They are back at full strength now. Villanova and Seton Hall. And it appears both Big East clubs are poised to make some noise in 2004 after surviving a tough final few weeks of 2003 during trips to far-flung destinations such as Hawaii and Alaska.
But, as most coaches are prone to say when facing adversity:
"Whatever doesn't kill you can only make you stronger."
Villanova coach Jay Wright chuckled in agreement when he was reminded of that coaching proverb.
"That's a great line about this whole situation," the second-year coach said. "It's exactly where we are, and we do feel stronger."
At Villanova, injuries coupled with NCAA-mandated suspensions forced the Wildcats to shuffle their personnel. Because of misuse of a university phone access code dating back to last season, several Villanova scholarship players were suspended and forced to do their time on the pine at the start of this season. During a 3-2 start -- which included a loss to Division II Chaminade in the Maui Invitational -- makeshift lineups of nine players included just five on scholarship.
The Wildcats' season started at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 21 with a win over Big Five rival Temple, continued with a flight later that morning to California for a game some 28 hours later against the University of Redlands. It was then off to Hawaii the next day to play three games in three days in the Maui Invitational.
Villanova officials staggered the penalties in order to give Wright and his team a fighting chance to survive its early-season crucible. Sophomores Curtis Sumpter and Chris Charles alternated sitting in street clothes for three games each. Andreas Bloch served five games while Marcus Austin was hit with an eight-game suspension.
Then there were the injuries. Senior guard Derrick Snowden, who underwent ACL surgery on his left knee in August, wasn't allowed to begin serving his three-game suspension until he was healthy enough to play. Sophomore forward Jason Fraser, who underwent operations to both knees last April, also served a three-game
The Wildcats began the season much the same way they ended last year's 15-16 campaign: Shorthanded. But, Villanova (7-2) can also look back on the first six weeks of the season and feel pretty good about itself going forward.
"I don't want to make any excuses, because we set it up," Wright said, referring to Villanova's grueling travel itinerary in its first five games. "We looked at those whole five games and it was going to be a matter of how we came out of it as a group and not what happened during the trip.
"We really challenged ourselves as a family in saying, 'Hey, we're going to go through something that's tough here, so let's make sure when we come out of it we're stronger from it and we learn from it.'"
Over at Seton Hall, the Pirates also were waiting for its full compliment of players to arrive. While not nearly as hamstrung as the Wildcats, losing 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Kelly Whitney to academic ineligibility until the end of the fall semester wasn't a great start to the season. Losses to Purdue in the Great Alaska Shootout and then at Louisville didn't cause any concern, but beating the likes of Liberty, Morgan State and Alaska-Anchorage didn't exactly let the Hall know where it stood, either.
Seton Hall clearly missed Whitney's huge inside presence, especially in the 80-71 loss at Louisville (Dec. 10). And, to make matters worse, the Pirates were further hampered when sophomore guard Donald Copeland, projected as the primary backup to senior stalwart Andre Barrett, broke his foot.
Also 3-2 following the loss to Louisville, Seton Hall was dealing with its own challenges. But not until the return of Whitney and Copeland in an impressive 75-59 rout of visiting Ohio State on Saturday could the Pirates (6-2) sense a change in perception. Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien's certainly heaped his share of praise on the Pirates.
"We played against a very good basketball team," O'Brien told reporters after the game at Continental Airlines Arena. "They're every bit as good as anyone we've played to
this point, in my mind, including Georgia Tech. They've got answers all over the place, they guard you pretty tough and they're very good offensively. They can score inside, they've got guys that can shoot, they've got good size and they've got arguably the best point guard in the country."
Yes, to look at these two teams now, it's hard not to project positive results going forward.
With suspensions no longer a matter of concern, Villanova wielded its complete arsenal of players for the first time Monday night. In a 74-66 non-conference victory over Columbia, four starters scored in double-figures: sophomore guards Randy Foye (20) and Allan Ray (19), sophomore forward Curtis Sumpter (16 points, 9
rebounds) and freshman guard Michael Nardi (14 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists).
"It's been the most unusual preseason I've ever had in my 21 years of college coaching," Wright said. "We had to separate our team and our practices into three sections where we practiced with the team that could play the first three games, then with the team that could play the next two games, and the team that could play after that. It was pretty challenging."
Both teams would not have made it through their early-season travails without the emergence of other role players. Seton Hall sophomore reserve guard J.R.
Morris, who averaged four points a game last season, has gone from unheralded scorer to a scoring threat. He scored 17 points in the Pirates' 73-50 win over Davidson on Monday night, this following a season-high 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting against Ohio State. Seton Hall
is now 5-1 in games in which Morris has scored in double figures.
But it's been Whitney's presence, more than anyone picking up the slack, that will mean the biggest difference for the Pirates going forward.
"It was a big lift having him out there," Marcus Toney-El told the Newark Star-Ledger after beating the Buckeyes. "Now teams have to worry about our post game. A lot of teams we played early were more concerned with our perimeter players, but having Kelly back gives us another dimension, and helps us out offensively and defensively."
After scoring four points and grabbing a team-high six rebounds in his first game back, Whitney vowed in his second game he'd
"turn it up another notch." He did precisely that, scoring 18 points off the bench to complement Andre Sweet's team-high 21. Whitney, as a result,
earned a start in Seton Hall's next game against DePaul Saturday.
"I guess after today I can think about getting him back in," Seton Hall coach Louis Orr told the Star-Ledger, laughing. "No, he's in there
now. He's going to start. A big guy who can get you 18-20 points in a given night and score most of them in the lane, that's big. It just opens things
Villanova, meanwhile, relied upon contributions from freshmen Will Sheridan and Nardi, a player Wright described as "a pure point guard, an
old-school guard," and Sumpter, an athletic 6-7 forward with the
versatility to play on the perimeter and in the post. It was no
coincidence, either, Villanova went 5-0 in the games Sumpter played during
the suspension ordeal.
"He's got great skill, but he's got great size and strength. He's just a very, very difficult matchup for other teams," Wright said.
While Villanova's schedule becomes exponentially tougher -- with dates at Kansas (Jan. 2), and vs. Memphis (Jan. 6), before hosting
Notre Dame in its Big East opener Jan. 10 -- Seton Hall will not make as
jarring a transition into league play. The Pirates following the DePaul game with Monmouth, Rhode Island and at LaSalle (Jan. 3), before opening conference play at St. John's (Jan. 10).
"We've played seven games on the road, we've been all over the
country, we've had tough losses, we've had good wins," Wright said. "We feel like we've been through a season already and can handle anything."
But will Villanova and Seton Hall be able to handle each other?
The answer won't come until Feb. 21 when the Pirates host the Wildcats in a battle of Big East survivors.
It was supposed to be the game that would vault them into the polls. After feasting on such non-conference morsels such as Maine, Nicholls State,
South Carolina State and Fairleigh Dickinson, the Florida State Seminoles -- for so long a nice appetizer to the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference -- was ready to belly up to the head table and prove themselves worthy of sitting with the big boys.
The hosts, however, had other ideas Monday night. Pittsburgh posted a 63-56 victory over the Seminoles in a battle of unbeatens in the championship
game of the Holiday Hoops Classic.
Despite assembling what many believed to be the nation's best recruiting class, prompting many ACC observers to peg Florida State as a
sleeper team, Seminoles second-year coach Leonard Hamilton made a stunning
admission when he said of his team, "We're not as far along as they are."
They are the 17th-ranked Panthers, and the Seminoles were hoping to use their game against Pittsburgh as a
barometer for the upcoming ACC season, which by the way, got off to a rousing start
Saturday night with Wake Forest's thrilling 119-114 victory in triple
overtime at North Carolina. But, invariably, it proved Hamilton still had
some work to do against a team like Pittsburgh -- which got a team-high 17
points from tourney MVP Carl Krauser, a sophomore guard projected as the
heir apparent to former guard Brandin Knight.
"They've got quality players and a lot of depth," Hamilton said of
the Panthers, who received 13 points from reserve 6-10
junior forward Mark McCarroll. "We'll take this game and learn from it, and we'll be better
prepared to face a team like this in the future."
The future starts Saturday when the Seminoles host No. 25 Maryland.
Around the East
As mentioned above, Wake Forest tipped off its ACC schedule in record fashion with its 119-114 triple OT triumph over the Tar Heels in
Chapel Hill -- a game that certainly would have been an Instant Classic had it aired on a certain network.
The 233 combined points tied for the second-most in ACC history, and tied for the most combined points in Wake Forest history and broke a North
Carolina record for most combined points. Thirteen players scored in double figures, including seven Demon Deacons. Eric Williams, a 6-9 sophomore center, scored 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds to be named ACC Player of
Coincidentally, it marked the first time the Tar Heels had ever lost a game in which they scored 100-plus points. The Heels actually came within one point of matching the
ACC record (set by Wake Forest in a 118-115 loss to Clemson Feb. 13, 2002)
for most points scored by a losing team.
It was Wake Forest's first triple-OT game in school history, but the quadruple-OT game between the Deacs and NC State still ranked as the
longest in conference history. Perhaps, it will be something for Wake Forest to shoot for in its next ACC contest vs. Clemson (Jan. 10).
Saint Joseph's guard Jameer Nelson gave his candidacy for national player of the year honors yet another boost when he helped the 10th-ranked
Hawks continue their best start since opening the 1964-65 season 10-0.
Nelson scored 15 of his 19 points over the final 14½ minutes Saturday, sinking an 18-foot jumper with 4.3 seconds to left to lift Saint Joseph's (8-0) to a 59-57 victory over California in the Pete Newell Challenge in Oakland, Calif.
Dayton coach Brian Gregory is off to a sizzling 9-0 start. It had been 88 years since a first-year coach at Dayton had won his first four games. Alfred McCray, whose brief two-year stint (1915-16) began with seven victories, was the last to do so. Gregory will put his and the Flyers' perfection on the line Tuesday night when 12th-ranked Cincinnati hosts the No. 23 Flyers.
Temple coach John Chaney needs just four wins to become only the 15th coach in NCAA Division 1 history to record 700 career victories. Chaney (696-274) would become only the fourth active coach to record that many triumphs, joining a distinguished group that includes Lou Henson of New Mexico, Bob Knight of Texas Tech and Eddie Sutton of Oklahoma State. If everything goes to form, Chaney will go for No. 700 against Rhode Island on Jan. 14.
Michael Vega covers college basketball for The Boston Globe and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.