Villanova Crashes in End of Season Collapse

Villanova´s Jay Wright is ready for the next challenge.

RON CORTES / Staff photographer
Villanova’s Jay Wright is ready for the next challenge

AS MELTDOWNS GO, the way Villanova’s basketball team ended last season sure
looked like it would be hard to ever surpass.

Well, it took all of 12 months to prove that theory wrong.

The 2009-10 Wildcats were 22-2. Then they lost four of their last six heading
into the Big East Tournament, where they had a double bye and were beaten by
Marquette in a 4-5 quarterfinal, needed overtime to move past 15th-seeded Robert
Morris in their NCAA opener before being sent home by 10th-seeded St.
Mary’s.

Now, that seems almost tame by comparison. Because this Villanova team, after
starting 16-1, has gone 5-10 to drop out of the Top 25 for the first time since
the final poll of 2007-08. Those Wildcats would survive a five-game losing
streak at midseason (all by double-digits) to barely make it into the Madness.
Then they made it to the Sweet 16.

There are those who would tell you these Wildcats might have trouble making
the Sweet 16 of the NIT. That’s what happens when you lose five straight. The
first four were to ranked opponents. But Tuesday they blew a 16-point halftime
lead, a Big East tourney record, and lost in the closing moments to 15th-seeded
South Florida, which had won nine times.

Not exactly the way to get on the good side of the selection committee.

“You couldn’t have scripted what happened at Rutgers [one-point loss on
four-point play at buzzer on Feb. 16], or scripted what happened [Tuesday],”
coach Jay Wright said yesterday. “But that’s the way it’s been going. There’s
nothing we can do about it now, except move on to the next challenge. You don’t
want to learn lessons that way. It’s tough because these [four] seniors haven’t
known anything but success.”

Still, the Wildcats figure to get one of the 37 at-large bids into the
68-team NCAA field, at least according to those who compute this stuff best.
This year, they’ve added three at-large bids, which doesn’t hurt.

ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi did drop them from a 7 seed to an 11. Yet he
doesn’t have them as one of his last four out. Of course, nothing is etched in
stone until your name is called on Sunday. But he’s annually pretty accurate.
And in yesterday’s edition of “Bracket Math” he wrote, “Let me quickly and
directly answer the most pressing question of the day: Villanova is NOT going to
miss the NCAA Tournament (and this is coming from a St. Joe’s guy!) . . .
Villanova’s seed is, and should be, very much in doubt. Its selection . . . is
not.”

His rationale? It’s about a body of work, even though no team since the field
was expanded to 64 in 1985, and most likely ever, has made it riding a five-game
losing streak. Lunardi notes that Villanova has eight wins over teams that are
currently in the field, three of which have come during the “allegedly fatal
slide.” He contends there will be plenty of teams with a “similarly mediocre
profile.”

Not the most ringing endorsement. But it sounds like enough, which is what
counts.

Villanova hasn’t missed the tourney since 2004.

Of course, any number of things could happen across the country in the next
few days to alter the equation. Or perhaps the Wildcats will survive the cut and
get sent to one of those play-in games in Dayton, on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Yesterday, the chair of the selection committee, Ohio State athletic director
Gene Smith, was asked in a conference call about the weight attached to how a
team finishes.

“As most people know, for a period of time we had the last 10 or the last 12
on nitty-gritty sheets,” said the man who also is dealing with Jim Tressel-gate.
“We decided a couple of years ago to eliminate that consideration. We leave that
to each individual committee member to determine if that’s an important criteria
for them.

“It’s not an important criteria for the entire committee. Each . . . member
takes it into consideration in their own way.”

Statsheet.com has Villanova’s RPI at 34, with the 23rd-ranked strength of
schedule. Seems about right.

Jerry Palm, the BCS guru who also projects the brackets for CBSSports.com,
lists Villanova as a 9 seed.

Both Lunardi and Palm, by the way, have Temple as a 7.

Fairly enough, Wright was asked after the USF game about his team’s NCAA
chances. “I purposely haven’t focused on it,” he said. “We haven’t talked about
any of it. We were concentrating on the Big East Tournament. So I know this
sounds bizarre but I don’t know where we stand with any of that and I will find
out tomorrow, but I would say after this that there is a little concern and just
have to look at the situation.”

Since the last major change in the RPI formula in 2005, the team from a BCS
conference with the highest number that didn’t make it was Cincinnati in 2006,
at 40.

In Wright’s situation there are obviously other issues to worry about, such
as all the things his guys messed up in the final minute against South Florida:
missed free throws, one by the Big East’s leading foul shooter, a horrible
turnover in the backcourt by his point guard, lack of defense on the decisive
basket. Did we mention that the Wildcats, after scoring 49 in the first half,
had two field goals in the last 15 minutes? Or that Wright felt the need to call
a timeout 44 seconds in the game and another 2:24 after intermission?

By this point a lot of that shouldn’t be happening, regardless of
opponent.

And at this point there’s really not a lot more Wright or his players can say
about it that they haven’t already uttered. But, can they do anything to change
their present reality by next week?

“I don’t have the answer for what we are going to do next,” Wright admitted
at Madison Square Garden.

At the moment, there probably are a lot of teams that wouldn’t mind drawing
the Wildcats in their pod. Who would have thought that 6 weeks ago? Or maybe
even 3?

The only known is that they have at least one game left. Most outsiders would
probably say it will be their last. Logic would be on their side. Still, there’s
a reason they call this month Madness.

If nothing else, they will have time for Corey Stokes’ left hamstring to get
healthier. Ditto Corey Fisher’s right knee. Tuesday was the first time in 10
games that those two and Maalik Wayns – their three double-digit scorers – each
had at least 10 points. Stokes did miss four of those games with injuries (three
due to turf toe).

“We take missing players into consideration, based upon the situation,” Smith
said. “We look at how those teams responded to the adversity they faced. But we
still look at how those teams performed at the end of the day.”

As for Mouphtaou Yarou, who was helped off with 4:58 to go in the first half
and never returned, he has bruised right ribs and a right shoulder. He was
tested at MSG for a possible concussion but showed no signs. He’s scheduled to
be reevaluated tomorrow. The players were given yesterday and today off.

“We have to make sure we get over this [loss],” Wright said.

And hope they can at least make something of their last chance. Wherever that
might be. *

 

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