A string of ups and downs leave ‘Cats sixth in polls

Paul Martucci

Spirits were high amongst the Villanova basketball community. In spite of suffering two close losses over winter break, the team had just defeated nationally ranked Syracuse by 15 and shooter Allan Ray had found his shot, leading all scorers on the night with 22 points.

Two days later, however, news turned sour for the team as Ray strained a hamstring during practice the day before a Big East match-up at South Florida.

This progression of events is typical of how the past two weeks have gone for the Wildcats. The team currently stands at 14-2, tied for third in the Big East with a 5-1 conference record. Both the AP and Coaches poll rank the ‘Cats sixth.

‘Nova, however, has shot a disappointing 38.7 percent on field goals over the past five contests, significantly lower than the Wildcats had started off the season. The team has managed a 4-1 record over that stretch, but its average margin of victory over those four wins is just a notch over eight points.

In this past week, the Wildcats have seen action against two Big East foes. Last Saturday, the Wachovia Center hosted a showdown between then eighth-ranked Villanova and then 20th-ranked Syracuse. Coming off a close win over Seton Hall, the ‘Cats needed to make a statement against Syracuse to reassure the nation that they belonged in the top ten.

In front of a sold out crowd of 20,581, the largest ever to witness a college basketball game in Pennsylvania, Villanova quickly exploded against the Orange, building a 12-0 lead before Syracuse even mustered a shot attempt. The Wildcats used their feistiness to create 15 first half turnovers, scoring 25 points off those turnovers. At halftime, ‘Nova led 39-20.

Syracuse, less than a week after a near-comeback win over Connecticut, came out firing its way to a 17-2 run to start the second half, finding itself down only four. But the ‘Cats answered in the clutch, as a Will Sheridan steal led to a Kyle Lowry lay-up and foul for a three-point play. The play resurged the struggling Wildcats, and they rebuilt the lead to an 80-65 victory.

Ray’s 22 points and eight rebounds were both the game’s best, and the slumping senior guard left the game with a big confidence boost.

“They gave us a lot of open looks and when you give good players open looks, it’s hard not to miss,” Ray said.

Following the game, the players prepped for a flight to Florida and a battle with one of the Big East’s newest members, South Florida. The Bulls of USF entered the game with a 6-12 record, but lost four game by six points or less, including a three point loss to a Georgetown team that knocked off Duke last week and a four point loss to the streaking West Virginia Mountaineers.

The day before the game, Ray tweaked his hamstring during a team shoot around. Although the injury isn’t being considered serious, coach Jay Wright and the ‘Cats chose to give Ray the game off to recover.

Without Ray, the game was a low scoring slugfest, as the ‘Cats shot below 30 percent for only their second time this season. Things looked bleak when a South Florida 3-pointer opened up a seven point Bulls lead with just under six minutes to go.

But pressure defense and clutch shooting, highlighted by a Randy Foye and Mike Nardi three-pointer, gave Villanova a quick 8-0 run and a one point lead. Another basket put the Wildcats up by three, and they never trailed again in a highly contested 49-46 victory.

In spite of the adversity the ‘Cats faced against the 6-13 Bulls, Wright was optimistic.

“That was a good experience for us,” Wright said. “I think this game is going to really make us stronger.”

In spite of the ugliness of the win, Villanova now finds itself on a three-game winning streak entering Saturday’s game at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame, like many other Big East teams who have faced the ‘Cats thus far, will be gunning for the upset.

The Wildcats, however, will look to finally put all aspects of their game together and break through with a complete and convincing victory.