Jay Wright's Wildcats didn't look their best on Saturday afternoon, falling behind big early on their way to a 103-90 loss at Georgetown. But something changed between that loss at Monday night, with youngsters playing with poise and the Wildcats taking better care of the basketball, and the end result was an 82-75 win over West Virginia to move into a tie for first place in the Big East. In the first half nine different players scored for Villanova with senior Scottie Reynolds being limited by the defense of Devin Ebanks. And with Reynolds scoring just two points other guys had to step up and they did; Corey Fisher scored 12 points while freshmen Dominic Cheek (seven points) and Isaiah Armwood (six) added points off the bench. The Wildcats shot 63.3% from the field in taking a 44-33 lead into the locker room and defensively Villanova limited WVU to 35.7%.
But with the Mountaineers mounting their customary second-half rally it was time for the elder statesman to step up and Reynolds did just that, scoring nineteen points (10-10 FT) and driving to the hole to keep West Virginia at arm's length. His ability to sense the moment and make the plays required to close out a win over a top opponent is what separates Villanova from a number of teams that fashion themselves as Final Four contenders (not to mention a team the caliber of St. John's, who put together an epic collapse against the Mountaineers on Saturday). West Virginia went to their 1-3-1 zone and frankly it wasn't effective against a team committed to attack the rim.
"We didn't do a very good job in it," remarked WVU head coach Bob Huggins after the game. "The strength for us in that is our length and when you stand there with your hands down they're going to pick us apart and they did (quote courtesy of villanova.com)."
The Wildcats did turn the ball over eighteen times and foul West Virginia jump shooters on four different occasions (Taylor King, who otherwise played a very good game despite not scoring, did it twice), but they also outrebounded one of the nation's best offensive rebounding teams 38-30. But despite all the numbers that show why Villanova won (and Reynolds and Fisher), the play of Coach Wright's freshmen could be something the Wildcats look back on should they find their way to Indianapolis the first weekend in April.
"I thought our freshmen did a great job and to do what they did in this environment and against this team is impressive," said Wright. "This is an outstanding team and they're very difficult to play against and very well coached, so if you don't play BIG EAST basketball with these guys it's going to be exposed (quote courtesy of villanova.com)."
Three Key Happenings
1. We should have an even better idea of what to make of Kansas and Texas. There wasn't a whole lot to question about the Kansas Jayhawks going into Monday's game at Texas, but in a game the home team needed to turn around their recent slump the nation's top-ranked team showed off why they're one of the favorites to win the national title. Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich combined to shoot 5-for-23 from the field but it didn't matter as Marcus Morris and Xavier Henry scored eighteen and fifteen points respectively in an 80-68 victory. Bill Self's team may have shot just forty percent from the field but they outrebounded a reeling Longhorn squad 45-34 and turned the ball over just ten times, also limiting Texas to 37.3% shooting from the field.
What's the difference between two teams who can go ten deep? One team has players sure of their roles while the other features players searching for theirs in February. That's not a good sign for Rick Barnes' club, although J'Covan Brown did score 28 points off the bench. Brown, Damion James (24) and Gary Johnson (10) combined for sixty-two points; Dexter Pittman and Avery Bradley shot a combined 2-for-11 for six points. Not going to get it done, be it now (the 'Horns have lost five of their last seven) or in March. Texas' struggles on the offensive end can be in part attributed to the shifting of roles, and with three players being freshmen (Brown, Bradley and Jordan Hamilton) the game-to-game results can fluctuate wildly. So while Kansas looks to be well on their way, the team expected to be their biggest challenger may be at a crossroads.
2. New Mexico State moves into a tie for first place in the WAC. It was a "showdown" what was under the radar on Monday, with Louisiana Tech visiting New Mexico State with the winner moving into a first-place tie in the WAC with Utah State. And in what featured the best finish of the night, a Hernst Laroche jumper with just over a second remaining gave the Aggies the 70-68 win and an important season sweep over the visitors. Now tied with Utah State, Marvin Menzies' team has five league games standing between them and a showdown with the WAC's other Aggies on March 6th in Logan. Jahmar Young led NMSU with 20 points while Troy Gillenwater, playing in just his second game of the year, added 19 points and eight rebounds.
Gillenwater, who averaged twelve points per game as a freshman, could very well be the difference-maker in the WAC race after being declared academically eligible on February 2nd. It's not often that a contender can add a player the caliber of Gillenwater this late in the season, but working him into the rotation is an issue that many coaches would welcome. Magnum Rolle led four Bulldogs in double figures with eighteen points but their shooting from behind the arc (6-for-17) allowed the game to come down to Laroche's shot.
3. Siena continues the nation's longest win streak. Fran McCaffery's Siena Saints have been the nation's hottest team of late and they continued the run on Monday, beating Fairfield 69-67 to move their win streak to fifteen. Edwin Ubiles led four Saints in double figures with 18 points but thanks to the play of Fairfield freshman point guard (and likely MAAC Rookie of the Year) Derek Needham (26 points) needed late free throws to sew up the top seed in March's MAAC Tournament and a Postseason NIT bid. Junior Ryan Rossiter added 17 points and 10 rebounds while Alex Franklin and Clarence Jackson scored twelve points apiece, and given the ability and experience of Siena (don't forget floor general and Cousy Award finalist Ronald Moore) this will once again be a tough team to beat come March.
But can they do enough to be a viable at-large candidate should they slip up in the conference tournament? They'll likely have to win at Butler next weekend in the ESPNU BracketBusters in order to do so but it's definitely within the realm of possibility. Add in the possible return of backup point guard Kyle Downey (broken foot; he's aiming for the MAAC Tournament for a return to action) and Siena will be able to offer Moore an occasional break. That should only make a good team even better as the season reaches its climax.
Top Three Games
1. New Mexico State 70, Louisiana Tech 68 See above.
2. Siena 69, Fairfield 67 See above.
3. Morgan State 48, Bethune-Cookman 47 It wasn't pretty but Todd Bozeman's Bears found a way to remain undefeated in the MEAC (10-0). Troy Smith made a pair of free throws with 37 seconds to go for Morgan State, whose leading scorer (Reggie Holmes) was held to six points.
Three Notable Performances
1. Denzel Bowles (James Madison) Bowles accounted for 29 points and 13 rebounds in the Dukes' 81-78 loss at Towson.
2. F Damion James (Texas) James posted a line of 24 points and 10 rebounds, essentially being the difference between a severe beating and the 80-68 loss that the Longhorns actually took.
3. G Ryan Thompson (Rider) The preseason MAAC Player of the Year is beginning to get it going, scoring 31 points and grabbing seven rebounds in the Broncs' 70-62 comeback win over Niagara.