‘Nova hopes growth spurt leads to big ’06-’07 results

Paul Martucci

218 days. It may seem like an eternity ago. Counting to 218 would easily take about 2 minutes and 56 seconds. The thought of 218 cans of soda, over 20 gallons worth, makes even the largest of stomachs quiver. But 218 days separate today from Villanova’s Elite Eight exit after a heartbreaking 75-62 loss to the eventual national champion, Florida.

In those 218 days, Villanova basketball took an unparalleled turn-around. Three former starters – Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry and Allan Ray – are currently establishing themselves in the NBA. Foye and Ray each earned spots on the All-Big East First Team, while Lowry earned a spot on the Second Team. Together, they combined to average over 50 points per game.

This season, despite the loss of these three guards, the Wildcats will attempt to continue its recent success as one of the nation’s most prominent college basketball programs. To accomplish this, three senior starters will lead the new ‘Nova squad, sparked by the youth of an astonishing ten freshmen and sophomores.

Senior tri-captain Mike Nardi is the Wildcats’ leading returning scorer. In the ’05-’06 campaign, Nardi, a 6-foot-2-inch guard, averaged 10.4 points per game, but this was nearly two points higher before he missed two mid-season games due to tonsillitis. This season, Nardi will have the responsibility of shouldering a more significant portion of the responsibility.

“It’s going to be me making more plays, being more aggressive,” he said. “Obviously, teams are going to focus more on myself and Curtis [Sumpter]. So it’s going to be harder, but that’s what I’m preparing for. That’s what Coach [Jay Wright] is working with me for, and I think I’ll be ready.”

As Nardi mentioned, he will be joined by red-shirt senior and fellow tri-captain Curtis Sumpter.

Sumpter, as many ‘Nova fans recall, tore his left ACL for the second time in his career only two days before the 2005 Hoops Mania. Sumpter, who was arguably Villanova’s best player in his junior season, averaged 15.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game before tearing his ACL for the first time in the 2005 NCAA Tournament against Florida. At 6 feet 7 inches, Sumpter is an explosive forward who was recently the only Wildcat named to the Preseason All-Big East Team.

In regard to Sumpter’s personal aspirations for the season, it is clear that the injury has not completely left his mind.

“I just want to go out there and put together a full season, injury-free,” he said. “I just want to stay healthy.”

The third senior tri-captain, a returning starter from last season’s Elite Eight crew, is Will Sheridan. Revered by the students of Villanova, Sheridan averaged career highs of 5.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last season. A 6-foot-8-inch forward, Sheridan established himself as a dominant inside presence, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds against then-top-ranked UConn and netting 17 points along with 13 rebounds against Rutgers in the Big East Tournament.

Joining these three is another senior. A 5-foot-11-inch guard, Ross Condon sees limited action but dedicates himself as a reserve role-player with positive energy.

This year’s Wildcats, who are lacking juniors after losing Kyle Lowry to the NBA, showcase a plethora of fresh faces. Five sophomores and five freshmen round out the final ten ‘Cats.

Dante Cunningham, a 6-foot-9-inch forward, saw the most playing time of the current Villanova sophomores. Cunningham averaged a meek 2.2 points per game, but in his 19 minutes per game average, he added to the Wildcat defense, creating 27 steals to go along with 132 rebounds, an average of about 4 per game.

Shane Clark, a late arrival to last year’s squad, didn’t see his first glimpse of action until Dec. 31 against Temple. In his shortened season, however, Clark still managed to score 2.2 points per game. The 6-foot-7-inch forward is one of Villanova’s most athletic players.

Along with these two forwards, the sophomore class consists of 6-foot-5-inch guard Bilal Benn, 6-foot-6-inch guard/forward Dwayne Anderson and 6-foot-9-inch forward Frank Tchuisi. While these players saw minimal playing time last year, the loss of three starters will result in increased minutes.

Rounding out the new Wildcats squad are five freshmen. Leading the pack is 6-foot point guard Scottie Reynolds. A McDonald’s All-American, Reynolds was one of Virginia’s best high school scorers. Averaging 28.4 points, 4.5 assists and 4.0 steals per game as a high school senior, Reynolds is a talented point guard that will look to make an immediate impact on the ‘Cats.

Reynolds signed a national letter of intent to play college basketball at the University of Oklahoma, but he terminated that contract when former Oklahoma Head Coach Kelvin Sampson moved to Indiana. Soon thereafter, Reynolds chose Villanova.

Head Coach Jay Wright has been impressed thus far with Reynolds’ impact at the early stages of team practices.

“[Reynolds] is probably the only guy who doesn’t need to earn a spot, but he’s doing it,” he said. “There’s no limit on what his role can be. Scottie can also help with getting Nardi off the ball sometimes to free up his shooting. Development is going to determine how he’s going to play.”

Alongside Reynolds will be four other freshmen who will fight to earn substantial roles this season. Reggie Redding, a 6-foot-4-inch forward from Philadelphia, Pa., connected on three 3-pointers to lead all scorers at Hoops Mania with 11 points. Casiem Drummond, a 6-foot-10-inch center, is one of the largest players to play for Villanova basketball in years. Drummond comes to Villanova as a three-year starter from Bloomfield Tech, one of the country’s most consistent basketball programs.

Antonio Peña, a 6-foot-9-inch forward, joins the ‘Cats from Brooklyn, N.Y. Peña spent much of his youth following his fellow Brooklyn teammate, Sumpter. With Sumpter’s ACL injury, he and Peña now have the opportunity to spend a season together.

Andrew Ott, a 6-foot-9-inch forward, rounds out the freshmen. Ott netted over 1,000 points in his high school career at Germantown Academy.

Entering his sixth season with Villanova, Wright will try to extend his success into another season. Through five seasons, Wright has posted a .638 winning percentage. He has led the Wildcats to at least the Sweet 16 in both of the past two seasons and has consistently impressed national critics who were hesitant to give Villanova the credit it deserved. In both championship runs, the Wildcats lost to the eventual national champion.

This year, most national experts are predicting an ’06-’07 season far weaker than last year’s top-five run. Big East coaches picked the ‘Cats to finish seventh behind Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Syracuse, Marquette, Connecticut and Louisville. The recently-released Coaches Poll leaves the Wildcats unranked. Most columnists are calling this season a rebuilding year at Villanova.

“It’s definitely tough to lose three guys to the NBA and still field a good team,” Nardi said. “But we’ve got great coaches, so I think Coach Wright is doing a great job.”

Last season, the Wildcats utilized an exciting and unusual four-guard starting lineup. This year, though, with only one of those four guards returning, the face of the Wildcats will be significantly altered.

Tall forwards, like Sumpter, Sheridan and Cunningham, will create an inside force. Fewer guards will equate to fewer 3-point shooting frenzies that were typical of last year’s Wildcats. Last year’s run-and-gun offense will turn into a more methodical, body-banging approach on the inside.

“I feel a little more comfortable going into the start of the season with a little more size in the starting lineup,” Wright said. “I like having more size.”

The Wildcats will face a grueling Big East schedule in addition to several testing non-conference match-ups. ‘Nova is set to compete in the Virgin Islands Paradise Jam with SEC power Alabama, this year’s Atlantic-10 favorite, Xavier, and last year’s Big Ten champion, Iowa. They play on Dec. 6 at Oklahoma and host Texas on Jan. 20.

The Big East schedule includes a contest with every conference team except South Florida. The Wildcats will play twice against Georgetown, Syracuse and Notre Dame.

It’s been 218 days since ‘Nova’s Elite Eight exit, and the ‘Cats have had a long time to look back. Despite a successful season, Villanova’s tournament exit left a slightly sour taste in the team’s mouth.

The counting doesn’t end there. In 12 days, Villanova will begin the regular season in West Palm Beach, Fla., against Northwood University. In 65 days, the ‘Cats kick off Big East play in Morgantown, W.Va., against West Virginia. And in 136 days, the first tip-off of March Madness will finally take place.