Dick Jerardi | Kentucky's style was the difference this night

Posted: March 17, 2007

CHICAGO - When this basketball season started for Villanova, the obvious questions were: How do you replace two seniors who scored 4,000 points and a sophomore point guard who disrupted the game? The answers were not at all obvious. Randy Foye, Allen Ray and Kyle Lowry are in the NBA. They are not coming back.

When Jay Wright got those questions in the fall, he said he hadn't thought of it exactly like that. The Villanova coach wasn't looking back. He was thinking of a way he could take these players and make them a team. He knew this was not a team with Final Four talent. What he wanted was a team that would be a difficult opponent every game by March. He got everything he could hope for, maybe even a little bit more.

You always want one more. With this team, one more would have been icing, but every team but one leaves the NCAA Tournament with a loss. Villanova lost to Kentucky, 67-58, in a first-round NCAA Tournament game at the United Center.

Kentucky played the toughest schedule in the country and had lost more heartbreakers than just about anybody. This was a team with a lot of losses, not a losing team. Villanova was a team with some missing parts, but it was a team in the best sense of the term. 'Nova might go, but it would never go easily.

Unless you are one of the superpowers, it is quite hard to sustain success anymore. Villanova has beaten the odds, extending its run to three seasons. With some high-profile recruits on the way, this run might get even better.

The style of play has been established. In an ever more coach-restricted sport, this coach will not only loosen the reins for his best players, but also will insist they just keep firing, consequences and basketball purists be damned. Play defense as if it really matters and there is freedom on offense. Think that doesn't appeal to the modern player?

Last night, it was Villanova from 20 feet against Kentucky from 2 feet. The math was working quite well, early as 'Nova was trading its threes for UK's twos. Kentucky could not do much with point guard Scottie Reynolds, who had 14 points at the break. Villanova could do little with Randolph Morris in the lane. He had 10 points by halftime and had missed one shot.

At the break, it was a battle of opposites as Kentucky led, 30-28. Kentucky was 9-for-16 inside the arc, 3-for-11 outside it. Villanova was 5-for-10 outside the arc, 5-for-17 inside it. The rebounding numbers (UK 22, VU 11) explained the game. Kentucky had more offensive rebounds (nine) than 'Nova had defensive rebounds (eight).

Kentucky had many more players involved in its offense. Reynolds and Curtis Sumpter had attempted 20 of 'Nova's 27 shots.

If Villanova was to win, it would win away from the hoop, three by three. If Kentucky was to win, it was because of its superior forces near the basket.

Reynolds seemed to be dribbling in equal measures to entry passes to Morris in the post. 'Nova's freshman might be from Northern Virginia, but he was doing his best imitation of the classic New York City point guard who "would rather give up his girl than his dribble."

Most nights, this would not be sound strategy. On this night, with this team, it was the only rational strategy. Attacking the rim against Kentucky just would not pay big dividends.

One way or another, Reynolds was going to make the plays for Villanova. Wright had entrusted his team to Reynolds months ago, and that was not going to change.

Play after play, Kentucky kept finding ways to get the ball to the rim. Everybody knew what was coming. Wright implored his post defenders to find a way.

Even when Kentucky got a 49-39 lead with 8 1/2 minutes left, you just knew there was more ball to be played. The Wildcats got it back to four, but got no closer. That Mike Nardi three with 90 seconds left has a bit more leg, who knows?

On paper, there was little to choose. On the court, there was almost nothing. It was just an issue of which style would produce more points.

In the end, it was Kentucky's. It grinded better than a Villanova team that certainly earned its grinding bones this season. When the legs start to go, those 2-foot shots are much more likely to go in than those 20-foot shots.

Even in this era, when the three-point shot has become the game's signature play, sometimes the cold hard reality is that the team with basketball equivalent of the power running game eventually will wear down the team that must try to win on big plays.

If heart got them home, Villanova wins. Sometimes, even that is not enough. *

Send e-mail to jerardd@phillynews.com.

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