MBB: ‘Cats go one and done

Kyle Scudilla

In relation to the hype of the past few weeks, Villanova’s showing against the Kentucky Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA tournament was quite disappointing.

After all, Kentucky hadn’t beaten a Top 25 team all year, had lost six of its last eight games including its first and only SEC tournament game and had its coach in the hot seat. The games aren’t played on paper, but saying that most of the experts had Villanova pegged to win the game would be an understatement.

But the things that made the difference between Villanova being a No 1 seed last year and a No 9 seed this year were magnified beyond their usual scope on Friday night. The lack of a third scoring option, which cost the ‘Cats a few games this year, was painfully evident. The offense as a whole went through significant scoring droughts in both halves throughout the season. The injuries suffered toward the end of the year seemed to have affect Villanova in more than one place on the floor.

“We just haven’t been a great offensive team,” Head Coach Jay Wright said. “We’ve been inconsistent offensively. You try to keep yourself in it defensively and get some offensive rebounds, and that’s where Kentucky really impressed me. They killed us on the boards. We can usually come up with some offensive rebounds and keep ourselves in it, but we just couldn’t tonight.”

However, if this game were examined through a wider scope, say one over the course of the last five months, Villanova’s program would probably be reasonably happy with how its new-look, younger roster had performed. Three-fourths of the team’s celebrated 2002 recruiting class as well as its star point guard were gone. In their place rose freshmen and sophomores who took on a much bigger role on a team that suddenly found itself thrust into the spotlight thanks to an unprecedented win total, awards on the conference and national level and a great deal of attention from the NBA.

But the team did enough to get itself back to the NCAA tournament, a place that’s becoming familiar territory for the program once again. The early losses were tough. Villanova’s fans, spoiled by the riches of the previous season, weren’t used to seeing losses to mid-major teams like Xavier and Drexel early in the season. But the early trials of the season, mostly experienced away from the comfortable surroundings of Villanova’s campus and the Pavilion, helped build the team’s chemistry. The Wildcats managed to win all the pressure-packed games of Big 5 play and swept their way to a city title for the second straight season. Conference play this year wasn’t as much of a breeze as it had been the previous season. A 9-7 record in Big East play isn’t overly remarkable on the surface, but the young ‘Cats finished above .500 against the toughest schedule the unbalanced setup of the conference had to offer. Wins over Georgetown and Notre Dame got ‘Nova going in the Big East. A big win over Texas at the Wachovia Center without the injured Curtis Sumpter boosted the Wildcats’ confidence and NCAA tournament standing in a big way.

High turnover is often the name of the game in college basketball, where a player only gets four (or, in Curtis Sumpter’s case, five) years to make his impact on a program. Villanova will miss the likes of Mike Nardi, Will Sheridan and Sumpter, who have played significant minutes from the moment they donned the Wildcat uniform. Additionally, Ross Condon, who never saw the limelight on the court but helped the younger ‘Cats learn and compete in practice, will be missed in the grand scheme of the program. But the Villanova program has weathered such losses as recently as this past season.

“We’re losing guys that have been to the Elite Eight, Sweet 16,” said Scottie Reynolds, far-and-away the 2006-2007 season’s most pleasant surprise. “So we just have to take what they’ve built and take pride in what they’ve done. And you know it’s going to be tough. A lot of people have to fill big shoes, and it’s going to be real tough.”

Sumpter, who saw first-hand the massive changes after the losses of his fellow recruits Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Jason Fraser, sounded more confident in Reynolds and the rest of next year’s Wildcats’ ability to keep the program at the high level it has found itself at during the last three seasons.

“We’ve accomplished that goal,” Sumpter said. “I think we got it started. I think that guys that are behind us are going to keep coming in and keep fulfilling their roles and keep the tradition going, and I think Villanova will be back every single year.”