Wildcats declawed in NYC

Nate McGann

The trip to Madison Square Garden was a homecoming for several of the Wildcats and just in time for some Thanksgiving cooking. Unfortunately, dessert came in the form of a Tennessee team with a chip on its shoulder, and the Volunteers left the ‘Cats with a bad taste in their mouths.

Then-No. 7 Villanova played easily its worst game of the young season, falling to Tennessee 78-68 last Friday in the final of the NIT Season tip-off. The Wildcats fell behind early but managed to come back and take the lead for the first time in the second half only to see it slip away.

“[Tennessee is a] very good defensive team,” Head Coach Jay Wright said after the game. “They didn’t give Fish many 1-on-1 opportunities. He got some looks early, good looks and missed them.”

The story of the game was the inability of Villanova’s guards to get anything going on offense. Tennessee’s length prevented Wright’s backcourt from executing its dribble-drive offense, resulting in forced jump shots from long distance.

Senior guard Corey Fisher finished with three points on 1-of-10 shooting, and sophomore guard Maalik Wayns wasn’t efficient, scoring 11 points on 3-of-11 shooting.

“I thought the physicality of [Melvin Goins’] defense and the ball pressure he put on Wayns was very significant,” said Tennessee Head Coach Bruce Pearl. “Corey [Fisher] was getting some shots but he wasn’t getting to the rim and he was having to shoot over that 6-foot-6 frame.”

Poor shooting has become a trend for this team with both Wayns and Fisher shooting under 40 percent from the floor and 20 percent from beyond the arc.

Even more troubling was that both guards tried to force too many long jump shots even when it was clear they weren’t falling.

The Wildcats battled and opened the second half on a 9-2 run to take their first lead of the game, and things started to look like they were turning.

“When we got the lead, Coach just told us to keep a great attitude,” Fisher said. “That’s all he kept saying. Keep pounding at the rock. We continued to play hard.”

Villanova relinquished the lead and pulled within one on a Dominic Cheek layup with just over seven minutes remaining, but that was followed by seven unanswered Volunteer points. Tennessee led by at least five points the rest of the way.

“They played really aggressive,” Fisher said. “Coach told us they were going to come out and play, and that’s what they did. They came out and played really aggressive. We missed some shots and they didn’t quit during the whole game.”

The missed shots weren’t the only problem. Much like last year, the team gave up too many fouls on defense.

Wayns, Fisher and senior guard Corey Stokes all ended up fouling out late in the second half, resulting in freshman James Bell’s first appearance. He took one shot.

Many assumed Tennessee would struggle because of the off-the-court issues surrounding Pearl. Pearl was recently suspended by the SEC for recruiting violations he made earlier in the year.

His impending eight-game suspension may get worse as the NCAA still hasn’t ruled on the matter.

But this wasn’t the first time the Volunteers have been in the news for indiscretions, and they’ve always played quality games under Pearl considering the circumstances, so the win shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Wright said when asked about Pearl’s situation. “I know he’s a good guy. I know he has integrity. This business is tough. It can get to you. I admire the way he’s handling all of it. He’s doing a great job of coaching.”

Despite the glaring problems, there was a bright spot in the form of sophomore forward Mouphtaou Yarou. Yarou has continued to develop and looked extremely comfortable for long stretches on the court.

His ability to alter shots on defense coupled with his rebounding prowess on both sides of the court has been a welcomed site for a typically guard-oriented program. He finished with 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting.

The ‘Cats take on St. Joe’s tomorrow at the Pavilion.