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Columnists | Message Board  | Kevin McNeill Archive

By Kevin McNeill

December 13th, 2005


Villanova Wildcats: Underrated Despite Being #3?

They 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. 

Yet, when it comes to the national championship discussion, the Villanova Wildcats seem to be often overlooked.

The 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. 

But 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 endings.    



Kevin McNeill's college basketball column appear weekly on


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