‘Cats lick their wounds as Big East schedule rolls on

Kyle Scudilla

If Villanova’s schedule thus far has proved anything, it’s that the new Big East is living up to the hype and then some. After losing to conference rival West Virginia and winning nail biters against Rutgers and South Florida, it appears there’s no such thing as an easy conference game for the Wildcats this season. Two important tests, a trip to Notre Dame and a Wachovia Center match-up against the Cardinals of Louisville, await Villanova in the coming week, with sharpshooter Allan Ray’s status for both games still up in the air.

Without Ray, the Wildcats struggled mightily from the field against South Florida, a squad that is at the very bottom of the Big East. The ‘Cats shot an abysmal 29.6 percent overall, a performance that conjured up images of the heartbreaking loss in Texas earlier this season. Coach Jay Wright described the win as a character-building game that should make the team stronger. While this may be the case, the Wildcats would certainly like to win games more comfortably with better shooting, and with Allan Ray’s status questionable, due to a strained hamstring he suffered in practice, the ‘Cats may be forced to show some more grittiness when trying to grind out wins against more tough Big East competition.

Villanova visits the hallowed grounds of the University of Notre Dame for a Saturday night match-up that marks the first time the teams have met since last season, when the Wildcats and Fighting Irish split their season series. Notre Dame has been disappointing this year, sporting a respectable record of 10-7, but standing at a mere 1-5 in Big East games. When they’re clicking, Notre Dame does have a fairly good balance of inside and outside scoring. Most of their offensive attack comes from the three-point shooting ability of guards such as Chris Quinn, Colin Falls and Kyle McAlarney.

While Villanova’s speedy guards should be able to limit the number of open looks these shooters can get on the perimeter, the key to slowing down Notre Dame offensively for the Wildcats will be limiting big man Torin Francis. Francis is a 6’11” senior who is a solid inside scorer and a force on the glass. Thus far, he’s averaging 12.4 points per game and 9.3 rebounds per contest. Will Sheridan and Jason Fraser need to keep a body on Francis and box him out in the low post, because there is nothing an outside shooting team loves more than offensive rebounds and secondary opportunities to tee it up from downtown.

After a weekend in South Bend, the Wildcats will take center stage at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia once again, this time meeting up with the down, but not out, Louisville Cardinals. The Cardinals, ranked in the top five earlier in the season, have seen their young squad go through some early season disappointment that has led to their descent to No. 22 in the Associated Press poll.

A big part of the reason for this slide has been the rude welcome Coach Rick Pitino and the Cardinals received in their first season in the Big East. Louisville has already dropped conference games to Villanova, Pittsburgh, St. John’s and Connecticut.

Despite the recent pitfalls, and the fact that the Wildcats have already taken Louisville down on their own court earlier this season, Wildcat fans once again should not take Pitino’s team lightly. They are led by senior guard Taquan Dean, who found himself in serious foul trouble for the entire game the first time these teams met up this year. He was ultimately ineffective in the contest, and should be highly motivated this time out to change Louisville’s fortunes.

The top performer in the last Wildcats-Cardinals game was big man David Padgett, who is averaging 12.6 points per game. He is a smart player with the ability to score from a high number of spots on the floor. He scored a team-high 17 points against Villanova last time out and recently dropped 27 points on UConn. He will most certainly be a focus of Louisville’s offensive strategy against Villanova’s post players.

Guard Brandon Jenkins and forward Juan Palacios also average double digits in points for Louisville this season, although Palacios was almost a non-factor in the previous Villanova game, scoring a mere five points while shooting a dismal 1-9 from the field.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, saw big time performances from its senior leaders while also seeing a fresh face step up and play very well. Randy Foye led ‘Nova with 24 points and also pulled down nine rebounds. Fellow seniors Jason Fraser (13 points, 10 rebounds) and Allan Ray (17 points, 5 boards) also made big contributions to the 76-67 Villanova win that served as both teams’ opening Big East game for the season.

Outside of Fraser’s uplifting performance, the most encouraging facet of the last Louisville game was the playmaking ability of freshman forward Dante Cunningham. Cunningham, while helping to clamp down on Padgett and Palacios inside, put up eight points, six rebounds, and three assists while making two SportsCenter-worthy dunks against the Cardinals’ defense.

If Ray is a no-go for Louisville, another freshman, forward Shane Clark, may have to step up and shoulder some of the scoring load if Villanova wants to win. Clark has already shown an impressive skill set on offense, and could be a big help to Foye, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry in the scoring column.

The good news is that Villanova does have many faces to turn to in order to prevent the shooting droughts they have had recently and win some big conference games before the homestretch begins in February.