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.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Not Winning

Villanova ended their regular season on a sour note, losing their fourth-straight game to Pittsburgh, 60-50. They finished 10th in the Big East and now find themselves in the unanticipated position of having to play in the first round of the Big East Tournament on Tuesday. The Wildcats have also fallen out of the Top-25 for the first time this season. I hate to make excuses, but-- wait that’s not true, I love making excuses. Here they are:

1. Injuries
Corey Stokes was unavailable for three of Villanova’s losses, including the end of the Rutgers collapse that started this whole mess. Both of Villanova’s losses to Pitt, the Big East’s number one team, were close despite Stokes’ absence. If Stokes was healthy, I think Nova could have at least beaten the Panthers at the Pavilion and who knows what else.

Stokes is vital to this team’s success; however, the knee tendinitis that Corey Fisher has been battling for the past month or so is a more alarming injury. Even though it hasn’t caused him to miss any games, it certainly has effected Fisher’s play. I assumed he was simply going through a bad shooting slump, but an injury makes more sense. Fisher is too good to be having multiple 0-8 games from behind the arc. In hindsight it may have been a better idea for him to sit for a few of those games, but let’s just hope he’s healthy enough going forward.

2. The whole season counts.
We've seen how good this team can be. Don’t forget Villanova had an 11-game winning streak this season, as well as wins over UCLA, Temple, Louisville, Maryland, and Syracuse. Nova should still be a safe bet for the Big Dance, and as long as your at the party, anything can happen on the dance floor.

3. Brutal Schedule
Yeah, four straight losses sounds horrible on paper, but all four were against teams ranked in the Top-25. Meanwhile, teams like BYU and San Diego State go through most of their season without playing any ranked teams besides each other. Aside from that first half against Notre Dame, which I have erased from my memory, Nova has been in every single game this season, which should count for something.

4. One win is all you need...
As DePaul nearly proved, no win is guaranteed in the Big East, but let’s just say Villanova has a good shot at ending their losing streak against the 3-15 Bulls of South Florida. Losing four games in a row can destroy a team’s confidence, but even just one win before the NCAA Tournament might be enough to restore it.

5. Jay Wright’s Secret Weapon
No, not Maalik Wayns (27 points (6-12 3PT vs. Pitt), I’m talking about the Siberian tigers Jay Wright stole from the Philadelphia Zoo. Tiger blood might be just the thing this team needs to start WINNING again.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Righting the Ship

Villanova is in an apparent Charlie Sheen-like nosedive. They have lost three in a row and five of their last seven, all culminating in the 21-point loss to Notre Dame on Monday night. With only one regular season game left, you can look back and criticize the team for all of their shortcomings over these past few weeks, or you can look ahead and try to figure out what the team needs to do to right the ship before Tournament time. I choose the latter.

Corey Fisher: Forget about the 3-16 FG, 0-8 3PT game vs. Syracuse and the 1-10 FG, 0-8 3PT game vs. St. John’s. It’s in the past. Fisher is still the best player on the team, and in most games he’s the best player on the floor. He needs to remember that and play like he did in the second half of the Notre Dame game when he scored 17 points in 17 minutes. This is Corey Fisher’s team. He’s a senior. It’s now or never.

Corey Stokes: Well, Stokes doesn’t need to change anything offensively; he's made 14 of 26 threes and scored 53 points since his return from injury. He just needs to stay healthy.

Mouphtaou Yarou: Mouph has only attempted 8 field goals total over the past 3 games, after averaging about 8 field goal attempts per game for most of the season. The guards need to get the ball to Yarou in the low post more often. Most teams don’t have anybody that can stop him one-on-one. Feed the big man!

Maalik Wayns: At times he is unstoppable on offense, but Wayns can also kill the team with poor shot selection and careless turnovers. He’s still young, and eventually he will put it all together. However, for now, it’s probably best for Fisher to handle the point guard duties full-time until he hands the keys to the offense over to Wayns next year.

Antonio Pena: Okay, he had a hot streak for a few games in the middle of the season, but Pena is not a jumpshooter. I’m tired of seeing him shoot from the worst spot on the floor, just inside the arc. Either take a step back for the three or take the ball inside.

Dominic Cheek: He finally scored in double figures with 11 points against St. John’s, but it didn’t result in a win. Cheek is talented and full of potential, but he just needs to be smarter with his shot selection. For example, on one possession against Notre Dame he passed up an open three, to take a couple dribbles and chuck up a long contested fade-away 2-pointer.

Isaiah Armood: At this point in his career, Armwood is purely a hustle and energy player. He needs to watch some Dwayne Anderson game tape. Whenever he is on the floor, Armwood needs to play tenacious defense, chase down every rebound, and dive after any loose ball.

James Bell: He’s displayed a nice shooting stroke, but as the eighth man, Bell needs to step up his defensive game if he wants to get more playing time.

Jay Wright: Coach needs to do something about this team’s perimeter defense. 13 threes to DePaul, 10 to St. John’s, 20 to Notre Dame!? I can understand the Irish running some picks and getting hot from the outside early in the game, but how were Abromaitis and Hansbrough still getting wide open looks in the second half? There’s a hole in this defense, and Jay needs to fix it fast before the entire ship sinks.