Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Villanova Wildcats: 2016 National Champions

Every year, I think Villanova will win the national championship, yet I still can’t believe this time they actually did it.

It was an amazing game, capped by an incredible buzzer-beating shot by Kris Jenkins, off the assist from Ryan Arch. I felt ecstatic when it went in. The win felt great, but it wasn’t quite how I imagined it would feel in years past.

I no longer obsessively blog about every game like I used to. But it’s more than that.

It’s been eight years since I graduated from Villanova University, meaning I’ve never actually shared a campus with any of the kids on this year’s team. I can only imagine how the current students feel right now, and the parties that must be happening in the Pavilion and all around campus. The closest personal connection for me to this team, other than the ever constant Jay Wright, is former player Mike Nardi, now an assistant coach. Seeing him on the sidelines with suit sleeves covering his tattoos really makes me feel old.

Your college team is unlike any other kind of fandom in sports. To cheer for the players who you go to class with, eat the same food with in the dining halls, and see out of uniform as they walk past you through the quad. The players are more than just images on a TV screen or names in a box score. They are students, just like you.

Freshman year, I shared a history class with Kyle Lowry, now a two-time NBA all-star. Like him, I’m still haunted by that questionable traveling call against Allan Ray in the 2005 Sweet Sixteen loss to eventual champions North Carolina.

Sophomore year, I took marine biology with Randy Foye, now a ten-year NBA veteran. I thought his #1-seeded 2006 team would go all the way, and I was crushed when they fell to the Joakim Noah and Al Horford led Florida Gators.

The year after I graduated, 2009, Scottie Reynolds led Nova to the Final Four. I still felt like a part of the team then, since I’d shared a campus with most of the players. And I felt as bad as them when they once again lost to the eventual champion Tar Heels, led by Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Danny Green.

That’s why it felt so sweet to beat UNC to win this title. But still, it didn’t feel as sweet as it would have felt back in 2006 when I was a sophomore living in Sheehan Hall, walking to every home game in the Pavilion, learning about mollusks and sea turtles in Mendel with a future NBA player.

This year’s team was the most fun to watch of any group of Wildcats so far. They were so good together that it was almost boring, with the way they destroyed teams like Buddy Hield’s Oklahoma squad by a record 44 points.

Ryan Arcidiacono had one of the best four-year careers of any Wildcat. A natural leader, selfless enough to pass up the game-winning shot. I loved watching him dive into the stands for every loose ball.

Daniel Ochefu was the best true center Nova had since its last National Champion, Ed Pinckney. He did the dirty work like setting screens and anchoring the defense in the post, and... mopping the floor?

Kris Jenkins has Steph Curry-like 3-point shooting skills. His postgame quote said it all: “I think every shot is going in, so that one was no different.”

Josh Hart is the type of long athletic wing previous Nova teams have lacked, and like his name suggests, he plays full of heart.

Phil Booth has been a solid sixth man who came out and played the game of his career in the f*ing national title game to score 20 points.

Darryl Reynolds and Mikal Bridges provided much-needed size from the bench all season long.

Freshman starter Jalen Brunson played with poise, wise beyond his years.

And then there’s the Bench Mob, who got to do more than just cheer in several games this year.

This team is so much more than its individual talent, though. They play so selflessly together, none of them caring about individual stats. In years past, I'd get frustrated watching certain Wildcat teams, knowing they could play better, but this 2016 team reached its full potential.

In the end, however, I only know these players as…well…basketball players. I never got to sit in a classroom with Arch, or eat in the Pit with Jenkins, or slap Ochefu’s hand as he ran down the stairs of the student section in the Pavilion. Then again, as a Villanovan, we’ve all shared those experiences at one time or another. So in a way, I do know these kids even though I've never met them.

The 2016 Wildcats are National Champions, and so am I.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Best Villanova Basketball Team of My Lifetime* (*I Was Born in 1986)

It's been a while. I haven't posted on Nova News in four years, but like Barry bonds, I never officially retired. I just kind of stopped. Wait, why did I just compare myself to Barry Bonds? My hiatus had nothing to do with drugs, performance enhancing or otherwise. I wasn't on PEDs while writing all those blog posts, unless you count caffeine. Though I may have been drunk when I wrote some posts. (I still believe in you, Scottie!) Anyway, I had to return to the blog to write about this years basketball team.

The 2014-2015 Villanova Wildcats are hands-down the best Nova basketball team I've seen since I started following the school my freshmen year in 2004-05. In that time, I saw a Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham led team go to the Final Four in 2009. I saw the #1-seeded 2005-06 team, which was even better than the '09 Final Four team, though they only made it to the elite eight. The '06 team unfortunately had the misfortune of running into the juggernaut Florida Gators team full of future NBA stars like Al Horford, Joakim Noah, and Corey Brewer. That '06 Nova team had plenty of NBA talent itself as well. Randy Foye was a lottery pick and has been a solid NBA veteran guard. Allan Ray went undrafted but spent some time with the Celtics. Freshman Dante Cunningham didn't play much on that team, but he's gone on to be a backup power forward in the league. Finally, there was my sophomore year classmate and 2015 NBA All-Star Game starter, Kyle Lowry.

I don't know if this years team has any future NBA stars. Darrun Hilliard is probably the best player on the team right now. He definitely has the skill and basketball IQ to play at the next level. The only thing that may hold him back is his lack of speed and athleticism.

JayVaughn Pinkston has been a favorite player of mine since he stepped on campus (and knocked a drunk frat boy out), and he'd be a sure-fire NBA power forward if he was only a few inches taller. But alas, he's stuck at 6'7.

Ryan Arcidiacono is a classic college guard, whose been playing so well this year that the announcers have actually learned how to pronounce his last name correctly. Sadly, I don't think Adam Silver will be mispronouncing his name on draft night.

Daniel Ochefu and Josh Hart may be the best pro prospects on the team. You can't teach Ochefu's height and athleticism, and he is only getting better and better. Josh Hart is young and still a little raw, but has the size and athleticism to be a two-way two-guard in the NBA, like Jimmy Butler or Wes Matthews.

Dylan Ennis probably won't join his little brother in the NBA. Kris Jenkins is a sharp-shooting stretch-four, but needs to improve the other areas of his game. As for Phil Booth, who knows. It's too early to tell how good he can be.

All of that is in the future, though, and doesn't really matter for Villanova's chances in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. You can argue whether this team has NBA talent or not, but regardless, they are loaded with NCAA talent.

This Big East isn't the same Big East as when I was in school, but it's still a strong conference, and Villanova cruised through the schedule like it was the America East. Nova was San Antonio Spurs-like in the way they made the game look so easy, to the point that it was almost boring. That is, boring if you find great team basketball played the right way, boring.

The thing that strikes me most about this team is their chemistry. I know it's a cliche that the announcers have repeated 1,745,386 times during the broadcasts, but these players really do pass up good open shots for better open shots. No one is selfish and out for their stats. They have no signature alpha-dog, but six players average over nine points a game, and any one of them is capable of leading the team with 20+ points on any given night (all six of them already have). Putting on my "Bill Simmons Body Language Doctor" glasses, everybody on the team looks like the genuinely like each other, both on and off the court, and they seem to be having a lot of fun together.

Like every Jay Wright team, the 2015 Wildcats have great guards, shoot the three, and play hard on defense, but unlike every Jay Wright team of the past, this years squad actually has a legitimate inside presence. JayVaughn Pinkston may be an undersized power forward, but he is strong and is one of the few players these days with a true offensive post game. But the big difference maker for this team is Daniel Ochefu. He's not some undersized three masquerading as a power forward. He's a legit 6'11 center. He's the best Jay Wright big man since... ever, really. And the the's best Villanova big man since Ed Pinckney. D-Chef plays both ways, his post game is constantly improving, he's been a beast on the boards (pulled down 24 in one game this season), and he's a legit shot blocker and defensive presence in the paint. Ochefu is the piece that all those great "Guard U" teams were missing. Now we have our stud big man, plus the great guards. The only real weakness of the team is backup center if Ochefu gets into foul trouble, though even in that case, the team can go small with Pinkston at the five, which will work against most teams.

That 2005-06 Villanova team may have been a #1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but a lot of experts doubted their title chances because they were too small. Ultimately that team did fall... short. The 2015 #1-seeded Wildcats, however, have no nits to be picked by the experts. Nova is a legitimate contender for the national title. The biggest hurdle that stands in their way is, once again, another SEC juggernaut team full of future NBA stars: Kentucky. If the two Wildcat teams make it to the championship game, it may be a David vs. Goliath situation. Then again, Villanova knows a thing or two about slaying Goliaths.

Friday, March 18, 2011

8-Seed Stuns 9-Seed

It felt like an upset. George Mason coach Jim Larranaga gave a rousing locker room speech to pep up his team before the game that could have been a scene from Hoosiers. However, his pre-game words were no match for Villanova. The Two Coreys combined for 24 points, playing in their potentially final collegiate game, and Larranaga’s Patriots trailed by as many as ten points. His undersized “underdogs” had no answer for Villanova’s 6’10 big man inside, Mouphtaou Yarou, who grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked 2 shots. George Mason took a six-point deficit into the locker room at halftime, when Jim Larranaga mustered up another epic locker room speech in front of the television cameras to inspire his troops and will them to victory.

There were no cameras in the Villanova locker room. We didn’t hear Jay Wright’s pre-game speech, but I’d imagine his halftime speech went something like this: “Alright guys, we have the lead, so let’s hope the score remains the same, and just try to run the clock down to zero. Take nine seconds to walk the ball across half-court, then play hot potato and pass the ball casually around the top of the key for another fifteen seconds. When the shot clock gets down to ten, Fisher or Wayns, one of you can dribble around frenetically then launch a contested fade away jumper at the buzzer. Got that? Good. Now repeat that for twenty minutes and hope for the best.”

Corey Fisher shot 2-7 in the second half. Corey Stokes, 1-8. Maalik Wayns, 0-4. Yarou grabbed just two rebounds. And they were all tough shots. This game wasn’t lost because Stokes missed a baseline jumper. It wasn’t lost because the referees missed a foul call on Maalik Wayns. Or because Luke Hancock hit a clutch 3-pointer. It was lost well before that because of the offensive game plan Jay Wright employed at the start of the second half. I was willing to forgive it in the previous games because of the gluttony of injuries Villanova had suffered; however, all week Jay maintained that his team was finally 100% healthy. And I believe him. Stokes, Fisher, and Yarou were in top form in the first half. If the team played 40 minutes like that, they would have cruised to an easy double-digit win. For whatever reason, Jay decided his best strategy was to try to shorten the game and run the clock down on each possession. I don’t understand it, you’re only making it tougher on yourself trying to score that way. The most frustrating thing is that Villanova did not lose this game because of great George Mason defense, or because the Patriots got lucky shooting the ball, or because Nova played poor defense, or even because the refs blew a call. Villanova lost because they failed miserably to execute on offense, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

Seniors Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, and Antonio Pena had great careers at Villanova, making the NCAA Tournament every year and advancing to a Sweet Sixteen and a Final Four. I feel bad for them that it ended on a sour note, not just because they lost in the first round or because they lost six-straight games. I feel bad for them because they didn’t even get a chance to go down swinging. Like wise veterans, they did what their coach told them to do. Unfortunately, he held them back.

I’m not coming down hard on Jay Wright because I hate him and want him fired. I don’t. I love Jay, which makes this loss hurt all the more. I don’t know what he said at halftime, or what his logic behind the second half offensive strategy was. I do know that he is a better coach than he displayed. He’s proven as much through his impeccable track record over the past decade. I’m not sure what Jay needs to do to get his team to play 40 minutes of Villanova basketball in the future, but maybe he can start by watching sports movies and taking notes from the coaches’ locker room speeches. It worked for Larranaga.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

2011 Tournament Preview

Despite losing five in row, seven of their last nine, and ten of their last fifteen games, Villanova has made it into the NCAA Tournament. On top of that, they’re still a single-digit seed (9), and they don’t even have to play in one of the four new play-in games. Best of all, they drew an opponent, George Mason, that they’ve beaten twice in the past three years. This is great news, right?

Not so fast. George Mason (26-6, 16-2 CAA) is the exact type of mid-major team that always seems to give Villanova fits in the NCAA Tournament. One of the biggest reasons for Nova’s recent collapse has been their inability to defend the perimeter. (See: Notre Dame) So I wasn’t pleased to discover that six of Mason’s top seven scorers shoot over 34% from behind the arc, and three of them shoot over 40%. George Mason also has an experienced squad, full of upper classmen. Furthermore, those two victories over the Patriots did not come easy. In 2007-2008 they met in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando (You can read my recap of that game here). With contributions from Malcolm Grant and Casiem Drummond (really?), Nova held on to win that game 84-76. Last season, The Wildcats and Patriots met in a warm location again for another preseason tournament, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (recap here). That game was even closer, with Nova needing a game-winning 3-pointer from Isaiah Armwood to pull out a 69-68 victory.

Villanova encountered two mid-major schools in las year’s Tournament. Nova needed overtime to beat Robert Morris (73-70), then they fell to St. Mary’s in the second round (75-68). The year before, Nova trailed by 10 at halftime and as many as 14 points to 14-seed American University, before pulling away for a 80-67 win. After that scare from a lowly mid-major school, Nova went on to trounce national powerhouses UCLA and Duke by 20+ points, then beat Pittsburgh to go to the Final Four where they lost to eventual National Champions North Carolina. I don’t know why, perhaps it traces back to the “Perfect Upset” of 1985, but Villanova usually feels more comfortable in the underdog role. Which leads to their difficulty against these small mid-major schools that they are always favored against. Villanova is technically the underdog this year in the 8/9 game versus George Mason. However, in terms of national recognition and historical success, Villanova is Goliath.

So can Villanova win this game? Yes, of course. Villanova could even beat #1-seed Ohio State in the second round, as well as just about any other team in the country when they play to their full potential. The question is will they beat George Mason? Or will they be at the top of their game? Here’s my quote from last year’s win over George Mason: “Corey Fisher got to the line 18 times and sank 14 of them, which helped make up for his poor 1-12 shooting effort from the field. To his credit, he kept driving to the basket, attacking George Mason defenders. Although he missed a lot of shots, I liked the fact that he was aggressive and drove to the basket, rather than just settling for jumpers.” The key to Villanova’s success is Corey Fisher, more specifically his health. If this week off has given Fisher enough time to fully recover from his knee injury, then he can finally get back to the way he normally plays, attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. Villanova is 7-0 when Fisher attempts 8 or more free throws in a game. The last game Fisher attempted more than eight free throws in a game just so happens to be the last game Villanova won (DePaul). The problem is, as I wrote last week, Fisher’s knee tendentious has caused him to become a jump shooter.

Speaking of injuries, Villanova also needs Moupthtaou Yarou to recover from the hard fall he took in the Big East Tournament. George Mason has some talented 3-point shooters, but they are a small team and don’t have anybody that can guard Mouph inside. I truly believe it was the injuries that ravaged Villanova’s season, and it will be their health that determines Villanova’s fate in the NCAA Tournament. So if they do lose, don’t call for Jay Wright’s head; blame the injury gods.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Waiting Game

“I’m not even mad… That’s amazing.” That’s how Anchorman Ron Burgundy felt after his dog Baxter ate a whole wheel of cheese and pooped in the refrigerator. I feel the exact same way about Villanova’s late season collapse and their most recent one-point loss to South Florida. I just stared in shock at the way Nova played during that second half at Madison Square Garden. When Maalik Wayns’ potential buzzer beating shot rimmed off the basket, I wasn’t angry, it was more a feeling of awe and confusion. How did this Wildcats team, ranked nationally in the top-10 for much of the season, spiral out of control and end up on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament?

Villanova played like that top-10 team in the first half against the Bulls, taking a 16-point lead into halftime. However, the team that came out of that locker room was the one that has lost five games in a row and is continually finding new ways to lose each night. Some of it is bad luck, like the injury to Mouphtaou Yarou against the worst team possible, the tall athletic front court of South Florida. Or the knee tendentious that has been nagging Corey Fisher for a month. Or the hamstring and turf toe injuries that caused Corey Stokes to miss games. Or the back spasms that plagued Maalik Wayns. Or the knee injury back in January that Dominic Cheek hasn’t played the same since. These injuries are unfortunate, and there’s not a whole lot Jay Wright or anyone else can do about them. Injuries happen. It’s just a simple case of bad luck.

But then there’s the team’s inability to execute down the stretch of close games, which Jay Wright and his players absolutely can control. Villanova shot a perfect 20 for 20 from the free throw line until the final 48 seconds of the game, when they missed the front end of a 1-and-1 TWICE. Then there was the inbounds lob pass thrown up for grabs under the other team’s basket. Then there was the crater-sized opening left in the lane for Anthony Crater to drive to the basket for the winning layup. These are careless mistakes that well-coached, experienced teams should not make.

So where is that experience and leadership to take over at the end of these close games? Well that player is supposed to be preseason Wooden Award finalist, All-Big East 2nd Team player, senior guard and leading scorer, Corey Fisher. And he… WASN’T EVEN ON THE FLOOR FOR THE FINAL SEQUENCE OF THE GAME. This knee injury must be a lot worse than anybody thought it was, that Jay Wright wouldn’t trust his senior leader and all-around best player to get a defensive stop with the game on the line. Fisher put up decent enough stats (15 points, 3 assists), but watching him play, you can tell that something just wasn’t right. At first it simply appeared to be the case of a shooting slump, with 3-16, 1-10, 3-14 performances from the field over the past few games. Then the news came that Fisher was suffering from knee tendentious. But why should a knee injury affect his shooting stroke?

When you look closer, you’ll see that the injury has changed Fisher’s entire style of play. All season long, Fisher got to the free throw line about eight times per game, while taking about four 3-pointers. Over the past month, his free throw attempts and 3-point attempts per game have interchanged. Fisher’s bread and butter is driving to the basket and attacking defenders with his signature “Fisher Price” mid-air acrobatic moves. With the knee injury, he doesn’t have the athleticism to do that anymore, so he is settling for long jumpers, which has never been the strength of his game. Watching Fisher against USF, whenever he drove to the basket, he would dish the ball to avoid contact, rather than trying to draw a foul. The real issue isn’t that Fisher is missing so many 3-pointers (0-8, 0-8, 3-8, 1-8, 1-4), it’s that he’s being forced to attempt that many in the first place. Fisher has made just NINE free throws through this five-game losing streak, an amount that he would easily make in a single game earlier this season. It’s a shame Fisher’s injury had to happen now, when he was in the midst of a fantastic final season, but it’s time we exit the denial phase. Once we the fans, the team, the coaches, and Fisher himself acknowledge that this injury is significant and is having a negative impact on the team, we can begin to try to figure out how to overcome it.

Jay Wright’s system is designed around the point guard. It’s been described as the “take ‘em” offense. He relies on his point guards to run plays and create shots for themselves and others using the dribble drive. This worked great in 2006 when he had four great point guards (Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Allan Ray, and Mike Nardi), and the team went to the Elite 8. It can even work with just two great point guards (Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher), as we saw two years ago in the run to Final 4. And it worked earlier this season with the combination of Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns. The problem is that now, with Fisher’s injury, the team really only has one and a half point guards, and that one is still just a sophomore. If Villanova does make the NCAA Tournament, Jay Wright will have to fundamentally change his offensive philosophy for the team to have any chance of winning a game. How do you do that?

You can start by taking some notes from the Notre Dame and South Florida playbooks and start setting screens for Corey Stokes on the perimeter. Both teams made an effort through set plays to get open looks for thier sharpshooters, Tim Abromaitis (9-13 3PT vs. Nova) and Shaun Noriega (6-12 3PT vs. Nova). Stokes made 3 of 6 from downtown and scored 16 points in the first half against USF. As Justin Timberlake would say, “Six 3-pointers isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Twelve 3-pointers.” If Jay Wright can figure out a way to get Stokes twelve shots a game from behind the arc, he will likely make at least half of them. Guess how many shots Stokes got off in that atrocious second half collapse against South Florida… ONE… And he missed it. And you wonder why Nova made only four field goals and zero 3-pointers in the second half of that game. With Fisher banged up and Wayns inexperienced, the offense needs to center around the best shooter on the team, Corey Stokes. The good news is Jay Wright has over a week to adjust his system in preparation for the NCAA Tournament, if they are lucky enough to earn a bid.

Which brings us to the ultimate question… Will Villanova make the Big Dance? Fortunately for now, most experts say yes. Nova’s body of work is impressive enough, though losing their last five games will certainly hurt their seeding. Heck, even St. Joe’s alum and ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Wildcats still in the Dance, albeit as an 11-seed. Nova appears to be safe for now, but with conference tournaments running throughout the country, you never know what upsets may loom. For now, it’s the waiting game. Villanova will have to sit in anticipation to hear if their name is called on Selection Sunday, and who knows, maybe that will be just enough time for Yarou's face and ribs, Stokes' hamstring and toe, Cheek's knee, Wayns' back, and Fisher's knee to heal. One could hope.