Wright’s close up ends quickly

The vision of missed jump shot followed by missed jump shot chipping away the orange paint from rim was still fresh. The sting of defeat was still working its way down the solar plexus and into the pit of the stomach of those Villanova players who vainly tried to keep pace with the North Carolina Tar Heels all night long in Saturday’s National Semifinal.

The pain and the inevitable “what if…” had not quite set in as Saturday melted into Sunday.

Still, even though accepting the loss in the Final Four will be difficult, it’s easy to imagine Jay Wright back in the same spot of the NCAA Tournament in the not too distant future.

It’s also not too difficult to imagine a different result than the 83-69 defeat to Carolina, just one step away from the National Championship game.

You see, Wright, just 47, is built to last at Villanova. He still is not halfway through a contract extension that lasts until 2013 and will compensate him well enough to keep him in those sharp-looking, single-breasted suits. More importantly, Wright seems to have received the extension for doing something that is often rare in sports these days…

He paid his dues.

Aside from the long car rides beating the recruiting trail as an assistant at Rochester, Drexel and Villanova, before taking over at Hofstra, Wright has restored the luster to ‘Nova that was lost during the angst-filled final days of Rollie Massimino’s run on the Main Line. He has embraced the Big Five series instead of brushing it aside as a trite hometown obligation, while turning his program into a bona fide powerhouse that isn’t going to tiptoe up and surprise anyone.

Continue reading this story …

Reynolds always looks ahead

Make no mistake about it, Scottie Reynolds is very fast. Scary fast. They say speed kills, but in the case of Reynolds it’s the opposition that has its head in the noose.

But more impressive than Reynolds’ streak up the court and game-winning bucket in fewer than five seconds in Villanova’s ridiculously thrilling victory over Pittsburgh to advance to the Final Four on Saturday was the quickness in which Reynolds responded from a really bad game against Louisville in the Big East semifinals two weeks ago.

Talk about coast-to-coast.

“One of his great characteristics is he never fears failure,” Wright said. “He doesn’t worry about what he looks like. He never worries about looking bad. He’s all out, and he knows he’s going to be all out.”

He sort of had to have no fear of failure after seeing his line from the Louisville game. It read, 1-for-6 from the field, including 0-for-3 from beyond the three-point arc. He also contributed six turnovers and just two measly points in 38 minutes.

Yes, that’s right – two points in 38 minutes. No foul trouble, no gimmicky defenses and no excuses.

Continue reading this story …

All rock all the time…

moyer_cardIt’s definitely going to be a crazy week around these parts. Not only do we have Villanova heading to the Final Four and all the pomp that goes with that, but also the Phillies return to Philadelphia this week for a pair of exhibition games against Tampa on Friday and Saturday before kicking off the season for real on Sunday night against Atlanta.

Who knows, the most anticipated Phillies season ever could be sandwiched between ‘Nova’s national semifinal game and a National Championship on Monday night.

Hey, crazier things have happened.

Anyway, we’ll have a bunch of ‘Nova and Phillies stories all week leading to the big weekend. Until then, here’s a short list of the things I won’t write about this baseball season.

Before I start, I know how lame the list is. After all, don’t you hate those radio ads in which a station defines itself by what it doesn’t play? Then they cue them up and play programmed and contrived crap. I heard one the other day where the station’s big calling card was, “We aren’t iTunes, we are your tunes.

What? This is what they announce before they launch into Don Henley.

No, take them… they’re definitely your tunes.

So from here on out I’m drawing a line and painting myself into a tidy little corner. These are the stories I’m going to work as hard as possible not to write this baseball season:

1.) Jamie Moyer’s age

Yes, we all know that Jamie Moyer is old. In fact, he’s 46 and there have been just a select few ballplayers that had careers to that age. It’s remarkable, sure, but not necessarily such an anomaly anymore.

The fact of the matter is that 46 isn’t as old as it used to be. Better yet, a ballplayer only gets old if he allows himself to be that way or injuries add up. Ask Don Wildman about how limiting his age is. Or Dara Torres. Or Chris Chelios. Or Jamie Moyer.

Better yet, don’t.

“Some players get injured and others just lose the desire,” Moyer told me last August. “Then some, for one reason or other, are told to quit because they reach a certain age or time spent in the game. Some just accept it without asking why.”

Along the same vein, Moyer’s age won’t be used as a crutch, either. He’s 46. So what? He’s as fit as any player in the league and he hasn’t lost a thing off his fastball (tee-hee), so if he’s walking out there he’s no different than anyone else.

He’s 46? Big deal.

2.) J.C. Romero’s suspension

Oh yes, this is an important issue. It’s especially important since the Phillies won’t have their workhorse reliever for nearly a third of the season. But stories knocking it down as no big deal or some type of insignificant or unfortunate occurrence don’t get it. The truth is MLB did not want Romero to pitch in the playoffs, but they allowed him to do so anyway.

Why? And why not?

3.) Lefty lineup

Chase Utley to Ryan Howard to Raul Ibanez… deal with it. Certainly the opposing managers will have to figure out a way to deal with it. Last year Utley his .277 with 13 homers against lefties, while Howard hit 14 homers (just .224 though) and Ibanez batted .305 with seven homers vs. lefties.

Oh sure, in the late innings the Phillies will face a ton of situational lefties, but any time a manager goes away from his regular habits to rely on a pitcher generally used to facing just one hitter just might level the odds a bit.

For that middle of the order trio, even odds are pretty good.

chuck4.) Charlie Manuel’s managerial acumen

These are the facts: Charlie knows more about baseball than you. Actually he’s forgotten more about baseball than you have ever known. To top it off, he’s funnier than you and tells far better stories.

Plus, the way he handled that great comeback against the Mets last August in which he used to pitchers to pinch hit, had Carlos Ruiz play third base and put Chris Coste into the game in the eighth inning and watched him get four hits. The guy is always looking at the big picture and sometimes, just for fun, he’ll play a hunch.

What he doesn’t do is try to over think or out-fox the game like Tony La Russa or some other new age type. He’d rather beat you Earl Weaver style – sit back and wait for a big home run – but if he has to get some base runners moving with some steals or hit-and-runs, that works, too.

Meanwhile, he likes to put his pitchers into firm roles. Yeah, sometimes that can get him in trouble, but the good part is that everyone on the roster understands their role. Big league ballplayers love that.

And if that doesn’t work, Charlie will pull out the old, “Just hold ’em, guys… I’ll think of something.”

It’s worked so far.

5.) Raul Ibanez vs. Pat Burrell

Stat heads aren’t going to like this one, but Ibanez’s superior batting average and lower strikeout rate will matter. It mattered in Seattle and it will matter at cozy Citizens Bank Park, too.

The reason is as simple as the triple-digit RBI totals over the last three years – Ibanez hits the ball a little more. With Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Utley and Howard hitting in front of him, the 20 fewer times Ibanez strikes out as opposed to Burrell could be significant. Figure there are 26 weeks to a season with the potential for one more run a week produced from one spot of the lineup could add up.

Right?

There you go. Now I’m going to go put the iPod on shuffle… yep, my tunes.

Whatever the hell that means.

Back to earth

andrew_toneyLANCASTER, Pa. – Going to Spring Training to write about baseball is a lot like walking into a hermetically-sealed cocoon. Nothing pierces this bubble, which is more roach motel than a simple picket fence.

Ideas from the outside check in, and then they die.

So the first order of business since checking out of Camp Big Britches in Clearwater was to reconnect with reality. Or at least some facsimile thereof. And a quick look back at my version of reality shows that I missed some pretty cool stuff back here in Philly.

Lancaster? Not so much.

Anyway, here’s what happened:

• Apparently there is a basketball tournament going on. Villanova is in it, though it must be pointed out that the current version of the team is only slightly less evil than the older versions. Yeah, those fans/alums are still as arrogant as can be, but Jay Wright makes it all a bit more tolerable.

gonzo_gonzoMore interesting, Villanova plays Duke in the regional semifinal in Boston this Thursday. In the old days rational folks would have rooted for both teams to get lost on the way to the arena. Baring that, some discomfort or at least a few flat tires were in order. These days, anytime the li’l general at Duke gets beat is pretty sweet.

Hey, I’m not one of those hater guys (at least I hope not), so I guess it’s not fair to pick on Coach K because he has a really, really important job coaching basketball. He’s very important. Just ask him.

• The biggest whiff was skipping out before the Sixers played one last game at the Spectrum. No, not for the sentiment of playing a game in an old building because overwrought pining for things seems kind of silly. Besides, as Joe Strummer said, if you think too much about the past it will drag you down.

Joe… Joe was the greatest.

Sentiment and nostalgia are hard things to ignore. It’s the emotion of it, probably. Life can be difficult if you’re one to wade in past the shallow end, so comfortable memories of old times can be soothing on occasion. So for a lot of us – especially pre-teens who hawked the team during training camp at F&M – that ’83 Sixers club would have conjured up some fun memories.

If, of course, I had been at the Spectrum instead of sunny Florida.

Regardless, does it really count if Andrew Toney wasn’t there?

Sure, the Sixers undoubtedly did a wonderful job putting together a memorable event for the fans and the players, but Andrew Toney was such an important player of that era that it actually belied mere statistics and wins and losses. The truth is Andrew Toney changed everything in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.

It’s possible Toney was the most important player in the game for a few years.

Here’s why:

If the Celtics had anyone remotely capable of guarding Toney, they would not have traded to get Dennis Johnson. And without Johnson, the Celtics are just a very good team, but not that much different from the rest of the very good teams.

So without Toney, the Celtics dynasty might have just been a blip in time and the Sixers might have snuck out of the East another time or two.

• Elsewhere, before Lance Armstrong broke his collarbone and possibly lost his shot at returning to the Tour de France, he had to submit some of his hair for DNA drug testing. Yep, athletes in sports outside of the big three, are submitting to DNA drug testing.

Meanwhile, baseball’s drug problem gets sillier and sillier by the day.

• Finally, speaking of drug-testing, maybe A-Rod should have been forced to offer a hair/urine sample after posing for this picture:

awhat

Seriously, I’m all for defying the conventional wisdom, but what is he doing? That’s something some dudes do when there is no one else at home and they don’t have to worry about being caught acting like a goof. But not A-Rod. He invites a photog and goes all out.

So when he puts on his Sunday best, grabs his parasol and sashays through the town square, don’t be surprised.

Cinderella’s big score

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Oh, it’s on! It’s really on.

Direct from Madison Square Garden and beamed to bars, lounges, frat houses and spring-break squats all across the country, a Big 5 team officially kicked off March Madness with is wildly entertaining finish.

Already Villanova has the country abuzz and we haven’t yet even hit the Ides. Chalk that up to one of those ubiquitous March buzzer-beaters. Though instead of the Big Dance, this one came in the Big East Tournament that saved the Wildcats from blowing a big, first-half lead and put them back into position to get a top three seed.

For now.

Still, it’s that time. Chaos, mayhem… madness!

That’s the thing about college hoops this time of year – you never know when that high water moment is going to occur. Seasons, hell, careers are made this time of year. Besides, only a handful of teams have a realistic shot at advancing past the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The other might as well whoop it up now.

Or should they?

Continue reading this story…

Wright will return

Even with the vision of missed jump shot after missed jump shot chipping away the paint from the rim, and the sting of defeat still working its way down the solar plexus, it’s easy to imagine Jay Wright finding himself back in the same point of the NCAA Tournament in the not too distant future.

It’s also not too difficult to imagine a different result than the 75-62 defeat to Florida on Sunday afternoon just one game shy of the legacy-making Final Four.

You see, Wright, just 44, is built to last at Villanova. Just this year he was rewarded with a contract extension that lasts until 2013 and will compensate him well enough to keep him in those sharp-looking, single-breasted suits. More importantly, Wright seems to have received the extension for doing something that is often rare in sports these days:

He paid his dues.

Aside from the long car rides beating the recruiting trail as an assistant at Rochester, Drexel and Villanova, before taking over at Hofstra, Wright has restored the luster to ‘Nova that was lost during the angst-filled final days of Rollie Massimino’s run on the Main Line. He has embraced the Big Five series instead of brushing it aside as a trite hometown obligation, while turning his program into a bona fide powerhouse that isn’t going to tiptoe up and surprise any one.

Better yet, Wright’s first group of players to go through a four-year run won more games during that span than any other in school history, all while the coach did all the little things that he prodded his kids to do.

Sure, in the end coach is only as good as his players, but special talent like Randy Foye and Allan Ray always seems to wind up playing for the right coach. And they really seem to make it hard for all of us ‘Nova haters.

More tourney talk
Since Villanova won the 1985 tournament, the Big 5 is 0-8 in regional semifinals. ‘Nova has gone down twice, St. Joe’s nipped by Oklahoma State two years ago and Temple has lost five finals under John Chaney.

But even though the local team has finally been sent home, the early word on this year’s tournament is that it’s the best one in a long, long time. Forget about 11th-seeded George Mason making it to the Final Four for a minute, in 60 games the underdog team has won 20 times, while only three games were decided by 20 or more points.

Add in the five overtime games and the fact that no No. 1 seed made it to the final weekend and it’s hard to argue about how compelling this tournament has been.

Then there is George Mason. A diverse, yet regional school that was only founded in 1957, George Mason not only put together one of the greatest upsets in tournament history when knocking off UConn in the regional final, but also strung together one of the most impressive runs to become the highest seeded team to make it to the Final Four.

Not bad for a team that some of the experts said shouldn’t even be in the field.

Certainly there weren’t too many people who thought Mason would beat Michigan State in the opening round, let alone defending national champion North Carolina to get to the Sweet 16. Then with the victory over Wichita State and the No. 1 team in the country, it seems as if the Patriots are a legitimate contender to win the whole thing.

Now all we need to do is find someone who can name a player on the team.

‘Nova making a run

It was nearly 21 years ago when a friend’s big brother came home for spring break from a Big 5 school that will remain nameless. With the big national championship showdown between the upstart Villanova Wildcats and the fearsome Georgetown Hoyas only hours away from tip-off, I was excited to gain some insight from someone who had been in Philadelphia during ‘Nova’s magical run.

“It must be crazy in Philly, huh?” I asked. “How exciting is it to see a local team go on such a remarkable run?”

The response to my question floored me. Certainly my naiveté was never more evident than it was at that moment. Everyone, especially someone going to school in Philadelphia, had to be rooting for ‘Nova.

Right?

“Exciting?” my friend’s brother said. “I hope Georgetown destroys Villanova. I hope it’s the biggest blowout in NCAA history.”

As it turned out, that Big 5 student – and many others like him – didn’t get his wish that April night in 1985. But better yet, the most important lessons learned was that anything can happen in a sporting event, and there’s something about Villanova that elicits extreme feelings. Like the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys, there is no in-between with the Wildcats. You either love ‘em or hate ‘em.

And depending on whether one attended a Big 5 school, those feelings could take on a furious ardor.

So as the days start to get a little longer and the leaves return to the trees, ‘Nova haters will have plenty of chances to exercise their bile. The ‘Cats, you see, are going to make a run to the season’s final weekend. You can book that trip to Indianapolis now because these ‘Cats are legit.

Sure, they lost going away to UConn in Storrs in a game that can’t-miss contenders figure a way to pull out, but not before showing something. You see, playing UConn on their home court is like walking across the mouth of a Venus flytrap – it’s only a matter of time before you get sucked in and are never heard from again.

But it wasn’t like that for Villanova. Coming off a dramatic win at Cincinnati in the equally dreadful Fifth Third Arena, ‘Nova jumped out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire in the midst of a stretch in which it plays on the road against five big-time opponents. Then comes the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Talk about tough.

“We’re learning that teams are playing to another level against us. We’re learning how to handle that,” coach Jay Wright said last week.

‘Nova handles it by sticking to a rock-solid foundation of basketball basics. Like Novocain, Villanova is so sure its game plan will not fail. Just keeping pounding until it works. In the win in Cincinnati, ‘Nova set the stage for the game-winning shot – which came on a basic pick and cut play – by taking a charge in the lane as the clock was ticking down.

Against UConn on Sunday, the Wildcats’ four-guard offense overcame a sub-par shooting effort by challenging an interior defense that lead the nation in blocked shots for the past four seasons. Sure, ‘Nova had eight shots blocked in the first half, but when it took a lead with a little more than 10 minutes remaining in the game on a shot by Allan Ray, well, that was a moment that resonated in defeat.

More importantly, the loss provided many lessons from which to draw from during the upcoming post-season run.

“We will learn from this,” Wright promised afterwards.

As much as it might be painful for some to admit, Wright’s club will likely be doing a lot of the teaching, too.