December 13th, 2005
Wildcats: Underrated Despite Being #3?
are currently ranked #3 in the polls. They return all five starters from a
Sweet Sixteen team a year ago and have a promising freshman class. They
have already beaten a top 10 team without the benefit of one of their best
players. They have two all-conference players that are some of the most
dangerous scorers in the game, and this preseason they were picked to win a
conference that as of this writing has three teams ranked in the Top 5.
when it comes to the national championship discussion, the
Wildcats seem to be often overlooked.
biggest reason seems to come down to one player: Curtis Sumpter.
Sumpter, who earned second-team All-Big East honors last year despite
playing most of the season with a sprained knee he suffered in January,
averaged over 15 points and 7 rebounds a game. He could play down low or
on the perimeter (where he shot a respectable 43% from 3-point range), and
was expected to play a major role in Villanovaís run for the title.
just before the start of the season, he tore his ACL Ė the same one he tore
in the second round of last yearís NCAA Tournament. He was expected to miss
the entire season, dealing what appeared to be a mortal blow to the
championship hopes of the Wildcats.
However, there is now a
chance Sumpter could be back to play. Coach Jay Wright said his doctors
expect a full recovery, possibly even by March. As SIís Seth Davis
reported, that possibility is what is potentially keeping Sumpter from
redshirting the season and coming back healthy next year as a fifth year
senior. With fellow seniors Allan Ray, Randy Foye and Jason Fraser, this
might be the best, last chance for Sumpter to get his championship ring.
Even without him, the
four-guard starting lineup that has resulted from Sumpterís absence has so
far been outstanding. Foye and Ray may well be one of the most explosive
tandems in America. Foye is currently 12th in the nation in
scoring with 23 points a game, shooting over 50% from the field. He had 32
points against Oklahoma. Allan Ray is averaging over 20 points a game.
Point guard Mike Nardi
has greatly improved his 3-point shooting from last season, and appears more
comfortable dishing the basketball. Kyle Lowry is an exceptional defensive
talent, and can drive to the basket. The sophomore showed flashes of his
potential in last yearís one-point NCAA Tournament loss to eventual champion
North Carolina, where he shot 7-10 from the floor for 18 points to go along
with seven rebounds and three assists.
This is not to say their
frontcourt is now non-existent. Will Sheridan, the only non-guard in the
starting lineup is a strong defender and passer, and can bang bodies with
anybody inside, despite being only 6-8. Jason Fraser had his best game of
the season against the vaunted frontcourt of Oklahoma, scoring 10 points.
Fraser has had no less than seven surgeries over his collegiate career, five
of them on his knees. He now says he feels healthier than he has in years,
for what thatís worth, and his performance against the Sooners appears to
back that up. If the 6-9 forward can continue to contribute off the bench
he will be an important factor going into conference play.
So even without Sumpter,
this team is very, very good. Much like Illinois last season, the Wildcats
rely mostly on their strong perimeter game for offense, and play outstanding
defense. Not that they are likely to match the 37 wins the Illini racked up
last year. Villanova has a date with Texas next month in Austin, and two
games each against UConn, Louisville and Syracuse.
Many writers are jumping
on the Connecticut bandwagon, and understandably so. If the Huskies are
good enough to win the EA Sports Maui Invitational without Marcus Williams,
they say, imagine how good they will be once he is back in the lineup.
Preseason #1 Duke just
finished thrashing #2 Texas, and some are whispering that their ridiculous,
astounding victory at home over Virginia Tech was less a sign of
vulnerability, than an omen that this team simply cannot lose.
So there is little wonder
that many people overlook the Wildcats. They have never once been ranked #1
during the regular season, while Duke and UConn have combined for ten Final
Fours and five national championships since 1990.
Villanova has only seven
tournament appearances in that time. Six of them ended in the first or
second round. Last year, in which Villanova was celebrating the 20th
anniversary of their first and only NCAA championship, was the exception.
1985 was a magical year
not just for Villanova, but for college basketball as a whole. It was the
year in which the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams and signed a
television contract with ESPN that would take the sport to new heights. It
was the tournament where an unheralded eighth-seed, that didnít even reach
20 wins on the regular season, shocked the nation and won it all.
That Wildcat squad
reached the Final Four by defeating both the #1 (Michigan) and #2 (North
Carolina) seeds in their region. They were a team that walked into the
championship game as one of the biggest underdogs in sports history - facing
the #1 ranked, and defending national champion, Georgetown Hoyas - who had
already beaten the Wildcats twice during the season. Villanova controlled
the tempo of the game (there was no shot clock) and shot an absurd 79% from
the field, including 90% in the second half. In the end, all Patrick Ewing
and his Hoyas could do was watch as the Wildcats celebrated an impossible
victory. Two decades later, it remains the stuff of legend.
Now, fast forward 21
years later, and imagine this scene: Curtis Sumpter, reminiscent of a
hobbling Willis Reed, shows up in uniform for the first round of the NCAA
Tournament. The warrior, who refused to redshirt his senior year, who gave
up playing an entire season next year just so he could play in one,
single-elimination game. Imagine Sumpter on the floor and giving his team,
already one of the best in the nation, a big enough boost to lead them to
the national title.
It may seem far-fetched.
It may sound more like one of CBSís made-for-TV movies, at least the ones
where the world doesnít blow up, than an actual sports story.
But donít tell Sumpter or
his fellow Wildcats. Villanova knows a thing or two about Hollywood
Kevin McNeill's college basketball column
appear weekly on Collegehoops.net.