MBB: ‘Cats overcome key losses, growing pains to succeed

Tim Richer

Last Saturday marked the end of the ’06-’07 men’s basketball season, with a 67-58 loss to Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament. While the loss was disappointing for a Wildcat team that featured three senior starters, the game capped off an overall successful season in which Villanova (22-11, 10-8 Big East) continued to establish itself as a yearly tournament contender in college basketball, after losing three players to the NBA after last season.

Grueling schedule

One of the most distinguishing features of the Wildcats’ season was their schedule. Villanova had the seventh toughest schedule in the country and the toughest in-conference schedule of any of the 336 teams in Division I basketball.

The Wildcats played three games against Georgetown, a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tourney. Other matchups included home-and-home series against Notre Dame (No. 6 seed in the NCAA tourney) and Syracuse (No. 2 seed in the NIT). Other big contests included home games against Pittsburgh (NCAA No. 3 seed) and Louisville (NCAA No. 6 seed), with away games at Marquette (NCAA No. 8 seed) and Providence (No. 5 seed in NIT).

The ‘Cats biggest win of the year came in a road battle against the Georgetown Hoyas at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. The victory was a breakout game for freshman guard Scottie Reynolds, who led ‘Nova with 16 points in the four-point victory.

The Wachovia Center played host to four of ‘Nova’s closest conference games. The Wildcats defeated Syracuse and Louisville by a combined seven points. However, they lost to Pittsburgh and Georgetown by a combined nine points. Contests at Syracuse and Marquette were Villanova’s two worst losses; the Wildcats dropped both by double digits without much of a chance of victory in either.

Villanova’s out-of-conference schedule proved to be tough with a marquee matchup against Texas at the Wachovia Center. The Wildcats defeated the Longhorns, holding Player of the Year candidate Kevin Durant to just 12 points, his third lowest scoring effort of the season.

The Wildcat’s second biggest out-of-conference victory was a 16-point thrashing at Oklahoma. With the win, ‘Nova broke the Sooners’ 49-game non-conference home winning streak, the longest in the country.

For the second year in a row, the Wildcats swept the Big 5, winning the title with ease. Penn gave Villanova its most competitive game, with the Wildcats winning by 10 at the Palestra in a contest that was not decided until late in the second half.

‘Nova’s only Southeastern Conference opponent this season was Kentucky, which it played in Chicago. The loss gave Villanova its third non-conference defeat of the season; the other two came against Xavier in the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands and Drexel at the Pavilion in December.

Senior leadership

The loss to Kentucky signifies the last collegiate game for seniors Curtis Sumpter, Mike Nardi, Will Sheridan and Ross Condon. This class helped Villanova get selected to three straight NCAA tournaments for the first time since 1995-1997 and helped bring the Wildcats back onto the national map.

Sumpter, named to the All-Big East First Team, finished his fifth year on the Villanova squad by leading the team in scoring and rebounding with over 17 points and seven rebounds per game. The Brooklyn-born player finished his last season with a bang; Sumpter averaged 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 38.5 minutes per contest in his last four games in a ‘Nova uniform.

Nardi, an All-Big East honorable mention, turned in a career in which he was a four-year starter. The senior guard had his best season yet, averaging almost 12 points and four assists per game. Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, Nardi did not end the season well, as he was hampered with leg injuries, averaging only 12 minutes in his last four games – in two of which he went scoreless.

Sheridan is one of the toughest players to come through Villanova in a long time. Often outsized by his opponents, the 6-foot-8-inch forward was responsible for guarding the opposing teams’ centers. His claim-to-fame this season was holding 7-foot-2-inch Georgetown center Roy Hibbert to under seven points per game in three contests this season.

As the lone walk-on, Condon provided Villanova with a valuable leader, practice player, and fan-favorite. The last action that the senior from Springfield, Va., saw was a start against Rutgers during Senior Night at the Pavilion in which he tallied two points and two rebounds before leaving the court to a standing ovation from the capacity crowd.

Underclassmen step up

Although the leaders on this year’s Wildcats were clearly the seniors, a slew of underclassmen rose to the occasion to provide Villanova with valuable contributions.

Not many freshmen were more valuable to their teams than Reynolds was to Villanova. Reynolds, the Big East Rookie of the Year and member of the All-Big East Second Team, was dominant for the Wildcats, averaging 14.5 points per game for the season and over 18 points per game in conference play, good for second in the Big East.

The stocky, 6-foot-2-inch point guard’s most memorable game took place at Connecticut in February, when Reynolds single-handedly led ‘Nova to a victory by scoring 40 points. Over the last eight games of the season, the freshman star averaged over 24 points per game, pairing up with Sumpter to form one of the best scoring duos in the country.

A surprise rookie contributor for the Wildcats was swingman Reggie Redding. Before entering Big East play, Redding was used sparingly in the Wildcats’ rotation. Toward the end of January, he became a cog in Coach Wright’s lineup, averaging over 22 minutes per game in ‘Nova’s last 16 games. He started and played big minutes for the Wildcats in the Big East and NCAA tournaments, relieving the injured Nardi.

Sophomore Dante Cunningham emerged as Villanova’s best inside scoring option, tallying almost nine points per game at the forward/center position. The importance of his contributions cannot be overstated. Cunningham was held to just four points against Kentucky, a major factor in the first-round loss. The high-flying sophomore scored in double figures in 12 games for ‘Nova, only one of which was a loss for the ‘Cats.

The most versatile player for the Wildcats proved to be sophomore forward Shane Clark. Clark averaged over seven points and four rebounds per game this season and made several starts for the team. Noted for his great defense and good 3-point shooting, the Philly native was a key contributor in Villanova’s short, seven-man rotation.