Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Villanova: 2018 National Champions

The Villanova Wildcats are the 2018 NCAA National Champions, their second title in three years. It’s incredible what Jay Wright has done with the program. I wrote about the keys to his success here. And as far as the championship, I feel much the same way as I did after the 2016 title.

This championship was different in that it didn’t take a last-second buzzer beater to win. It was a blowout (79-62). This was one of the great NCAA Tournament runs ever. Nova won every game by double digits in both the Big East and NCAA Tournaments (with an average margin of victory of 17.7 points). They were so balanced in every facet of the game: defense, shooting, scoring. The 2018 Wildcats have to be considered as one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time.

It’s officially ten years since I graduated, so it feels like a lifetime ago that I was on campus with my class of 2008 mate, Kyle Lowry, now a multiple time NBA All-Star. It’s certainly different watching the team now. I don’t feel the same connection I did when I went to the school and saw the players on campus and went to all the home games. I now realize these are just kids. Which is one of the reasons I stopped blogging about the team. How could I, as an adult, criticize 18 and 20-year-old kids who aren’t even getting paid? (Though with this particular team, there’s nothing to criticize.) Plus, I’m not as fanatic about sports in general as I used to be. In the grand scheme of things, basketball isn't that important. But still, it’s great to see the team win and represent the school in such a classy way.

Jay Wright has turned into perhaps the greatest coach in the country, and one of the greats of all time. He doesn’t just recruit good players or get them to play hard. He gets them to play the right way (aka “Villanova Basketball”). 

What is "Villanova Basketball"? Well, it is playing hard, but also unselfishly, with amazing chemistry built through a family atmosphere. In the post-game speeches, the players repeatedly mentioned how they were “brothers.” And it really showed. That kind of camaraderie doesn’t happen automatically. It comes top-down from the coach.

But a coach can only do so much. It ultimately comes down to the players. So let's talk about those players.

Jalen Brunson: The well-deserved National Player of the Year. And he didn't even need to play down the stretch of the game (because of foul trouble). Brunson is the perfect college point guard. He's not the most athletic, fastest, or highest jumper, but he just knows how to play the game. He reminds me of Chris Paul in that respect. He's a savvy point guard who uses his basketball IQ to control the game.

Donte DiVincenzo: The “Michael Jordan of Delaware” nickname is no joke. DiVincenzo took over this game with 31 points (off the bench!). He might be my favorite player to watch on this team. He's so exciting between the dunks, blocks, and heat-check threes. This was the kind of performance that will get attention from NBA scouts, but I’d like to see him return to school so we can get a full year of him being the number-one option (assuming Brunson leaves, though of course it would be great if he returned as well).

Mikal Bridges: Another all-around solid game from Bridges (19 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assists, 1 steal). The prototypical 3&D player brought both (three 3-points and great defense). A projected NBA lottery pick, I could see him becoming a Kawhi Leonard type player (minus this year’s injury drama in San Antonio).

Omari Spellman: In 2016 I called Daniel Ochefu Villanova’s best big man since Ed Pinckney. Well, Spellman is better than both—and he’s only a freshman. The future is so bright for Omari. Nova guards always get the most attention and accolades, but they could not have won the title without a big man in the middle on defense like Spellman. (and this next guy)

Eric Paschall: Maybe Villanova’s toughest player. Jay Wright called Paschall his best defender, and he’s also a great rebounder. Jay’s teams have always had great guards, but they always fell short in March (and April) because they didn’t have the big men to compete. But now Jay is recruiting great big men like Spellman and Paschall, which takes his teams to the next level.

Then there’s Phil Booth (who seems like he’s been around forever, but is just a junior) and Collin Gillespie who each chipped in on both ends of the floor.

And don’t forget Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, who may have only played four minutes in this game, but he will no doubt play a bigger role in the future. Freshmen like him, staying patient and waiting their turn, is what makes continued success for Villanova’s program possible. 

One championship can be a fluke, but two in three years is a trend. Villanova will be competing for national titles as long as Jay Wright is at the helm. At this point, I wouldn’t even blame him if he left to try the NBA (a la Billy Donavan). But if he stays at Villanova for another two decades, he can create something truly special.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Jay Wright’s Keys to College Basketball Success

Villanova is going back to the Final Four for the second time in three years. The Wildcats have been on quite a run recently, really since Jay Wright took over the program in 2001. People remember the 2005-06 team fondly, with Kyle Lowry, Randy Foye, and Allan Ray, though they didn’t even make the Final Four. Wright’s teams have ascended to a higher level after the Big East Conference shake-up in 2013. In the past five NCAA Tournament's, Villanova has three #1-seeds and two #2-seeds, highlighted by their National Championship in 2016. Over this past decade, Villanova has become a national powerhouse in college basketball along with the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, UConn, and Florida, despite the fact they are a private university, much smaller than all those other schools.

So how did Jay Wright do it? What are his keys to success?

1. Chemistry
All of Jay Wright’s team’s have a family atmosphere, something he learned from Rollie Massimino. I remember during my four years attending school at Villanova, whenever I’d see basketball players on campus, they were never alone. There were always at least two of them together, usually more. They’d all eat together in the dining halls and go to other school events as a team. They seemed to be each other’s best friends. You can see that campus camaraderie translate to chemistry on the court. There’s never any selfish play or stat-chasing. Jay Wright seems to focus on chemistry when recruiting, finding players who will buy into the family atmosphere of the team. Those who don’t buy in probably end up transferring to another school.

2. Effort
Jay Wright’s teams always play hard on defense. One example, that I’ve seen so many Nova players do over the years is, if they turn over the ball on offense, they sprint back down the court and dive to try to steal it from behind. So much of defense comes down to effort. You also see Nova players diving for loose balls and jumping into the stands to save it from going out of bounds. The effort is probably closely related to the chemistry; it’s hard to have one without the other.

3. Free Throw Shooting
Jay Wright’s teams are always good at free-throw shooting, especially his big men, who are typically poor free throw shooters (hack-a-Shaq). This must be another thing that Jay focuses on in recruiting, but also at practice. There have been several players who came in as poor shooters as freshmen but continually improved each year, such as Daniel Ochefu (48% as a freshman; 68% as a senior). Free throw shooting is so important, especially late in close games when it can be the difference between winning and losing.

4. 3-Point Shooting
Related to the free throw shooting, perhaps, but Jay Wright’s teams are always good at shooting threes. He almost always has at least four shooters on the floor at all times. He was ahead of the curve on this, doing it back in 2005. Now, with the advanced stats revolution in the NBA, you see everybody doing this. The math isn’t complicated: 3-pointers are worth more than 2-pointers. In the past, Jay Wright would sometimes play four-guard lineups to get more shooters on the floor, which, unfortunately, had negative effects on the defensive end. But this year, he has big men (Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall, Mikal Bridges) that can defend and rebound but also shoot the three. That’s the holy grail in basketball these days: big men who can shoot 3’s and defend.

5. 4-Star Recruits
Jay Wright has never had a one-and-done player during his tenure at Villanova. Jay doesn’t tend to sign the top tier 5-star NBA lottery talent recruits like John Calipari at Kentucky. Mikal Bridges might be a lottery pick this year, but he’d be Jay Wright’s first since Randy Foye. Kentucky, by contrast, has had 16 NBA lottery picks over the past 8 years, including all-star talent like DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Devin Booker. Yet despite their disparity in talent, Kentucky has won the same number of championships during that span as Villanova (one). Anthony Davis was such an extraordinary talent that he helped his team cruise to a title as a freshman. But Davis is an exception to the rule. Generally, experience matters. If Cousins and Wall stayed together another year, they probably would have won a title—the same with Towns and Booker. But that’s the problem with the top tier players. It makes financial sense for them to leave after one year and join the NBA.

That’s where Jay Wright gets his advantage. By recruiting fringe NBA talent (Dante Cunningham, Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Darrun Hilliard) instead of the one-and-done lottery talent, he can guarantee they will stay in school for at least 3 or 4 years. And those 3-4 years make a huge difference when you’re talking about 18 to 22-year-old kids. Experience matters. The experience Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges gained as Freshmen on the 2016 championship team is helping them enormously now. They’ve been there and done that. They know what they need to do to win it all. This also factors into team chemistry. It’s tough to build chemistry with one-and-done players. Of course, every team would like to have a once in a generation talent like Anthony Davis, but Jay Wright has found another route to success by focusing on the 2nd tier of recruits. He finds the best talent from the pool of players who will likely stay in school for four years. Ultimately, a team full of 4-star recruit juniors and seniors will probably have better results in the NCAA Tournament than a team of 5-star recruit freshmen. 

Having veteran talent is only one part of the equation, however. What makes Jay Wright’s tenure special is the continued success. Villanova has been a top-two seed for five straight years and has only missed the NCAA Tournament once in the past nineteen years (2012). A run like that is almost unheard of. How do you remain elite despite losing your best players every year? The key is to always be restocking the team, maintaining a balance of upperclassmen and underclassmen. Brunson and Bridges were role players on the 2016 team, but now they’re the leaders in 2018. And the young players on this team (Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo) will be the leaders next year and beyond, teaching the next group of talent how to play "Villanova Basketball." That’s how you maintain perennial contenders despite losing great players. You are always developing the next generation to take over. You never want all freshmen or all upperclassmen, but a balance of both.

The key to success in college basketball, which Jay Wright seems to have found out, is to recruit, not the A+ talent, but the B’s. And of course, make sure they are team-oriented, play hard on defense, and can shoot. 

Oh, plus look like George Clooney and wear stylish suits. That helps, too.

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 year's 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, who's 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 they 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 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.

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.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Battling Orange and Blue Demons

Villanova is 2-3 in their past five games, and the two wins easily could have been losses. It may not seem like a time to celebrate, but let’s try to lift the spirits of Nova Nation with an NBA All-Star Weekend edition of Nova Awards.

The Bill Simmons Award for Humbling Victory for a Coach
Bill Simmons, the inventor of the awards shtick, was the coach of the East team in the Celebrity All-Star game. They won, but how proud can you be about defeating a West team led by Justin Bieber? Jay Wright’s Villanova team had a thrilling two-point victory over DePaul, but the fact that they needed overtime to beat the worst team in the Big East (1-13) is a bit humbling.

The Black Mamba Award for MVP

Corey Fisher had a Kobe Bryant-like performance in the win over DePaul: a career-high 34 points, a clutch 3-pointer to send the game to overtime, and perhaps the biggest similarity to Kobe, his one assist. Kobe has proven that Black Mambas have their good sides (37 points for All-Star MVP, 81 points in a game) and their bad sides (6-24 FG, 0-6 3PT in game 7 of the Finals last year). The same goes for Fisher, who has had his share of good games (105 points over the summer) and bad, the worst of which happened to come against Syracuse (3-16 FG, 0-8 3PT). The main difference is the Lakers won that game 7, while Nova lost to Syracuse.

The MVP of the Syracuse game was Scoop Jardine, who also has aspects of both the good and bad “Black Mamba”. Scoop had 20 points (7-11 FG) and 6 assists in the win over Nova, after having just 2 points (1-8 FG) and 3 assists in their first meeting back at the Carrier Dome.

The LeBron James Triple-Double Award for Best Performance in a Loss
LeBron joined Michael Jordan as the only player in NBA All-Star Game history to record a triple-double with 29 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists, but his East team lost the game 148-143. Corey Stokes reminded us what he does best in his return after missing three games with a turf toe injury. Stokes scored a game-high 24 points and was the only Nova player to make a 3-pointer. He hit 5 of 10, while the rest of the team was 0 for 16.

The James Jones Award for Best 3-Point Shooter
The way Jeremiah Kelly shot the ball against Nova, it seemed like he was shooting uncontested threes from a rack. He was the big reason DePaul nearly upset Villanova, making 7 of 13 three-pointers to score 25 points in the overtime loss.

The JaVale McGee Award for Big Man That Can Dunk

He didn’t dunk three balls or on two baskets at the same time, but Rick Jackson finished a handful of alley-oop dunks against Nova. He was nearly perfect from the field (8-9), which is easy when all your shots are dunks, scoring 18 points for the Orange.

The Rookie Challenge Award for Disappointing Sophomores
The Rookies upended the Sophomores 148-140 this year, but it’s a game that doesn’t really matter. However, these past few games for Villanova do matter, and their talented sophomore class has been underperforming. Dominic Cheek has been in a funk ever since his knee injury back in mid-January. Maalik Wayns has fallen into an every other game pattern for good/bad performances over the past six games. His point totals over that span: 17, 4, 13, 5, 17, 4. Likewise, Mouphtaou Yarou had a big game against DePaul (12 points and 15 rebounds), but he was shut down by Syracuse (5 points and 3 rebounds). The most impressive sophomore in the Rookie Challenge was DeJuan Blair (28 points and 15 rebounds), who was an lowly 2nd-round draft pick. The least heralded Nova sophomore also came up big in the loss to Syracuse. Isaiah Armwood had a double-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and he added 3 blocks. He may not be very skilled offensively, but I like his intensity on the boards and on defense.

The Blake Griffin Dunk Over a Kia Award for Blatant Advertising
Just when you thought sneakers, jerseys, shorts, socks, warm-up suits, and headbands were enough, Nike found another place to put their swoosh logo… on Jim Boeheim’s glasses!? What’s next, Nike starts tailoring designer suits for Jay Wright?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

From Pitt Fall to Beating Hall

Villanova came dangerously close to losing their third-straight game Tuesday night against the Seton Hall Pirates. Last Saturday the Wildcats lost a close hard-fought game (57-54) to Pittsburgh, one of the best teams in the country, which is nothing to hang your head about even though the 46-game Pavilion winning streak came to an end. Ironically, Nova’s win over the Pirates was the more disappointing performance over the past two games. The team’s late-game ineptitude was reminiscent of the Rutgers collapse. Villanova led most of the game against Seton Hall and were up 7 points with 5 minutes to play. However, from that point on, they stopped attacking on offense and "played not to lose" instead of "playing to win". They ran the clock down on each offensive possession, which resulted in rushed turnovers or poor shots trying to beat the buzzer. Jay Wright’s team is at their best when playing at an up-tempo pace and remaining aggressive on offense. Maybe it’s just something about playing in New Jersey and the close proximity to the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore that makes them lose their minds.

Corey Fisher has been playing fantastic as always, but the problem is he hasn’t been playing enough. He fouled out early against Pitt when the team could have used him on that final possession with a chance to tie the game. Then Fisher was forced to sit on the bench with 4 fouls late in the Seton Hall game. You want him to stay aggressive on offense and defense, but he is the best player on the team and needs to be on the floor when it matters.

Antonio Pena is getting a little too trigger happy with that mid-range jumper. He’s much improved in that department, but he’s not quite as automatic as Dante Cunningham was.
P.S. Dante out-double-doubled Kevin Love against the Timberwolves last Monday, (18 points and 13 rebounds for Cunningham vs. 12 points and 11 rebounds for Love) so I guess that scientifically proves he's a better player.

Maalik Wayns has fallen back into a shooting slump these past few games: 0-6 FG vs. Rutgers, 4-12 FG vs. Pitt, 2-7 FG vs. Seton Hall. Then when he does make a 3-pointer, it’s too late. However, Wayns’ bigger slump has been his ball-handling. He has 13 turnovers in past three games, including an almost-fatal 6 against Seton Hall. He’s one of the fastest players in college basketball, but speed kills, and sometimes he gets out of control.

James Bell stepped up big-time against Seton Hall in the absence of Corey Stokes. 21 points, 7-9 FG, 4-6 3PT, 3-3 FT. Was he wearing a Bayside Tigers shirt under his jersey? Did he make a call on a foot-long cell phone from the bench? Yep, I guess you can say Villanova was “Saved by the Bell”.

Mouphtaou Yarou had a huge game in the loss to Pitt with 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks, despite the fact that he missed a wide open dunk. Mouph looked like he was on his way to another big game against Seton Hall after scoring 8 points in the first half, but he was scoreless in just 7 second half minutes.

Isaiah Armwood didn’t shoot any field goals against Pittsburgh, but he did hit one shot, the one to Nasir Robinson’s face. I don’t know whether or not it was intentional, but I kind of hope it was because Robinson deserved it. He’s just another name in a long tradition of dirty Panther players… *cough*cough* Carl Krauser.

Dominic Cheek is the player I thought would step up to fill the shoes of the injured Stokes, but instead Cheek shot 1-7 and 0-5 in the past two games. He hasn’t scored in double figures since January 6, two games before his knee injury. His rebounding numbers have been fine since then, so I don’t know why his shot is so off.

Even with Villanova down a man due to Stokes’ injury, Maurice Sutton’s playing has been dwindling. Sutton has played under 10 minutes for seven-straight games, as Jay Wright has been giving the extra minutes to Armwood and Bell.

Kyle Lowry scored a career-high 36 points Wednesday night to go along with 7 assists and 4 rebounds. A career under-30% 3-point shooter, Lowry hit 6 of 9 threes, improving his season average to 36.4%. It used to be that outside shooting was the only thing holding Kyle back. Now all he has to worry about is the slew of all-star caliber point guards he has to guard every night in the West: Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Steve Nash, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups, Baron Davis, Jason Kidd and...

Finally, congratulations to Randy Foye, who had his #2 jersey retired at the Pavilion last Saturday. Foye was one of my favorite players to watch while I was at Villanova, both on the court and off. It was just five years ago that I was sitting in the same classroom as Randy in Mendel Hall for our marine biology class. Ah, the good ‘ole days, learning about crustaceans and algae. Now he’s making millions of dollars in the NBA and I’m… not.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

NNBEPP2: 2011 Movies

While watching last Sunday’s Super Bowl, I could hardly even focus on the game because of all the great new movie trailers that premiered. The Patriots won, right? Anyway, let’s take a look at the upcoming 2011 movies in the latest edition of the Nova News Big East Power Poll.

1. Pitt (22-2, 10-1) :: Captain America
The leader of the Avengers seems like a good representative for the leader of the conference, but can Pitt remain one of the top teams in America without their captain, Ashton Gibbs. The Wildcats will get their first look at the Panthers this Saturday, when Nova will put it’s 46-game Pavilion winning streak on the line.

2. Notre Dame (20-4, 9-3) :: The Green Lantern
Hopefully it will change this weekend, but the fact remains, the Fighting Irish are the only Big East team to beat Pitt this season. Ben Hansbrough is playing like he has a mystical green ring that gives him the college basketball superpowers of his brother Tyler.

3. Georgetown (19-5, 8-4) :: Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son
Like his father, John Thompson III has Georgetown competing at an elite level every year, even after losing players to the NBA. The Hoyas are on a seven-game winning streak, but they’d be even better if Austin Freeman could dress up and play all five positions like Martin Lawrence.

4. UConn (18-4, 6-4) :: Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon
Michael Bay’s movies are known for their big explosions and action sequences, but they tend to lack in story and character. The 2010-11 Huskies are known for Kemba Walker’s big scoring and impressive stat lines, but the team is lacking in other areas. Not to mention Walker’s shooting percentage has plummeted over the past two months. However, the Transformers movies still rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, and UConn still wins games, and those are the only stats that really matter.

5. Villanova (19-5, 7-4) :: Just Go With It
Villanova was cruising along, up double-digits on Rutgers, and I kind of half-tuned out. The next thing I know, it’s a two-point game. I think Jay Wright and his team did they same as I, and started looking forward to this weekend’s big match-up against Pitt. The way Nova lost that game was rough, but like Adam Sandler, I’m going to say “just go with it”, forget it and move on. Games like this happen, where you think you’ve won and you mentally check out, and it’s better to happen now than in the NCAA Tournament. It sounds cliche, but that loss will be a learning experience, and I don’t think this team will ever let up in a game for the rest of the season. If they needed to lose a mid-season game to Rutgers to learn that lesson, so be it. Furthermore, this loss will only add fuel to the fire for Saturday’s game versus Pitt. Let’s just hope the critics’ reviews of Villanova come March are better than those of Just Go With It.

6. Syracuse (20-5, 7-5) :: Super 8
J.J. Abrams’ projects are always shrouded in mystery, almost as much mystery as this Syracuse team. I can’t figure them out. They start the season 18-0, but are 2-5 since. Why does Fab Melo continue to start every game when he only plays 3 minutes? Where is Carmelo going? What's on that train in the Super 8 trailer? What is the island on Lost? I need answers!

7. Louisville (18-6, 7-4) :: Hall Pass
"A married man is granted the opportunity to have an affair by his wife." Is that the plot to Hall Pass or Rick Pitino’s life?

8. Cincinnati (19-5, 6-5) :: Cowboys & Aliens
Okay, I give up. I can’t figure out any way that cowboys and aliens relate to the Cincinnati Bearcats… But, hey, doesn’t that movie look cool?

9. Marquette (15-9, 6-5) :: Thor
Thor was a warrior, and the Golden Eagles used to be Warriors. Despite wins over Notre Dame and Syracuse, Marquette might not even make the NCAA Tournament this year, which has more to say about the depth and quality of the Big East than Marquette’s shortcomings.

10. West Virginia (15-8, 6-5) :: The Hangover Part II
This season has been the hangover to last year’s Final Four for West Virginia. The second hangover is the one Bob Huggins has while he’s coaching.

11. St. John’s (13-9, 5-5) :: X-Men: First Class
Talk about first classes, Steve Lavin has the #2 recruiting class in the country, with 6 players in the ESPNU Top 100. As for their 15 point win over Duke? They must have turned into mutants for that game.

12. Providence (14-10, 3-8) :: Priest in 3D
What’s crazier, a vampire-killing priest or a donut-eating friar?

13. Rutgers (13-11, 4-8) :: Sucker Punch
Rutgers’ stunning comeback win over Villanova felt like a sucker punch. It was just one of those freaky Reggie Miller/Larry Johnson late-game performances. Sure, Villanova made their share of mistakes, but Rutgers hit some lucky shots that make you just shrug your shoulders and tip your cap.

14. Seton Hall (10-14, 4-8) :: Pirates of the Caribbean on Stranger Tides
Bullets are no match for pirates… Captain Jack Sparrow nor Jeremy Hazell.

15. South Florida (8-17, 2-10) :: Fast Five
It’s not good when the highlight of your season is “holding” Jimmer Fredette to 32 points in a double-overtime loss and “holding” Kemba Walker to 24 points in an overtime loss. Neither is it good when the highlight of your movie is the trio of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, and Dwayne Johnson. I don’t know what’s more surprising, that they’ve made five Fast and the Furious movies or that South Florida has been in the Big East for five years already. Either way, it sure was a “fast five”.

16. DePaul (6-17, 0-11) :: Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
Never say never, unless the question is “When will DePaul win a Big East game?”

Friday, February 4, 2011

NFL: Nova Football League

Villanova’s return home after their 3-game road trip wasn’t as sweet as they had hoped it would be. Austin Freeman led Georgetown with 30 points in a 69-66 victory over Nova in Philly. However, Nova’s true return home to the cozy confines of the on-campus Pavilion was just what they needed to halt a 2-game losing streak. The 75-70 win over Marquette marked the Wildcats’ 46th-straight victory at the Pavilion. Now if only Jay Wright could figure out a way to move the Big East and NCAA Tournaments to the Pavilion…

With the Super Bowl approaching this Sunday, it got me thinking. What if Villanova’s basketball players chose a different path? What if they ditched the hardwood for the gridiron and devoted their lives to the sport of football instead of basketball? Could they do it?

I could see Corey Fisher being a Ray Rice-like running back. He’s quick and has a compact frame, plus he has a knack for bouncing off of defenders on his way to score. With 6-pointers, instead of 3-pointers, Fisher should be able to double the 105 points he scored last summer.

Corey Stokes is the ultimate deep threat in basketball, which would make him a perfect wide receiver in football. He could use his height to his advantage when catching jump-balls in the end zone like Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. The only problem is Stokes is too humble to be a prima donna wideout like TO and Moss. He will have to work on that.

Maalik Wayns would be the quarter back. He’s a natural leader, a playmaker, a scorer, and a distributor. With his lightening-fast speed he could be the next Michael Vick. You know, minus the whole dog fighting thing.

Antonio Pena has all the tools to play linebacker in the NFL. He’s definitely the strongest player on the team, and he just has that “look”, like Ray Lewis and Lawrence Taylor, that strikes fear into opposing players.

This should be easy, Mouphtaou Yarou grew up playing football… never mind that was “the other football”. But Mouph has proven to be a fast learner of new sports, and I could see him lining up at defensive end. He has the footwork to get around offensive guards and rush the quarterback plus the length to deflect passes.

Dominic Cheek would make a nice NFL safety. He is one of the most versatile players at Villanova, able to play multiple positions. As a safety he’d be free to roam on defense and make plays like Troy Polamalu. Although he’d have to start growing his hair out.

Maurice Sutton’s tall skinny frame doesn’t lend itself to football too well, but he could be useful on special teams. At almost 7-feet tall, Sutton can be a kick and punt blocking specialist. He just needs to jump over the line and swat away any field goal attempts with his long arms.

Isaiah Armwood has the speed, strength, and athleticism to make a very good corner back. He’s already defensive-minded, and he could use his height and leaping ability to intercept passes.

At 6’5, 225 lbs., James Bell is big and strong for a basketball guard, especially at Villanova, but that frame is ideal for a football tight end. Bell is right around the same size as Antonio Gates, who went from playing college basketball to being a Pro Bowl tight end.

Walk-ons Russell Wooten and Dallas Ouano perform the unsung duties of hyping up their teammates from the bench and pushing them at practice, so it’s only natural that they play the least heralded position in football, the offensive line. But they will need to start eating more. A lot more.

Even though he’s a great head coach, Jay Wright is the only member of the Villanova basketball program that definitely could not make the transition to football. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t imagine Jay wearing a sleeveless hooded sweatshirt on the sidelines like Bill Belichick. Moreover, the headsets would ruin his hair, and his designer suits wouldn’t mesh well with the frozen tundra of Lambeau.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Best Motion Picture of the Year Nominees

Winter’s Bone
A young girl has to travel through the crystal meth-infested neighborhoods of the Ozark Mountains to find her father. Speaking of tough winter road trips, after a tough loss to a top-10 team at UConn, Villanova had to go up to the Carrier dome to face an even higher ranked top-10 team, then they had to travel to the always raucous Dunkin Donuts Center. Who would have figured that Villanova’s lone win in the 3-game road trip would come against the toughest opponent of the three, #3-ranked Syracuse. However, Nova followed that impressive win with a loss against a Providence team that started out 0-6 in Big East play, though the Friars are a much better team than that poor start would indicate.

I think Jim Boheim pulled some kind of inception, breaking into our minds and making us think that his Syracuse team was better than it actually is. The Orange started out 18-0, but have now dropped three straight, including a 22-point loss at home to Seton Hall. Or was I just dreaming about that?

The King’s Speech
The story of George VI overcoming a speech impediment to become the king of Britain. Maalik Wayns has seemingly overcome a 3-point shooting impediment that he was struggling with earlier this season to become the “king” of Villanova these past couple of games. Wayns has led the team in scoring in each of the past two games; 21 points (3-7 3pt) vs. Syracuse and 18 points (2-4 3pt) vs. Providence.

Toy Story 3
Fisher Price is one of the best toy companies out there. Fisher Price is also one of the best college point guards out there. However, against the Friars, Vincent Council played more like Fisher Price than Fisher himself. Council had 16 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists, including some impressive alley-oop passes. Meanwhile, Fisher shot 2-10 from the field to score just 7 points.

127 Hours
That’s about how much time Corey Stokes needs to spend practicing shooting. I thought he broke out of his slump for good with that 16 point (4-11 3pt) game against Syracuse, but then he went on to have his worst shooting night… probably ever. 2 of 16 from the field!? 1 of 9 from three!? At least he was perfect from the free throw line, and he grabbed a season-high 9 rebounds. But if he doesn’t improve that shooting stroke, he might have to cut his own arm off.

Black Swan
Maurice Sutton is a white swan who needs to embrace his dark side more often and play like a black swan. He showed he can play tough against Syracuse with 8 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks, but he had just 1 point and 2 rebounds in 9 foul-plagued minutes against Providence. Mouphtaou Yarou is another player who occasionally suffers from “white swan syndrome”. He’s had some stellar games this season, but he’s also had his share of sub-par performances, most recently against Providence (3 points, 2 rebounds, 1-6 FG). Embrace your inner black swans, big guys… just don’t lose your minds in the process.

True Grit
Sutton can learn a thing or two from his teammate Antonio Pena who showed true grit against Providence with 17 points and 15 rebounds. Dominic Cheek also showed some grit, scoring 9 points and grabbing 9 rebounds in just his second game back from his knee injury. I hate to do it, but I have to credit Rick Jackson for his grit as well. He had 16 points and 15 rebounds in the loss to Nova, and he’s been a double-double machine all season.

The Fighter
Like boxers, Scoop Jardine (1-8 FG, 0-3 3pt) and Dion Waiters (2-12 FG, 1-7 3pt) went down swinging-- or shooting-- in their loss to Nova. Marshon Brooks’ Providence team may have won, and he still scored 20 points, but his 0 for 8 three-point shooting performance versus Nova was… interesting. When you’re 0 for 7 on the night, you’d think he would think twice before bricking that eighth three. But no, even when pinned against the ropes, Brooks went down swinging and threw up one last brick.

The Social Network
A story of friends turned enemies over millions of dollars… Just like former Wildcat teammates Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry, who now battle against each other in the NBA with their million dollar contracts. Lowry’s Rockets beat Foye’s Clippers Wednesday night, 96-83, while both players scored 20 points a piece. Foye looks like he’s finally healthy for the first time this season, and he’s stepped into the starting shooting guard role with the injury to Eric Gordon. Even though Randy and Kyle are enemies on the court, they still remain friends on Facebook.

The Kids Are All Right
This movie title sums up the state of Jay Wright’s squad right now. The young Wildcats will continue to have their ups and down throughout the grueling Big East schedule, but ultimately, they’ll be alright.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Huskies Halt Wildcats Win Streak

With 2.5 seconds left in a tie game, Kemba Walker ended Villanova’s winning streak at 11 games, resulting in the Wildcats’ first Big East loss of the season. On the bright side, I’m still a perfect 18-0 in my preseason predictions. If only I had followed through and done some sports betting before the season... Maybe I have some kind of supernatural psychic power, and I doomed Nova by predicting them to lose to the Huskies. In that case, is it too late to change my prediction for the Syracuse game this Saturday?

Also on the bright side, Corey Fisher outscored fellow Bronx native Kemba Walker 28-24. The 28 points were a season-high for Fisher, who also dished out 6 assists. Fisher had an impressive performance in the comeback-win over Maryland as well, when he scored 8 of his 17 points during a 19-0 Villanova run late in the game. When you throw out the inflated early season statistics and focus on conference play, Fisher is right there with Walker in the running for Big East Player of the Year, which is another preseason prediction that I’d gladly be wrong about.

Unfortunately, Nova did lose the game, so there is inevitably a dark side. I knew Corey Stokes’ out of this world shooting would eventually fall back to earth, but I never foresaw a slump this bad. Nova was able to overcome his 4-14 FG and 1-7 3PT shooting day against Maryland, but Stokes’ 0-6 shooting day proved costly in a tight game against UConn. Even the best of shooters are prone to the occasional slump, so Stokes just needs to stay confident in his stroke and shoot his way out of it.

Maalik Wayns was instrumental in the Maryland comeback, scoring 22 points, hitting 7 of 10 field goals and 7 of 9 free throws. Wayns is at his best when he drives to the basket and draws fouls like his mentor Kyle Lowry. However, he only earned one trip to the line against the Huskies and missed all four of his 3-point attempts. Speaking of Lowry, he has remained the Rockets’ starting point guard even after Aaron Brooks returned from injury, and his play hasn’t suffered any drop-off. Lowry tied his season-high with 28 points last week against Chris Paul and the Hornets.

Antonio Pena had 14 points and 10 rebounds against Maryland, his first double-double since December 3, but don’t let that stat fool you. Pena, averaging about 10 points and 7 rebounds, is quietly having a super super-senior season (say that five times fast) for Nova. He had a modest 8 points and 5 rebounds in the loss to UConn, but the more important stat is the 38 minutes that he played in the game (and 39 minutes vs. Maryland). Throughout his career, Pena’s fatal flaw was always his inability to stay on the floor due to foul trouble, but he’s done a fantastic job at avoiding stupid fouls this season. Pena is yet to be disqualified from a game this season after fouling out eight times in 2009-2010. It helps that he is playing alongside a legitimate center in Mouphtaou Yarou, but you can tell that the 24-year-old Pena has grown wiser with his years.

Yarou’s scoring has been sporadic this season, following up his season-high 18 points versus Louisville with 3 points versus Maryland then 8 points versus UConn. However, Mouph must be watching Kevin Love game tape because his rebounding has stayed consistent, grabbing double-digit boards in three straight games. And Yarou must have shared that tape with Isaiah Armwood before the Maryland game because he went on to record a career-high 13 rebounds. Maybe Armwood had some extra motivation playing against his home-state school. Jay Wright has had to lean on Armwood and freshman James Bell more than usual these past two games because of the knee injury that Dominic Cheek suffered against Maryland. The outcome of the UConn game likely would have been a little different if Cheek, a sixth man of the year candidate, was available. Fortunately, the injury isn’t serious, and Cheek should be back soon.

Before I close, one more note for the bright side... At least the 33rd overall pick in the 2009 draft, Dante Cunningham, is having a better NBA career than the 2nd overall pick, Hasheem Thabeet.