‘Cats knock off UConn, but other challenges lie ahead

Kyle Scudilla

After spending the entire season as a top-ten team that has received little attention as a real contender for a national title, the Villanova Wildcats shocked many of the “experts” with their enormous win over the No. 1 ranked Connecticut Huskies at the Wachovia Center. To not only win the game, but to do so in the fashion that they did, coming from behind when down by 12 points, could be the defining moment of the season, according to Coach Jay Wright.

Villanova’s players weren’t surprised by the comeback. According to junior forward Will Sheridan, who had a season-high 13 points and added 10 rebounds, “We’re resilient. We never stop.”

While that statement sums it up well for Villanova on the whole, it also certainly can be said for the game’s leading scorer, the Wildcats’ Allan Ray. After an off game at DePaul and missing his first few shots against UConn, Ray seemed to not lose one shred of confidence, burying NBA-distance three pointers from all over the court for a total of 5 of 10 from downtown and 25 points.

“Once I got it going, I felt like I couldn’t miss a shot,” Ray said after the game.

“To be a good shooter, you’ve got to have nights like that,” Wright said about the DePaul game. He added, “Allan’s learned a lot from last season. He’s got a great shooter’s mentality.”

Ray’s fury of long-range bombs could not have come at a better time for Villanova, as his shooting streak, teamed with Mike Nardi’s three pointer from the right wing, brought the ‘Cats all the way back from a double-digit deficit. The guard quartet, completed by Kyle Lowry and Randy Foye, was able to pressure UConn’s ball handlers into coughing up the ball and leading to penetration kick-outs for open looks for Ray and Sheridan. The overall performance was the most impressive Villanova has had, handing the Huskies only their second loss of the season and giving the Wildcats sole possession of first place in the Big East.

Despite the amount of attention Wright and the team have been receiving for their statement win, a couple of tough games still remain on the schedule before the Wildcats travel to Connecticut for their rematch with the Huskies.

If any game could follow a win against the No. 1 team in the nation and carry into it a comparable level of anticipation, this Sunday’s matchup might be it for Villanova fans. Anyone who has ever attended Villanova or Georgetown knows what transpired in 1985 between the two teams, and it is that famed upset that remains in the conciousness of all on-lookers each time these two teams get together. This season is the most highly anticipated contest between the two squads in years, as both are ranked in the top 25 and are near the top of the Big East.

Surprisingly, Georgetown has emerged as one of the new Big East’s top contenders. After an up-and-down start, the Hoyas won seven straight, including wins against Providence and St. John’s in the first Big East games of the season. However, losses against West Virginia and Connecticut, two of the conference’s elite, seemed to show that Georgetown was still at least one or two steps down from the top. Perceptions of the Hoyas changed quickly when just two games later, they knocked off then-undefeated and No. 1 ranked Duke at home. Georgetown immediately cracked the top 25 and hasn’t looked back since. They have now won seven of their last eight games, including impressive wins against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Notre Dame.

Coach John Thompson III’s team is led by its solid frontline, which features size, strength and three players in double figures scoring-wise. The team’s leading scorer is Brandon Bowman, a 6-foot-9 senior forward who’s averaging 12.1 ppg and 5.6 rpg. Right behind Bowman in scoring, but leading the team in rebounding is fellow forward Jeff Green. Also standing at 6-foot-9, the impressive sophomore is averaging 12 ppg, 6.4 rpg and a team-high 32 minutes per game. The frontcourt is rounded out by the enormous presence of 7-foot-2, 283-pound center Roy Hibbert. The sophomore has been good for 11.2 ppg and close to six boards per contest. While this group of big men may not be of the same caliber as UConn’s frontline, they are nonetheless a productive group that can bang bodies on the inside and make plays on both sides of the ball.

In the backcourt, Georgetown’s biggest threat is senior point guard Ashanti Cook. Cook averages 9.5 ppg and poses an outside threat, connecting on 44 percent of his three-point attempts this season.

After what is sure to be a physical inside battle for the Wildcats, they will travel to Ohio on Thursday to take on the Cincinnati Bearcats. Cincy is the last of the Conference USA transplants that Villanova will face this year. So far, the Wildcats are 5-0 in games against teams new to the Big East. Cincinnati, meanwhile, is in the middle of the Big East, standing at 5-6 in conference play.

Their season got off to a roaring start, with the team going 13-2 with wins over LSU and Marquette. However, a loss to Connecticut started a downward spiral that has led to the Bearcats dropping seven of their last ten games.

At the current time, Cincinnati is considered to be a bubble team by many experts, and in most cases, on the outside looking in with regards to the NCAA tournament. A win against Villanova would be invaluable to this beleaguered squad, which needs to post at least another win or two against a schedule including ‘Nova, Syracuse, Seton Hall and West Virginia to guarantee itself a spot in the Big East Tournament. Such is the case in this year’s Big East, where a team looking toward making the NCAA tournament must worry first about being able to qualify for its own conference’s brackets.

One thing Cincinnati is certainly not without are guys who can fill up the scoring column. The team’s most valuable player this year has been forward Eric Hicks. The 6-foot-6 senior is averaging close to a double-double, with 14.7 ppg to go along with 9.4 rpg. Swingman James White leads the team in scoring this season with 15.9 ppg, while also contributing five rebounds per contest. Guards Devin Downey (12.3 ppg) and Jihad Muhammad (9.5 ppg), while lacking size, have definitely made contributions to the Cincy backcourt. While the Bearcats have struggled of late, Villanova cannot afford taking a night off, as they will be facing a desperate Cincinnati team on Thursday.

Now in sole possession of first place in the Big East after Seton Hall’s win over West Virginia Tuesday night, the Wildcats control their own destiny in acquiring a top seed in both the Big East tournament and NCAA tournament.

While energy may be hard to come by during this staggering couple of weeks, one thing the ‘Cats will not be short of during the homestretch is opponents looking to knock them off their new, lofty perch.

While energy may be hard to come by during this staggering couple of weeks, one thing the ‘Cats will not be short of during the homestretch is opponents looking to knock them off their new, lofty perch.