Minus Sumpter, Fraser's the ticket for Villanova
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- The easy thing to do here would be to opine about the sensational play of Villanova's four guards, notably how unstoppable Randy Foye and Allan Ray were at times in the fourth-ranked Wildcats' 85-74 victory over No. 5 Oklahoma.
Kelvin Sampson said he's never coached against a team with four guards who could go off the dribble as well as Villanova's did Saturday at The Pavilion.AP Photo/Tom MihalekJason Fraser's inside presence will go a long way toward determining Villanova's fate this season.
Villanova is not going to win a national championship, let alone the Big East, playing a four-guard lineup, regardless of how well Foye (career-high 32 points Saturday), Ray (21), Kyle Lowry and Mike Nardi play in a given game.
No, for the Wildcats to get to Indianapolis, they must develop an inside presence. In short, they need oft-injured senior Jason Fraser to be Jason Fraser.
Fraser, who scored 10 points in 26 minutes off the bench against Oklahoma, is probably known more for the number of injuries he's had than anything he's done on the court. To summarize:
• His freshman year ended prematurely because of a stress reaction in his foot.
• He had surgery on both knees after that season to repair ligament damage.
• He began his sophomore year with a broken left foot.
• His junior year was disrupted because of a fractured navicular bone in his right hand. He had surgery on the hand twice that season. To boot, he underwent surgery on both knees again last May.
That's seven operations -- five on his knees, two on his right hand.
For the first time this season, and really, for the first time in a long time, Fraser was getting close to being Jason Fraser.
How long has it been since he felt this comfortable?
"Four years," said the 6-foot-9 forward.
"We're always prepared not to have him because of what he's gone through," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We've all seen what he's gone through, so we just want him to be pain free."
He was Saturday and, in fact, Fraser inflicted some pain on the Sooners. Fraser grabbed four boards, made 6 of 8 free throws, put back shots for both of his field goals, blocked three shots and came up with a steal.
The former McDonald's All-American out of Amityville High (N.Y.), who replaced starter Will Sheridan, has had his moments. He scored 21 points and grabbing 15 boards in a second-round NCAA Tournament win over Florida last March. He lit up Providence in the 2004 Big East tournament, scoring 17 points, and followed up the performance with another 17 points and 11 boards in a loss to eventual national champion Connecticut.
But Fraser had been very guarded about his stamina this season. Sure, he was up to practicing for an hour and 45 minutes after logging only an hour max last season, never after a game and rarely back-to-back. The Wildcats blew out their three previous opponents -- Stony Brook, Lehigh and Rider -- so making Fraser log more minutes did not make sense. He never played more than 19 minutes in those games. His numbers: 17 rebounds, 13 points and four blocks.
To see him finish Saturday's victory over the Sooners without incident was, given the past, remarkable for him and his teammates.
"I can't begin to describe [what it felt like to finish the game]," Fraser said. "It feels so good after all I've been through."
Fraser said he told himself that, if by this time he wasn't contributing, he was going to look at red-shirting this season.
"I'm pain free," said Fraser, who at times still looked a bit nimble running the floor. But he said he did not have any trepidation about going all-out against the rugged Sooners frontcourt of Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout.
"[Saturday] was a breakthrough for me in terms of vertical leap, to have the ability to go up and back up right again," Fraser said.
"It means a lot to me because I know him better than everybody else," Sumpter said of his fellow classmate. "He's had a hard time just showing what he can do. To watch him go out there and play the whole game means a lot. Jason is a big part of what we do -- rebound, defend, outlet passes, and change shots in the paint."
Bookout and Gray noticed Fraser's length in the post, work ethic and ability to get to the line. That's really all he has to do on this Villanova team.
"They don't need him to do anything else," Sampson said.
Fraser was downright giddy with himself Saturday and it's easy to see why. He's back playing basketball and playing minutes that matter. You don't want to jinx him, but it's clear that his success Saturday does wonders for Villanova's confidence. Villanova's guards together are probably the best backcourt unit in the country. But they need at least one anchor inside.
If it ends up being Fraser, then Villanova has a shot to get to Indy even without Sumpter. Wright said as much Saturday, always knowing that his players believed they could make a run without Sumpter. But to do that, they need someone on the inside. They need Jason Fraser.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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