5, 12-4 Big East, it's far less likely.

I would go as far as to say that the only way (now) that we end up with one, is to sweep the last two regular season games (Cincinnati and West Virginia), and - at minimum - reach the final of the Big East tournament (and preferably, win it).  If we reach the final, we'd have a negligible chance, but if we win it, a good chance, particularly if all the victories are over decent teams.  It would also help, if some more teams in the Top 10 started to lose more frequently.

The only good news on that front today, was the aforementioned fact that both Kansas and Kentucky also lost.  It won't take as much to pull a #1 seed now, so we're still in the hunt, but Wright has to get this ship turned around somehow.  Three losses in four games, after a 20-1 start...time to get things back in order, and quickly...

This is the placeholder article, please check back for updates...

Go Wildcats! 

E-mail: villanova.viewpoint-at-yahoo-dot-com

Friday, February 26, 2010

Syracuse SB Nation Blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, On Saturday's Showdown Between #7 Villanova and #4 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome

To the Wildcat faithful-

I'd like to thank Sean Keeley, of the outstanding SB Nation Syracuse blog, Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, for taking the time to provide some insights on Jim Boeheim and his #4 Syracuse Orange squad...  The #7 Wildcats will be forging their way through the snow-clogged East Coast to get to the Carrier Dome for the Saturday night showdown...

Troy Nunes also has published a question-and-answer post on Villanova - you can click here to read Sean's questions on the Wildcats, and my answers (in the most detail, on where Scottie Reynolds falls in the pantheon of Villanova legends...)

Without further ado:

1) I remain mystified as to why Villanova plays so well at the Carrier Dome, both recently, and all-time.  Syracuse has been a power in the Big East, and nationally, for decades, so it's not like you had a rough patch and we racked up some easy wins.

We're 13-13 all-time at the Carrier Dome, which I have to think is probably among the best records up there, for any conference opponent (or any opponent).  And most recently, we've won three of the last four games against you up there - last season, 2008, and 2006; we lost in 2007.

(Regrettably, this luck did not extend to the building as a whole, as we very memorably lost an upset bid to top-seeded North Carolina - the eventual winner - in the 2005 Sweet 16 at the Carrier Dome.)

Do you have any idea?

If I knew I'd be on the phone to Boeheim right now with the answer.  Recently, I think it's just been an issue of Nova catching the Orange at the right time.  You guys have either been the better team or we've been on par and things played out as they do. 

It's a great series in general.  SU leads the all-time 34-30, which is even closer than SU-G'town and SU-UConn.  Maybe you guys have been our true rival all along and we didn't know it. 

I think it just comes down to a lot of ebbs and flows between the two programs.  There's been a lot of ups and downs and chances for each team to take advantage of the other for a while.  But there's also been a lot of times they come in evenly-matched, like this year. 

2) In both victories last season, we scored a lot of points: 102 points at the Wachovia Center and 89 at the Dome.  (Two major reasons are gone - Dante Cunningham had 31 in the first game and 12 in the second; and Dwayne Anderson had just seven in the first, but 22 in the second game.)  What will Boeheim try to do to slow down our offense, the way that Pitt did so successfully on Sunday?

My guess would be that Boeheim wants the ball in the hands of Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku as much as possible.  Rick is coming off a monster game at Providence (28 points) and the Orange are relying on the two bigmen more and more as the season goes on.  Especially if Wes Johnson or Andy Rautins get a little cold on the outside, it's up to the big guys to control the paint and the tempo. 

Of course, the Orange like to take their shots as well so I don't think Rautins or Wes will be shy early on.  I'm curious to see how the Orange will attack the Villanova guardplay as it's probably our weakest defensive spot versus your strongest offensive one.  We might see Wes and Andy taking on more of a role up top.  If so, Arinze and Rick become that much more important on defense to control the basket.

As the Orange proved against Providence they can score with anyone, so, worst case...we'll shoot it out.

3) You really stole our thunder, last year, during the Big East tournament.  We had the first game that day, with Anderson's buzzer-beater rolling in to oust Marquette.  We were the lead story on "SportsCenter" at dinnertime.  Then, of course, there was the epic saga between you and UConn, in six overtimes, with the Orange ultimately pulling the upset.  Knocked us right off the front pages.

I have never seen a more bizarre game.  Thoughts, nearly a year later?

Now that we've got a little perspective I think it just becomes that much more impressive.  Six overtimes is a LONG-ASS TIME.  Have you watched any of the double overtime or triple overtime games this year?  That's long enough.  Now throw in three more overtimes.  Against one of your bitter rivals.  With Tournament seeding on the line.  Not to mention you're playing in MSG.  Every element was there to make it memorable.  I think the only thing that doesn't hold up (to the unbiased watcher) is that the Orange put it away early in the sixth OT so there isn't that last-second drama.  But believe me, by then, that was fine with us.  I just wanted to go to sleep.

If you didn't like hearing about it last year, you probably don't want to watch any hype leading into this year's BET.  I can pretty much guarantee you every ESPN package will begin and end with clips from it. 

Who knows, perhaps we'll see each other in the late rounds to try and top it.

4) Is there room for more than one Big East team, on the top line of the NCAA tournament?  With our losses to UConn and Pitt last week, I think that if we lose on Saturday, our chances have been fatally damaged, unless we were to win the Big East tournament and pick up another win or two over another Big East titan.

And conversely, what about Syracuse?  If we win on Saturday, do you think you still have a fighting chance at a top seed?

Yeah I think if Syracuse wins on Saturday and then does what they need to do from here on out, they're a 1-seed.  If Villanova wins, that puts them right back in the hunt and doesn't necessarily jeopardize Syracuse's chances. Assuming the Orange win-out and then go to the BET Finals, they should still be in good shape. 

But a loss by Nova puts them squarely in 2-Seedville.  At that point, it's probably going to come down to the BET.  Don't know if Nova will have to win it, but they'll probably at least have to make it to the finals. 

Then again, there's still so much basketball to be played and both teams still have a lot of tough games ahead.  We've got a rematch with Louisville looming, you've got the West Virginia game coming up. With the Big East the way it is, you never know.

In theory, we're looking at Kansas, Kentucky, Duke/Purdue and Syracuse/Villanova but you never know what's going to happen so I think the Orange and Cats still both have a good shot.

5) What has been the biggest surprise for Syracuse this year?

Besides being ranked in the top five most of the season when you were picked to finish sixth in the Big East?  There's been so many nice surprises to choose from.  Wes Johnson's ascension to possible POY, Andy Rautin's leadership, Scoop Jardine's growth...I think I'm going to go with Kris Joseph's sophomore leap.

I'm sure it works this way with most teams but with Syracuse, there's always one guy who makes the leap from freshman to sophomore year.  This time it's our sixth man Kris Joseph.  Joseph has been sensational off the bench, providing a scoring spark when needed, grabs plenty of boards and has given the Orange a great change of pace when someone needs a rest. Since Jim Boeheim always keeps his bench short and this year is no exception, having a starter-quality guy coming off the bench like that is so under-appreciated.

With Rautins, Arinze Onuaku and (almost certainly) Wes Johnson leaving after this season, it will be Kris Joseph's team next year.  And that's fine by SU fans.

6) What is the biggest difference between last year's Syracuse team and this year's?

There's a team mentality there this year that just hasn't been there in year's past.  Even last year.  I love Jonny Flynn and there isn't a Syracuse fan out there who wouldn't want Flynn on this team right now ( think about how much better they could have been?)  but Jonny was also a mini-superstar and that took away from the team mentality. 

Now?  We've got a superstar (Wes) but he plays like a role-player (sometimes to his detriment).  He's just as likely to figure out how to set someone else up as he is to find his own shot.  He doesn't play like he's concerned for the stat sheet.  Like the other guys, he's part of a well-oiled machine.  That shows on offense and it certainly shows on defense, which the Orange are playing like a different unit this season than anything we've seen in a while. 

Everyone liked to harp on the zone itself as the key.  But a badly-played zone is no more effective than anything else.  It's the guys playing the defense that make it work and these guys make it work.

Thanks to Sean for his answers.  Take a look at Troy Nunes, it's well worth it...

Go Wildcats!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Senior Night: Reynolds, Redding End Pavilion Run With 74-49 Victory over South Florida

This is the placeholder article - full story coming... please check back for updates...

To the Wildcat faithful-

Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding wrapped up the tenure of one of the most successful classes in Villanova's illustrious history, with a 74-49 victory over South Florida, at the Pavilion, on Senior Night...

Reynolds led all scorers with 21 points, on 7-14 shooting, including 5-5 from the line.  Redding finished with only two points on 1-4 shooting, but provided his usual fine performance on defense, adding four rebounds, two assists, and two steals.

As a team, the #7 Wildcats were able to force no fewer than 23 South Florida turnovers, and the high miscue rate, was the chief reason for the Wildcats' victory - their 37th consecutive at the Pavilion.  Villanova snapped its two-game losing streak - the first time the team had lost back-to-back games, since the 2008 season.  The Wildcats improved to 12-3 Big East, 22-4 overall; USF fell to 6-9 Big East, 16-11 overall.

The Wildcats scored the first eight points of the contest, and although the Bulls remained competitive for a while, there was a fairly good sense throughout that Villanova would eventually put some distance between themselves and the visitors.  The 25-point final margin gives an exaggerated sense of the victory, though, as USF, although badly overmatched, put up a respectable battle.  It marked the fourth time the schools have met since USF joined the Big East, and Villanova's fourth victory.

The Bulls, nonetheless, have a fighting chance at the school's first NIT bid since 2002, and already have six league victories, including a road victory over Georgetown.  So it wasn't a cake walk for Villanova, which led 36-25 at halftime.

Although the spotlight was on the departing seniors - as it should have been - redshirt junior Antonio Pena provided some punch with 14 points and seven rebounds in only 27 minutes.  He also brought down an impressive pair of dunks, thrilling the crowd.

Near the end, the students began chanting for senior walk-on Russell Wooten, with about five minutes to play in regulation and the Wildcats enjoying a sizable lead.  Jay Wright sent Wooten to the scorer's table with about 2:15 to play, but unfortunately for Wooten, there was then no whistle for a while.  Wright finally called a time-out with 1:28 to play, indicating to the official to "run it through" (i.e., no timeout, just a whistle, have play resume, just to substitute).  So Wooten came in to a big ovation, although he wasn't able to take a shot.  Wright also gave Reynolds and Redding separate exits, each receiving a big hand from the Pavilion crowd

Next Up for the Wildcats

The showdown with current Big East leader, #4 Syracuse, is scheduled for 9 PM on Saturday.  Please check back, as I've set up a question exchange with the outstanding Syracuse SB Nation blog, Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, in which insights into the Orange will be provided...  A huge crowd is expected to fill the Carrier Dome for the battle...

Go Wildcats!


Sunday, February 21, 2010

#19 Pitt Avenges Elite Eight Loss To #3 Wildcats, 70-65, at Petersen Events Center

To the Wildcat faithful-

On Sunday, the #19 Pittsburgh Panthers avenged their heartbreaking upset defeat, at the claws of the Wildcats in last season's Elite Eight.  They were trying to erase the legacy of Scottie Reynolds, and how he had so memorably vanquished them, with his legendary layup at the buzzer in Boston, that sent Villanova to its first Final Four, in 24 years - and which Pitt has never reached has not reached, since 1941... (thanks to the anonymous commenter, below, who called my attention to that error...)

And so today, the Panthers themselves pulled a major upset.  The visiting, #3 Wildcats were themselves vanquished, 70-65, in front of a delirious, record-setting crowd at the Petersen Events Center.  For a valuable viewpoint from a Pitt perspective, check out this piece from Chas, the publisher of the distinguished Pitt blog Pitt Blather...)

The numbers show that the Wildcats played reasonably well enough to win, particularly during a late rally which drove up their scoring totals and scoring percentages.  But having watched the game and taken an overall impression of it - Villanova simply did not look that impressive today, except when it came to field goal percentage defense, holding the Panthers to a miserable 35.1% from the floor.

So why did the Wildcats seem so out of sorts?  Pitt controlled the tempo, holding down Villanova's possessions, making it difficult for the Wildcats to get into the transition game they prefer, and score easy baskets.  The Wildcats managed just 23 points in the first half, and appeared to be hard-pressed to reach 60 for the game, prior to the late flurry of threes.  (The Wildcats hit five of their nine three-point attempts, in the second half.)  And even with those late buckets, the high-octane Wildcat attack, averaging 83 points/game heading in, still mustered just 65.

Villanova also did not get to the foul line often, an increasing theme in these defeats.  The Wildcats took only 16 free throws (some of them provided in the final minute, when Pitt, as the team with the lead, should not have been fouling), against 34 for Pitt.  The Panthers capitalized on the free points, too - they hit 26 of them, an outstanding 76.5%.

Pittsburgh improved to 10-4 Big East, 21-6 overall, and will obviously move up from its current #19 spot in tomorrow's AP poll.  The #3 Wildcats lost their second straight contest, for the first time since 2008, falling to 11-3 Big East, 22-4 overall.  They will obviously be occupying a place lower than third, come tomorrow's poll.

One likely casualty of this loss, is the dream of attaining a #1 ranking in the weekly AP poll - something which no Villanova team has ever done.  With four losses now, and just three weeks left in the regular season, Villanova would need to sweep its four remaining games, and hope that Kansas, Kentucky, Purdue, Duke, and Kansas State slip up (although the Wildcats at least have their own chance at beating Syracuse).

Grabbing one of the four top seeds in the NCAA tournament, which seemed eminently attainable a week ago, is now seriously endangered, with difficult games @ Syracuse and hosting West Virginia still remaining.

Wright, who recorded his 200th win at the helm of the Main Line with the triumph over Providence back on February 13, is now 0-4 against Pittsburgh on the road, with his third loss at the Petersen Center (his first was at Fitzgerald Field House).  It was Pitt's first victory over Villanova since 2008, having lost the last two contests - the lone regular-season meeting last season, and the Elite Eight game.

All-time, Villanova now leads Pitt, 32-28, but the Panthers lead 22-20, in regular season Big East games.  The Villanova lead stems from remarkable success in the Big East tournament against Pitt, as Villanova is 6-2 there.

I must say, that given that this was our first CBS game, since last year's Final Four loss to North Carolina, that I really enjoyed the classic "Road to the Final Four" music, as well as the fine commentary from the "A" broadcast team of Verne Lundquist and Clark Kellogg.  With the snow finally melting in winter-weary metro Philadelphia, the music, the voice of Greg Gumbel, and the top-notch CBS edits, graphics, and fan reactions - one can (at long last) see spring on the horizon.

Probably the most enjoyable moment of today's broadcast, came when CBS showed one of the most exciting endings in Villanova's postseason history:

Namely, the Howard Brown three-pointer - at the buzzer in double overtime - to oust Pitt in the 1998 Big East tournament (teammates Brian Lynch, Rafal Bigus, and John Celestand were also visible in the clip, as well as the old jerseys, with the burgundy trim in the Block "V"s on the side of the shorts).

And of course, nobody minded seeing Reynolds drive coast to coast, and the ensuing shot of the Villanova bench spilling onto the court in celebration, in the play that Dante Cunningham noted "never works in practice".  (However, I hadn't seen the Howard Brown shot in many years, so props to CBS for finding it.)

Looking at the Box Score

The most glaring number in the box score were the offensive rebounding totals.  Although Pitt won overall rebounding by just a 40-34 margin, the Panthers corralled 21 on the offensive end, compared to just a dozen for Villanova.  In a game decided by five points, the multiple 2nd-chance points for Pitt made the difference.  It didn't help, that some came when Pitt was trying to thwart a Villanova rally, and kept missing free throws - but also kept getting the rebounds, and a fresh 35-second shot clock.

The problem wasn't Reynolds.  Held to just three points prior to intermission, he reverted to his normal pattern and dropped in 17 in the second half, many during the late charge.  His 20 points came on 6-11 shooting, 6-7 from the line, and making two of his three shots from beyond the arc - and in just 26 minutes. While he also dealt three assists, he did commit half a dozen turnovers.

Corey Fisher was whistled for two quick fouls, just over a minute into the first half, and spent a great deal of the game on the bench in foul trouble.  However, Fisher did atone for the mistakes by scoring a dozen points on 5-9 shooting.   But Reynolds and Fisher were the only two Wildcats to reach double digits.

Corey Stokes hit some shots during the late charge, enough to make the Bayonne Bomber Villanova's third-leading scorer, with nine points, on 4-9 shooting overall - but just 1-6 from three-point range.  His shooting struggles continue.

With Fisher in foul trouble, Wright reversed his recent trend, giving freshman point guard Maalik Wayns some extra minutes.  Wayns was serviceable, logging 15 minutes, scoring four points, collecting one rebound and one assist, and no turnovers.

Antonio Pena managed to keep himself on the court for most of the game, playing 34 minutes, tied with Stokes for the team high, despite four fouls.  He just missed a double-double with eight points and nine rebounds.

Taylor King came off the bench to play 18 minutes, finishing with five points and half a dozen rebounds, as well as making two key triple to propel the late rally, before fouling out.

Reggie Redding played his role, playing 30 minutes before fouling out, winding up with six points, four rebounds, two assists, and two turnovers.

One interesting decision by Wright was to give Mouphtaou Yarou just a single minute at the end of the first half, while giving Maurice Sutton three minutes.  Isaiah Armwood provided his usual defense in 11 minutes, getting four rebounds, but not scoring.

For Pitt, which entered the game with four Panthers averaging double figures, there was a balanced attack.  Ashton Gibbs, their best player, had a game-high 21 points on 5-10 shooting overall and 9-12 from the line, although the outstanding free throw shooter missed three of four in the final minutes, continuing to provide Villanova oxygen.  Gilbert Brown came off the bench, to score 16 points on 5-9 shooting, in just 24 minutes.  Jermaine Dixon had a dreadful game shooting, going just 3-15 from the floor, scoring nine points and grabbing half a dozen rebounds in 37 minutes.  Pitt Blather had noted Gary McGhee's progress in the middle; he finished with seven points and 10 rebounds, with an incredible eight of those coming on the offensive glass.

The Game Action 

Villanova's sole lead - at any point - today, was at 9-8, after a triple from Fisher.  Pitt reclaimed the lead on a jumper from Dante Taylor to make it 10-9; the Wildcats would never even tie the game, after that, despite remaining within striking distance, throughout the contest.   

Pitt's first-half lead peaked, twice, at 10 points; after that, the Wildcats got it down to four, twice, in the final 1:39 of the half.  The Wildcats did not have a good possession when holding for the last shot, trailing 29-23; they didn't start the offense until there were only eight seconds remaining (i.e., too late to get a rebound), and Pena did corral the rebound off a Wayns miss, but time expired before Pena could capitalize on it.

Villanova reduced the lead to two, 34-32, after play resumed.  Pitt expanded the lead to 42-34 on a triple by Brown with 12:09 to go, just before the under-12 TV timeout.  Reynolds counterattacked with triples on consecutive possessions; Lundquist noted that he had been held to three points in the first 28 minutes, but had six in the last 56 seconds, and Villanova was back within two, 42-40.

Pitt responded with a 6-0 run, extending the lead to 48-40; King fired back with a three, but Gibbs answered with a three, as the lead expanded back to 51-43, with 6:35 to play.  Villanova counterattacked with a 6-0 run of its own, and Pena laid it in to cut it back to two, 51-49, with 5:00 remaining, and causing Jamie Dixon to call a timeout.

The Panthers were able to maintain a small lead, and the Wildcats appeared to be finally defeated when Brown dunked, electrifying the crowd and giving Pitt a six-point lead, 60-54, with 1:29 left.  Then Pitt decided to keep the Wildcats in the game with fouls and poor free throw shooting.

Redding inexplicably decided to commit his fifth foul against Gibbs, Pitt's 90% free throw shooter, trailing just 62-58 with 56 seconds left.  While Gibbs missed both of them, however; Reynolds lost the ball to Gibbs in transition, sending Gibbs back to the line, where he missed one of the two (i.e., Pitt's 90% shooter missed three of four in the final minute, far more than Villanova fans could have imagined).  So Villanova now trailed just 63-58; Pena was fouled underneath at the other end with 31 seconds left, and after Pena drained both, the edge was just 63-60.

Brown made just one out of two, so Villanova trailed by just four, and got it to Reynolds, who missed a driving layup - and King fouled out, sending Travon Woodall to the line, who made a pair.  With a 66-60 lead with 12 seconds to play, Reynolds was fouled using his typical get-the-opponent-in-the-air pump fake, and hit all three shots to cut it to 66-63 with seven seconds left.  But Woodall made another pair, putting it out of reach.

Next Up for the Wildcats

The Wildcats get a brief respite, hosting South Florida on Wednesday, at the Pavilion.  But the Bulls have already upset Top 10 Georgetown, so they can't look past anybody - not after a pair of upset losses in the last week...

And if you haven't yet, take a look at the analysis of the Pitt victory, from Pitt Blather...

Go Wildcats!


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Q and A Exchange With Pitt Blather - Preview for Pitt / Villanova

To the Wildcat faithful-

I'd like to thank the distinguished Pittsburgh Panther blogger, Pitt Blather, for sharing his expertise on the perennial powerhouse from the other part of the Commonwealth...

He asked a set of questions on the Wildcats, both of myself and the fine Villanova blog, I Bleed Blue and White, and he has both cyber-interviews juxtaposed on Pitt Blather - it's well worth reading....

Without further ado:

Viewpoint: 1) Not to bring up an unpleasant subject- but obviously, we have to talk about what happened, with what we call "The Shot", in the Elite Eight last March, so let's get that out of the way, first...

Certainly, the Panthers seem to have shrugged off the loss well, given that you're nationally ranked, at #9 at one point, and a lock to return to the NCAA tournament - for the ninth consecutive season, after having missed the tournament during the previous eight seasons, from 1994 through 2002.

But what long-term impact - if any - did the game (and its dramatic ending) have on Dixon, the staff, the players, and/or the fans?

Pitt Blather: Well there was some heavy drinking involved for a while.

Honestly, as devastating as the loss was, it really had no major impact on the program. Dixon rejected a couple Pac-10 overtures. No assistants left. DeJuan Blair would have turned pro regardless.

There was a a sense of, "what can you do?" 'Nova shot some ungodly percentage at the free throw line. Scottie Reynolds finished. Pitt's defense played matador.

Most Pitt fans remain optimistic. Last year saw Pitt reach #1 in polls for the first time. Achieved a #1 seed in the NCAA Tourney. They broke through the Sweet 16 to the Elite 8 -- making it the first time since the 70s and the first time Pitt won more than 2 games in the NCAA Tournament. There's a sense that the Final Four and possibly more are still to come.

Viewpoint: 2) What's the state of the fan base, in terms of dealing with Villanova specifically?  We had defeated you twice last season, which was quite a difficult accomplishment, given that you finished the season 31-5 and with a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.  We've also won three of the last four meetings, head-to-head.

Why were we able to defeat you, although we clearly had a team last season that was not as talented as yours?  Are there some sort of unique matchup problems, or certain X's and O's strategies, that are making the difference?

Pitt Blather: Should I point out that two of the wins were in Philly, and that the strangeness of Big East scheduling had 'Nova coming to Pittsburgh only once in the past five years? No? How about Jim Burr officiating?

There's a fair amount of animosity towards Villanova. History in the Big East and such. Another school in the state. Obviously there have been past and present recruiting battles over kids in Philly and NY/NJ. Throw in a decent number of kids from Philly who come to Pitt

As for why the Wildcats have been a problem for Pitt. Guard-heavy/oriented teams have been a thorn in Pitt's side for a number of years. 'Nova, Marquette even Seton Hall have disrupted Pitt. Pitt runs a half-court motion offense. Teams that have harassing, attacking guards on defense disrupt that and make it hard for Pitt to get the plays set. That also disrupts Pitt's ability to control the tempo and pace of the game.

Viewpoint: 3) UConn made us look really bad on Monday - and one major reason was our lack of depth in the frontcourt.  Our only reliable inside option is Antonio Pena, and if he gets into foul trouble, we're really forced to patch it up with Mouphtaou Yarou, a freshman, and Maurice Sutton, a redshirt freshman.  Is this something that Pitt might be able to exploit, in terms of getting Pena specifically (and Villanova in general) into foul trouble?

Pitt Blather: I hope so. Pitt has decent size at the center in Gary McGhee, but plays a smaller at the forwards spots. Pitt has made it a point to work harder to get the ball to McGhee. I expect more of that.

Viewpoint: 4) Overall, Jay Wright's strategy this season has been to use his enormous rotation (we go 11 deep), to wear down opponents.  We trap a lot and play a very aggressive defense, since if we get in foul trouble and/or get fatigued, particularly among the guards, we have replacements.  What might Dixon do to counteract that strategy? 

Pitt Blather: I don't expect anything too different. Pitt will try to slow the tempo. Limit turnovers and keep 'Nova from running if at all possible. The best way to stop the trapping is to limit scoring. It's a lot harder to trap when it comes off a rebound rather than having a chance to set up on a score. 

Viewpoint 5)  What's been the biggest surprise for Pitt this season?

Pitt Blather: Gary McGhee, the center. He has made huge strides from being a walking foul to very solid inside. Even as the season has progressed he has continued to improve and play with so much more confidence. Especially in the last couple weeks, he has gotten more vocal in demanding the ball and doing something with it.

Viewpoint: 6)  What's been the biggest difference between this year's team, and last year's?

Pitt Blather: It's a smaller team. The guards play a much bigger role. 

Viewpoint: 7)  Finally, I have to ask about the rumors, about the possibility of Pitt eventually joining the Big Ten, as its 12th member - and renewing the once-significant rivalry with Penn State in football.  I understand, from what little I know about it, that it's been chalked up as groundless, from Pitt official circles...  but do you think there's any truth to it, at all?  Or any meaningful chance of it happening?

Obviously, if you were to leave, it would set off the same sort of chain reaction throughout the nation, than the upheavals of the 2003 departures of Miami, Virginia Tech, and (most notoriously, of course) Boston College, for the ACC.  The Big East would certainly want to replace the Panthers with another big-time football (and hopefully, basketball) program.... which would then set off more ripple effects throughout many conferences.

Also, I found the rumor, that much more surprising, because of the admirable role that Pitt played, in brokering the 2003 agreement to keep the Big East together for at least five years.... 

Right now, everything is pure rumor. The Big 11 has done nothing yet. The money and stability of the Big 10 is such that there is no way Pitt or any other Big East school could say no. I honestly don't know. I think the Big 11 is actually looking harder at teams from the Big 12 right now. At the very least the Big 12 schools seem to be much more overtly interested.

You have to understand how bad the present set-up in the Big East is for the football schools. Short by at least one team. No real sense of stability. A bad TV deal that puts the schools at even more of a competitive disadvantage compared to other programs. I am honestly surprised that the Big East has stayed united this long.

Thanks to Pitt Blather for his time, and in addition to his interview with IBBW and myself, take a look at this post, which is a comprehensive Villanova link roundup...

Go Wildcats!


Friday, February 19, 2010

Villanova / Pittsburgh Rivalry History: "The Shot" and Everything Before

To the Wildcat faithful-

In arguably the most dramatic ending in the modern history of Villanova basketball, Scottie Reynolds entered immortality with "The Shot" on March 28, 2009.  He did so with a driving layup to oust the top-seeded Panthers, and take the Wildcats to their first Final Four appearance in 24 years.

But the Villanova / Pittsburgh Rivalry History goes back much further... Here's an updated look...

The Wildcats lead the all-time series, 32-27. As members of the Big East, Pitt leads in regular-season meetings, 21-20. But Villanova has won six of the eight Big East tournament games, so that puts it 27-22, Villlanova, in games as Big East members...

The Wildcats have won three of the last four meetings, including the final college basketball game at the old Spectrum, when the Wildcats upset the then-#3 Panthers, 67-57, on Wednesday, January 28, 2009... 

However, the first meeting between the schools was nearly a half-century ago, long before the creation of the Big East...

February 11, 1960 - The Wildcats crushed the visiting Panthers, 76-49, at the Fieldhouse (now Jake Nevin).

January 25, 1961 - The following season, in the return visit to Pitt, the Panthers won a narrow 57-55 victory. The series then lay dormant for 16 years, which is surprising, given the geographical proximity.

The series resumed when both teams were in the Eastern Eight. The schools faced other seven times while they were in that conference, with Villanova capturing four of the seven meetings. Pitt was off the schedule for three seasons, from 1980-1982; in the interlude, the Big East formed, and Villanova joined it for the second season of play, in 1982-83.

January 12, 1983 - The teams meet for the first time as Big East members, and Rollie Massimino's Wildcats win easily, 66-48, @ Pitt.

March 8, 1984 - In their first clash in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, Villanova triumphs, 75-65.

January 29, 1985 - The Panthers make their first visit to the Palestra to specifically face Villanova (as opposed to Penn, or other Big Five members). The Wildcats win, 70-63...

March 2, 1985 - In one of the most famous losses - in hindsight - of Villanova history, the Wildcats fall in the regular-season finale @ Pittsburgh, 85-62. Why it was so memorable:

1985 marked the first year of the 64-team field in the NCAA tournament. Since it would be the first tournament with such a large field, nobody was entirely sure exactly what it would take to get into the field. (25 years later, as many schools and writers can attest to, it's still very murky.) Villanova was ending the regular season with a 23-point loss, and it was speculated that the dreadful game @ Pittsburgh down the stretch might give the Selection Committee a reason to omit the Wildcats from the expanded field...

March 7, 1985 - Five days later, in a rematch in the Big East tournament, Villanova wins, 69-61...

In retrospect, the Wildcats were given a #8 seed, meaning that they were never endangered by the regular-season loss; it's possible that the subsequent win over Pitt might have helped offset it, but nobody was certain of that at the time...

January 16, 1986 - In their final visit to the Palestra, the Panthers fall 74-70.

February 4, 1987 - In their first visit to the brand-new Pavilion, Pitt escapes with a 58-57 victory.

March 12, 1988 - En route to the Elite Eight, the Wildcats avenge being swept in the regular season by Pitt, winning 72-69 in the Big East tournament.

February 19, 1994 - At Fitzgerald Field House, Villanova triumphs in double overtime, 93-88...

March 4, 1998 - In the opening round of the Big East tournament, the highlight of the rebuilding season - Villanova's only non-postseason team, since 1993 - comes when Howard Brown hits a three-pointer in transition, at the buzzer of double overtime, to boost the Wildcats into the quarterfinals, 96-93.

January 19, 1999 - In the "Jewel Heist Game", Pitt must play with a depleted squad after Panther players are alleged to have been involved with the theft of jewelry from the Radnor Hotel, where the team was staying for their visit to the Pavilion. Villanova cruises to a 86-65 victory.

That was the state of the rivalry, as the 20th century ended. Pittsburgh rebuilt successfully under Ben Howland, now the coach at UCLA.
As it turned out, Pittsburgh was in the other Big East division for its renaissance, and Villanova was fortunate in often missing them on the schedule.

During the Jay Wright era, he has faced Pittsburgh 11 times, going 5-6:

Groundhog Day, 2002 - In Wright's first game against the Panthers, Pitt hands the Wildcats a 71-59 loss @ Fitzgerald Fieldhouse.

March 9, 2003 - This game was legendary for taking place after the phone-code access scandal decimated Villanova, at the end of a highly disappointing season, the year the freshman quartet of Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Curtis Sumpter, and Jason Fraser, arrived on the Main Line.

With a skeleton team of six players at the (one-third-full) Wachovia Center for the regular season finale, Wright's gallant Wildcats nearly stunned a top-10 Pitt squad, in what would have been among the greatest upsets in Big East history had it taken place. Wright employed the stallball tactics learned from his mentor, Massimino, but Pitt ultimately prevailed, 56-54.

March 6, 2004 - Traveling to Pitt, the Wildcats suffer a 59-45 loss, as the third (and to date, the most recent) of Wright's teams fated for the NIT.

February 20, 2005 - At the Pavilion, Wright finally beats the Panthers, 80-72.

March 10, 2005 - In the rematch in the Big East tournament, Villanova wins again, 67-58.

March 10, 2006 - One year later, to the day, Pitt tops Villanova, 68-54, in the Big East tournament semifinals. The teams did not meet in the regular season. That game was the occasion when Ray suffered a grievous eye injury early in the second half.

January 29, 2007 - At the Wachovia Center, Pittsburgh triumphs, 65-59...

January 6, 2008 - When the Panthers return to the Pavilion for the first time since 2005, the Wildcats hang on for a one-point victory, 64-63.

January 30, 2008 - 24 days later, the teams meet twice in the regular season, for the first time in a decade (the 1997-98 season).  At the Petersen Center, Pitt splits the series, winning 69-57.

January 28, 2009 - The Wildcats, in a profound act of nostalgia, play their final game at the "old" Wachovia Spectrum, in its final winter of events, prior to its date with the wrecking ball.  The old magic of Georgetown and Syracuse Games Past appears, as Villanova upsets the Panthers, 67-57.  

It would have been difficult to imagine, at the time, that the upset not only wouldn't be the most memorable game of the season - it wouldn't even be the most memorable victory over Pitt!

Check back for some more content on Sunday's battle with the Panthers...

Go Wildcats! 


Monday, February 15, 2010

Huskies, Walker Walk Over #3 Wildcats, 84-75, In Stunning Upset at the Wachovia Center

To the Wildcat faithful-

Well, the silver lining, is that this is what makes college basketball fun - namely, the unexpected.

The hated Huskies of Connecticut, left for dead after being crushed - at home - by Cincinnati on Saturday, stunned the #3 Wildcats, 84-75, at the Wachovia Center.  Kemba Walker scored a career-high 29 points for UConn.

For a valuable UConn perspective on the upset, take a look at this story from Andrew Porter at The UConn Blog.... 
Wow. After a year of heartbreaking and headscratching losses, UConn finally won when it needed to. The Huskies knocked off #3 Villanova, grabbing UConn's first road win of the year and (thanks to Texas' slide) the best win on the team's resume.

I do not have the slightest idea what to think of this team at this point, not that I did before either. I (mercifully) missed the Cincy game, so I came into this relatively hopeful from the way the team looked against 'Cuse, but even I was surprised at just how well the Huskies played tonight.
For Villanova, Scottie Reynolds scored 18 points on 8-14 shooting, but did not have enough support from teammates, as Villanova's high-octane offense managed to shoot just 40% from the floor.  The Wildcats also struggled to get to the foul line, taking just 20 free throws (although they made 16 of them).

Villanova fell to 11-2 Big East, 22-3 overall.  The Huskies now find themselves back on the NCAA bubble, with another big win over a top 5 team, despite their 5-8 Big East, 15-11 overall record.   They also own a win over then-top-ranked Texas.

What is particularly galling, is that the Wildcats had been exalted to the #3 spot in the AP poll earlier today, thanks to Louisville's upset win over then-#3 Syracuse on Sunday.  We won't be #3 any longer, even with a win @ Pittsburgh, on Sunday.

So what happened?  How did the Huskies manage to resuscitate themselves so quickly? 

1) Rebounding.

Battling against a bigger team, Jay Wright had to use Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton, more than he would have liked - especially given Antonio Pena's foul trouble.  It didn't matter.  The Huskies wiped out the Wildcats on the glass tonight, winning the rebounding battle, 40-29.

2) Free throw shooting.

As mentioned above, the foul line is a major source of points for the Wildcats, who lead the Big East in free throw accuracy.  UConn got to the line far more often than Villanova tonight, and made it count.  The Huskies went 35-44 (79.5%) from the line, more than double the Wildcats' totals, in both overall attempts and conversions.

In a corollary to free throw shooting- 

3) Foul trouble.

Pena, Sutton, and Corey Stokes all fouled out.  Pena is Villanova's only legitimate low-post scoring threat, and he was effective when he was on the floor - he finished with 10 points and three rebounds, despite playing just 18 minutes.  Ironically, pressed into additional duty, Mouph had one of the finest games of his young career: in just 13 minutes, he scored six points on 3-4 shooting and grabbed five rebounds.

4) Perimeter shooting.

Taylor King took half a dozen three-point shots, and made noneNone.  He played 15 minutes and grabbed half a dozen rebounds, but the six missed triples really hurt.

Corey Fisher shot well from beyond the arc, making two of his three attempts, but he was the only one to do so.  (Overall, Fisher finished with 14 points on 5-12 shooting, along with four assists and three turnovers.)

Stokes's foul trouble meant that he was effectively neutralized.  The Bayonne Bomber logged only 14 minutes, scoring seven points.  That's a good total, in light of playing only 14 minutes, but the points came at the end when Villanova was reduced to a bombs-away strategy.  He was a nonfactor, during the rest of the contest.

As a team, Villanova shot just 7-24 (29.2%) from beyond the arc.

5) The Bench.

Villanova's many reinforcements did not deliver their usual offensive punch.  In a rarity, they were significantly outscored by an opponent's bench; the Huskies had 27 points off the bench, compared to just 17 for the Villanova reserves.  Yarou was the only bench player to shoot well.

The other Wildcats off the bench - King, Isaiah Armwood, Dominic Cheek, Maalik Wayns, and Sutton - combined to shoot just 3-16 from the floor, 1-9 from beyond the arc, and 4-7 from the line, for a grand total of 11 points.  (Nonetheless, it should be noted that one of the three field goals was a spectacular dunk by Armwood.)

6) The Crowd.

The Wachovia Center crowd reminded me of the lean NIT years, as despite the large crowd, they did not cheer lustily, even when the game was close, and deprived the Wildcats of the boisterous crowd support that they very much need, when out of the Pavilion.

The Game Action

The teams traded baskets during the first half, with neither team gaining much of a lead; there were eight lead changes and five ties in the first half alone. The largest Villanova lead was four, first at 6-2 in the early going, and near the end of the half, with 1:34 remaining, a four-point margin of 35-31.  For UConn, their largest lead was half a dozen points at the midway point, when the Huskies' Alex Oriakhi dunked at the 10:05 mark, to give them a 21-15 lead.

However, I was feeling optimistic at halftime.  Villanova had transformed a 21-15 deficit, into a 35-31 lead, and although the Huskies had regained the lead at the buzzer, 36-35, it seemed like a matter of time, before the usual second-half Villanova run would wipe out the opponent's upset dream.

Another reason for optimism, was that Reynolds had had a superb first half.  And, as all of our opponents know to their peril, that he's usually a second-half scorer.  He already had 14 points on 6-8 shooting at halftime, and seemed poised for a big second half as well.

Of course, there were troubling signs in the first half.  Pena had picked up two quick fouls, and played only five minutes.  Stokes also had a pair of fouls and had played even less, with two minutes.  Fisher's shots were not falling, as he was 2-6 from the floor.  And Villanova's bench, usually a strength, had been outscored by the Huskies, 11-8.

The Wildcats - in contrast to their usual pattern - simply fell apart after play resumed.  The Huskies had led by just a single point at halftime, 36-35.  However, from the start of the second half to the under-16 TV timeout, UConn began to take control of the game by building a 51-44 lead.

The teams continued to trade baskets, with Villanova staying with striking distance, but the Huskies kept adding to the lead, until we reached the crisis point - UConn went up 63-54 with 8:06 to play, after Pena committed his fourth foul, against Gavin Edwards, who made one of two free throws, to push the lead to nine points- the Huskies' largest, until that point.

I was a bit surprised that at around the nine-minute mark, the newly-returned Jim Calhoun had opted to start running out the clock, given the closeness of the game.  But it paid dividends.  The Huskies began holding the ball with long possessions - and more importantly, Villanova wasn't stopping them.

The knockout blow came after Reynolds had hit a jumper to get Villanova back to within nine, 69-60, with 4:44 to play.  Orianhi dunked after an assist from Edwards, pushing the lead back to 71-60 with 4:21 left.  Wright called a timeout, but that effectively deflated morale, both among the Wildcats and the fans.

On UConn's next possession, Pena fouled out, and Jerome Dyson sank both free throws with 3:44 to play to given the Huskies yet another 11-point advantage, 73-62.  With no inside presence left, that was pretty much it for Villanova.

I must give the Wildcats great kudos, though, because they made a gallant rally, despite being down 11 with less than four minutes to play.  UConn was in control, with a nine-point lead (78-69) with 1:26 to go, after Sutton fouled out.

The Wildcats responded with a furious rally, pulling to within five, 80-75, with 16 seconds to play, after a triple from Fisher.  Wright used his final timeout to set up the press, and had they been able to force a turnover, Villanova was still alive.  But it wasn't to be.  Walker and Jamal Coombs-McDaniel each hit a pair of free throws, the final four points of the contest.

Final - Connecticut 84, Villanova 75.

One surprising aspect of the upset, was the turnover margin.  The Wildcats committed only nine turnovers, but forced 17 UConn turnovers, including 13 steals, which often lead to easy baskets in transition.

For UConn, Walker's performance was simply astounding: 29 points on 6-10 shooting, including 14-16 from the line, and nine rebounds.  Dyson had a dreadful shooting night, hitting just 3 of his 14 attempts, but managed to finish with 15 points, due to reaching the line frequently, where he went 9-14.  He also had five rebounds and half a dozen assists, against three turnovers.  Oriakhi had 10 points on 3-5 shooting, off the bench.  Stanley Robinson had 10 points on 5-9 shooting, plus seven rebounds and a pair of blocks (although he also committed seven turnovers).

Series History Update  

Villanova now leads, all-time, 32-28, and 27-25 in Big East regular season games.  Among games played at the Wachovia Center (regardless of its name), the Huskies now lead Villanova, 5-4.  However, it was UConn's first victory at the Center, since February 28, 2004, an overtime thriller decided by one point, 79-78.  

Next Up for the Wildcats

The Wildcats - for better or worse - have six days to consider the wreckage of this disaster tonight.  It gets a lot tougher, with a trip to nationally ranked Pittsburgh on Sunday.  A full preview will be up, later in the week.

Go Wildcats!


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hold the Curry - #4 Wildcats Push Back Providence, 92-81, in the Friars' First Ever Visit to Wachovia Center

To the Wildcat faithful-

This game will go into the record books, as a quiet, double-digit victory for the #4 team in the nation, against a mediocre Providence team that will struggle to get an NIT bid.  Villanova triumphed, improving its record to 22-2 overall, 11-1 Big East, #3 RPI, while Providence fell to 12-13, 4-9 Big East, with a RPI ranking of #104.  With the schedule getting no easier for Providence, a .500 overall record -i.e., an absolute necessity for a NIT bid - looks less and less likely.

However, the 92-81 margin is highly deceptive.  Providence was very much in the game, for the first 30 minutes of play.  In fact, amid a slew of ties and lead changes, I was growing increasingly concerned that the ghosts of Providence losses past might reassert themselves.  Under that scenario, the Friars would pull off a stunning upset, and possibly cost the Wildcats a #1 seed, come Selection Sunday.

Fortunately for us, Providence senior Sharaud Curry inadvertently removed himself from the floor, with his team trailing just 64-60, with 8:07 to play.  Curry got tangled up attempting to cover Scottie Reynolds, and was whistled for his fourth personal foul, going out of bounds in the corner.

When Curry found out that the foul was on him, rather than Reynolds, he said something to the official and was immediately charged with a technical foul, which also constituted his fifth personal foul.  The play meant that Villanova received four free throws, three of which Reynolds made, and sent Curry - Providence's best player, point guard, team leader, and 19 points - to the bench for the remaining eight minutes.

In football, where scoring is far less frequent, it is far more common for a single play to be the defining one of the game.  An example would be an interception return such as that of New Orleans Saint Tracy Porter, off Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning in last Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV, which became the defining play of the game, by thwarting any hopes of a Colts victory late in the fourth quarter.

In contrast, it's far less common in basketball.  But Curry's fourth and fifth fouls were the defining plays.  Nor should the official be blamed; he committed the foul, and the technical, and he was the one who took himself off the floor.

The sequence absolutely devastated Providence.  The Friars had actually led, 49-46, with 15:12 to play, and forced ties of 51-51 and 53-53 midway through the second half.  Villanova had won the first 31:53, just 64-60.  After Curry fouled out, the Wildcats embarked on a 15-5 run, that effectively ended the contest; the dagger was a triple from Reynolds with 4:49 to play, giving the Wildcats their largest lead up to that point, 14 points, at 79-65.

During the remaining 4:49, the Villanova lead never dipped below 11 points; in fact, the Wildcats led by as much as 16 points on three different occasions, including with 53 seconds to play.  The score was Villanova 92, Providence 76, before the Friars scored the final five points to make it 92-81.

So why was Curry's departure so meaningful?

He's their best player, their point guard, and their leader.  Providence, although they were very much in the game for the first 32 minutes, was already struggling to run their half-court offense, even with Curry.  They were staying in the game due to points in transition and superb free throw shooting.  Once Curry was gone, the half-court offense ground to a complete halt.  It gave Villanova the opening it needed to pull away.

Providence deserves a lot of credit for their performance today.  They gave us quite a scare, and it reminds us all of what a dangerous team they can be.  The victory marked Villanova's eighth straight in the rivalry, but it wasn't that long ago that Providence was one of the teams that routinely gave Villanova fits.

Providence also was just ground down by Villanova's depth, and its own problems with foul trouble.  Only one Wildcat (Corey Fisher) played more than 28 minutes (and even he only played 33).  The fresh waves from the Villanova bench, compounded by the loss of their playmaker, finished off the Providence hopes for what would have been a national-headline-making upset on the road.

Looking at the Box Score

For Villanova, the star - as always - was Reynolds.  Playing just 28 minutes due to foul trouble, he finished with 22 points (17 of them in the second half - another familiar pattern) on 6-14 shooting, 3-6 from beyond the arc, and 7-8 from the line.

Also coming up big was Fisher, whose offensive outbursts are increasingly common.  Fisher had the best overall game of any Wildcat.  He matched the 22 points from Reynolds, but he did so on far better shooting (10-15 from the floor), plus half a dozen assists, and four rebounds.

Underneath, Antonio Pena continues to shine.  He posted yet another double-double, with 15 points on 5-9 shooting, plus a dozen rebounds, in only 28 minutes, with a pair of assists, a pair of steals, and a pair of blocked shots (and no turnovers).

Corey Stokes was the fourth Wildcat to reach double figures.  The Bayonne Bomber didn't have his sights lined up with particular accuracy today (he was only 3-11 from the floor), but it was good enough for 10 points and eight rebounds, in just 25 minutes.

For Providence, Vincent Council had a team-high 21 points, with Curry adding 19 points, and Jamine Peterson just missing yet another double-double, with 19 points and nine rebounds.

Next Up for the Wildcats

The hated Huskies of Connecticut will be invading the Wachovia Center on Big Monday on ESPN, just two days from now...

Go Wildcats!


Providence Preview - I Bleed Blue and White and Friar Blog

To the Wildcat faithful-

In addition to my Providence preview below, I'd like to highly recommend the Villanova/Providence preview/question exchange from two fine blogs - Chris at the Villanova blog  I Bleed Blue and White, and Dave Pean of the Providence Friar Blog....  these links are for two different posts, with each posting questions and answers.  Both are great previews of what we can expect to see today as the #4 Wildcats take on Providence, at the Wachovia Center...

I'll have a full recap coming, after the game...

Go Wildcats!


Friday, February 12, 2010

Preview - #4 Wildcats Take on Providence For 1st Time @ the Wachovia Center on Saturday

To the Wildcat faithful-

The #4 Wildcats (21-2 overall, 10-1 Big East, RPI #5) hope to make it eight in a row, over the reeling Providence Friars, on Saturday at the Wachovia Center.

Providence has been one of those Big East opponents which has always given Villanova particular trouble.  However, Villanova has dominated the series in recent years.  The Friars' last victory in the series came on February 11, 2004.  In what is arguably Villanova's worst performance in Jay Wright's nine-year tenure, the Friars - at the Pavilion, no less - annihilated the Wildcats, 100-74.  It represented the absolute nadir of Villanova fortunes, in the Wright era.  Not surprisingly, that season would culminate in Wright's third NIT, in his three years at the helm.

But in 2005, everything changed, and Villanova returned to the NCAA tournament, for the first time in six years.  Doing better against Providence was part of the puzzle.  Even in 2004, the Wildcats won a rematch against the NCAA-bound Friars, in the Big East tournament.  And Villanova hasn't lost to them since - the Wildcats have reeled off seven straight in the series.  And what's most remarkable about it, has been the Wildcats' success @ Providence - four consecutive victories.

However, Saturday's game will be at the Wachovia Center - where Providence has never ventured.  At no point in the long Villanova / Providence rivalry, has the game been played in the South Philadelphia complex.  All previous Villanova home games have been at Jake Nevin Field House, the Pavilion, or at the storied Palestra, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

The Viewpoint on the Providence Friars (4-8 Big East, 12-12 overall, #104 RPI)

Providence is really struggling, this season.  The nonconference schedule was fine - the Friars started the season 8-4.  And the Friars had a decent start in Big East play, winning three of its first five (although the opponents were St. John's, DePaul, and Rutgers, i.e., the three worst teams; they lost to Notre Dame and Louisville.)  Then, the roof caved in.

Marquette handed the Friars a 30-point defeat on January 17, and South Florida won a 109-105 overtime battle, six days later.  A 15-point home victory over fellow New England rival Connecticut was the highlight of the season, and PC still had a decent record at that point, on January 27: 4-4 Big East, 12-8 overall.  Granted, the first half of PC's Big East schedule was very favorable, and the sledding would become a lot rougher, but you never know.

Providence has now gone 16 days without a win, having lost their last four contests: @ Cincinnati, @ Syracuse, Marquette (by just three this time), and a respectable loss to #7 Georgetown on Tuesday.

It's safe to say that at this point, that at 4-8 in conference play, and an RPI of #104, for Providence to have any prayer at an at-large bid, the Friars need to defeat at least two, and possibly all, of its next three ranked opponents: Villanova, West Virginia, and Syracuse.

Providence has been off the national radar for a while, as that 2004 team - the one that so memorably handed Wright his most egregious defeat, before or since - was the last Friar squad to go to the NCAA tournament, under Tim Welsh.  Welsh was in Providence for a decade, taking over the reins in 1998-99.  During his first six seasons, Welsh guided the Friars to two NCAA tournaments and two NITs, from 1999-2004.

However, Providence's fortunes took a downturn, after 2004.  From 2005-08, Welsh had only one winning record, an NIT season in 2007.  In postseason play, in both tournaments, Welsh's teams went to two NCAAs and four NITs, yet finished with just one victory in six attempts (a victory in the NIT first round in 2003).  After the 2008 team finished 6-12 Big East, 15-16 overall, and missed postseason play completely, Welsh was fired, and replaced by the current coach, Keno Davis.

Last year, Davis had a highly respectable season, getting the Friars back to the NIT (although they did lose in the first round).  But more importantly, the Friars finished with a winning record in Big East play, at 10-8; their overall record was 19-14.  To finish over .500, in the nation's toughest conference, shows the vitality of the Providence program.

Last Year's Game - Dunkin' Donuts Center - Providence, RI - #17 Villanova 94, Providence 91

Villanova's fourth consecutive victory at the terrifying Dunk, did not come easily.  The 17th-ranked Wildcats appeared to be cruising, taking a 49-34 lead at intermission.  In fact, Villanova even extended the lead, with its largest lead coming at the 15:38 mark in the second half - a seemingly insurmountable 20-point advantages.

But Villanova was soon treated to the all-too-familiar sight, of the intimidating home-court advantage the Dunk provides the Friars.  During the final 15-plus minutes, Providence launched a furious counterattack, and the Wildcats were lucky to escape with a 94-91 victory.  What saved the Wildcats was the foul line - 25-33, a 75.8% conversion rate; in contrast, the Friars hit only 66.7% (20-30), and that made the difference.

Five Wildcats reached double figures.  Scottie Reynolds led the Wildcats with 31 points and half a dozen rebounds, but he committed five turnovers, shot only 7-18 from the floor; he made up for it with 4-11 from beyond the arc and 13-15 from the line.  Dwayne Anderson had one of the finest games of his career, a double-double, with 19 points and 10 rebounds.

The three big guns for Providence were Sharaud Curry, with 25 points; Weyinmi Efejuku, with 23 points, and Jeff Xavier, with 21 points.

Go Wildcats!

Monday, February 08, 2010

#4 Wildcats Top #5 West Virginia, 82-75 - Splitting Blizzard Road Trip After Saturday's Debacle in DC

To the Wildcat faithful-

You win some, you lose some.  Saturday's debacle at then-#7 Georgetown was put in Villanova's snow-drenched rear-view mirror last night - and thanks to poor visibility, was not even noticed tonight.

The Wildcats, humbled to merely being the #4 team nationally in the AP poll, came up big in response.  Villanova attained arguably its most impressive victory yet this season, in Morgantown on Monday night, 82-75.  It was the first time this season, even after over 4,000 games in Division I basketball nationally, that any two teams in the Top 5 had directly faced each other, head-to-head.

And hopefully, Villanova will remain in that Top 5, for a very long time.

Any win in Morgantown is impressive.  The last Villanova team to win there, had been the fourth and final NCAA team under Steve Lappas - the final Wildcats squad of the 20th century.  A team led by Howard Brown, John Celestand, and Malik Allen, won there, 73-62, on January 23, 1999 - over a decade and two U.S. Presidents ago...  Since then, four Villanova Wildcats squads had headed down there, and come up empty...

The Wildcats improved their record to 10-1 Big East, 21-2 overall, rebounding from their first loss in conference play.  The Mountaineers fell to 8-3 Big East, 19-4 overall.

For a Mountaineer perspective on last night's victory, I'd highly recommend this piece from The Smoking Musket, by Dr. Charley West... "The Win Streak Is Over - Villanova Beats WVU"

Looking at the Box Score

For Scottie Reynolds, who had historically not played well at West Virginia (like most visitors), it was a masterful performance in the second half.  Reynolds had a grand total of two points in the first 27 minutes of this game tonight - and then 19 in the final 13 minutes.  He finished with 21 points on 5-10 shooting, including a perfect 10-10 at the line, five assists, and three steals.  He passed assistant coach Doug West - with whom he had so memorably - and disastrously taken the Washington Metro on Saturday - on the Villanova all-time scoring list, and now ranks fourth.

Corey Fisher finished with 17 points, after a career-high 24 points against Georgetown on Saturday.  He did so in only 22 minutes, although the main reason for that was that he committed three remarkably poor fouls, taking himself off the floor, not only for part of the first half, but for almost all of the second.  Granted, he shot well from the floor (4-5) and the line (7-10), but he really hurt the team tonight with the fouls.  

The third one came in the first half, after Fisher got caught out of position on a rebound, and he clobbered Mountaineer Joe Mazzulla, on a breakaway in transition.  (It was the sort of play that could serve as the model for "This is the textbook example of the from-behind, no-legitimate-attempt-to-play-the-ball hard foul that we are - and with complete justification - cracking down on.")  This play not only took him off the floor, but gave West Virginia an additional possession that it shouldn't have had.

Antonio Pena, once more, came up big.  Near the end of the game, Pena properly received praise from ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, for the quality of his interior defense in particular, and his overall improvement in general.  He just missed a double-double, with 10 points on 5-7 shooting (with some impressive dunks!), and nine rebounds.  Pena had three easy dunks tonight, and they were because he positioned himself to seal off his defender and have an unimpeded path to the basket.  He ran a great pick-and-roll with Reynolds for his third dunk in the second half.

Reggie Redding continues to contribute in many ways.  He filled out his box score line tonight, scoring nine points on 4-8 shooting, and collecting seven rebounds and three assists.  But his most valuable contribution was in shutting down West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler in the second half.  

Last year, Butler scored a career-high 43 points, against the Wildcats in Morgantown.  This year, he scored 33 points in their most recent victory, @ St. John's.  In the first half tonight, Butler already had a dozen points, although on just 2-7 shooting.  But after intermission, Butler was held without a basket for the rest of the game, with just one point at the foul line.

Tonight, Butler - despite playing all 40 minutes - scored just 13 points, and he had a horrendous shooting night: he missed 10 of his 12 field goal attempts overall, and went just 2-9 from beyond the arc.  Seven of the 13 came at the line.  In the second half, Redding had clamped down defensively on Butler, and effectively took him out of the game.

Isaiah Armwood, an increasingly valuable member of the rotation, saw 18 minutes tonight, and his defense helped considerably.  He also chipped in on offense, scoring eight points on 4-6 shooting and grabbing four offensive rebounds.

Taylor King, even by his standards, was throwing himself all over the court and frequently coming up with a key rebound; he had a rare and remarkable statistic - eight rebounds, but with no points (0-6 from the floor).

Jay Wright did make some atypical personnel decisions, although they certainly worked out.  Maalik Wayns and Mouphtaou Yarou each saw 16 minutes in Saturday's disaster at Georgetown.  Mouph didn't get into the game at all, as Maurice Sutton handled the post duties off the bench.  Sutton's 11 minutes were the most he has played, since Yarou was sidelined with hepatitis earlier this season; the last time Sutton had seen more than nine minutes, was in the victory over St. Joseph's, back on December 9. 

As a team, Villanova outclassed West Virginia mightily in accuracy.  The Wildcats were 56.9% from the floor, the Mountaineers 41.0%.  From three-point range, Villanova hit five of its 11 attempts (45.5%), while West Virginia hit only seven of its 27 shots (25.9%).  

At the line, Villanova was at its best - 19-22, an 86.4% clip.  The Mountaineers were mediocre at the line, with only 56.2% (18-32).  The foul line performance is particularly telling, since Villanova had only two free throw attempts (both made) in the first half, while West Virginia was 11-16.  After play resumed, the Wildcats were 17-20; the Mountaineers were just 7-16.

The Mountaineers did benefit from a well diversified attack, as five players scored 11 points or more: Darryl Bryant (15 points), Butler and Devin Ebanks (13 points), Casey Mitchell (a dozen points, including three triples and a Coliseum-rocking dunk in the second half), and Kevin Jones (11 points).

The Game Action 

The Wildcats opened up an early 21-10 lead, and they were able to hold that lead for the rest of the game.  The West Virginia Coliseum, normally one of the most difficult venues in America for a visitor, was quiet for much of the night, and Villanova's early lead made that possible.  That is not to say that there weren't times, when the crowd was really in it.  But the real storyline was how often the sellout crowd was silent.  The Wildcats never lost their lead, although West Virginia did make several runs at it...

The first-half lead peaked at 13, at 32-19 with 6:14 to play, after a jumper by Fisher.  It never dipped below single digits, and the Wildcats took a 44-33 lead into intermission.  At this point, no fewer than nine Wildcats had scored; the only Wildcat who saw action and didn't score was King (who would be held scoreless in the second half, also).  Butler's dozen points were expected; what wasn't expected was the performance by the Turkish player Deniz "Istan-bull" Kilichi (I first learned about that nickname, thanks to the West Virginia blog, The Smoking Musket.).  Kilichi had seven points and two rebounds, as well as a knack for turning up in the right place to influence play.

West Virginia came out strong in the second half, trimming the lead to 45-40.  A Reynolds three-point play capped a Villanova counterattack, pushing to lead to 53-43 at the 12:23 mark.  Then came the Mountaineers' final push - they whittled the lead all the way down to just three points, with the big play coming with a turnover by Reynolds near mid-court.  Ebanks had a spectacular, uncontested dunk the other way, which elated the crowd behind their Mountaineers.  Villanova's lead, once solidly in the double-digits, was now just 62-59 with 8:13 to play.

But that would be the closest that West Virginia would get - they once more got it down to three, at 64-61, but never got any closer.  The Villanova lead peaked at nine down the stretch, after a layup from Redding with 2:23 to go.

The Mountaineers were still close enough in the final two minutes, to foul a great deal, and so the game was somewhat elongated and slow.  Many fans had already left, and so it was pretty quiet at the end.

I must give props to the ESPN broadcast team of Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery and Bilas, who had a lot of witty banter, as well as substantive analysis, and really made the game even more enjoyable to watch.  

(You may not have noticed - there was a lengthy discussion about traveling and walking in the first half, and Raf said something to the effect of "Villanova and all of these walks!  I feel vindicated now!"  This was a reference to the 2005 Sweet 16 one-point loss to eventual national champion North Carolina in Syracuse, when Allan Ray was whistled for a traveling call at crunch time, and Raf, doing the game for CBS, had agreed with the decision..)

Next Up for the Wildcats

The Providence Friars make their first-ever appearance at the Wachovia Center, on Saturday afternoon... 

Go Wildcats!