For Villanova, not just how the ball bounces

Posted: February 22, 2011

They practice endlessly and slog through a four-month regular season designed to prepare them for what is to come, but sometimes, despite all the work, the study, and the planning, the game still comes down to the whim of the rubber basketball as it collides with the steel circle of the rim.

That gives college coaches perspective or ulcers, maybe both.

Villanova and Syracuse have played each other twice in the Big East regular season now, counting Monday's 69-64 road win by the Orange at the Wells Fargo Center. The two teams are largely the same, the two games couldn't have been more different.

The Wildcats won an upset in the Carrier Dome a month ago, shooting over 50 percent from the field and nearly that well from behind the three-point line. It turned out to be an 11-point win that wasn't really that close, and the sense was that with that signature win, Villanova had turned a corner on the season. In fact, it might have been that they just made shots.

On Monday, Villanova shot poorly despite a strong return by guard Corey Stokes, who missed the previous three games with a foot injury. Subtracting Stokes' five three-point field goals, the rest of the Wildcats were 0 for 16 on three-point attempts.

"The bottom line is we played better defense, but they missed some shots, too," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "Sometimes, they make them. All that stuff about what it means is bulls-. We could play the same game next week and lose. We could win 10 in a row like that and then get in the tournament and lose. So, it's all bulls-. It's whichever team makes a play."

The problem is a coach never knows which night is which until it happens. For Villanova coach Jay Wright, it's not news that outside shooting is important to his team, and that the Wildcats struggle to win when they shoot 32 percent from the field as they did Monday night.

Without Stokes recently, Villanova had to battle on offense. Against Syracuse, the Wildcats didn't have guard Maalik Wayns for much of the game because of back spasms, and that removed another weapon. Syracuse was determined not to get beaten by Villanova's shooting again, so Boeheim extended the defense and dared the Wildcats to go inside. Once there, the ball didn't choose to go through the rim for Antonio Pena or the players who got it near the basket. It happens.

Wright is working hard to maintain perspective and avoid ulcers. He still sees what Villanova can be if everyone is healthy and the offense produces good shots.

"It's been little things, little nicks. . . . I believe in this team, I really do. I think this team will keep getting better," Wright said. "We've got to find ways during this time - when we're not making shots - to win. We did it the last couple of games, we didn't do it tonight. We need to find our offensive rhythm and we can get that, but we have a lot of variables."

The final three games of the regular season might provide more answers than wins. A home game against St. John's will be followed by road games at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, and it's possible the Wildcats, 9-6 in the Big East, could finish 9-9. What would that mean? Maybe nothing. Nine of the 16 teams in the league right now have five, six, or seven conference losses and on a given night you can throw a blanket over the bunch for all the difference among them.

"We're close. We're not as good as people would like us to be, but we're not that far off. We're not going to panic. We're going to keep working," Wright said. "You have to be careful during the season how you judge your team. If everyone's still working hard and we're improving, I'm going to be satisfied."

Which is a lot easier to say the last week of February than the third week of March. Perspective isn't as easy to come by when a poor shooting night - the capricious bounce of the basketball - can end the season. That's part of the deal, though.

Even with all that went wrong, and there was a lot of it, the Wildcats still had the ball with a chance to tie the game with 14.1 seconds left. They turned it over without getting a shot, however, and Syracuse secured the game at the line.

There's no way to be philosophical about that kind of wasteful ending. Only some warm milk in the stomach can soothe that, and a month from now it will take a gallon.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/bob_fords_post_patterns

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