Nova looks a lot like 2003-04 Saint Joe's
There's a little secret that isn't being discussed too much nationally: Villanova is looking an awful lot like Saint Joseph's -- of 2003-04.
Being compared to an Atlantic 10 school might be blasphemy for some Wildcats fans, but to Villanova coach Jay Wright it's a compliment he's not sure the Cats are worthy of just yet.
"I hope we're that good," Wright said. "I'd love to be that good. That team had toughness and had great guards. But they were undefeated until the [conference] tournament."
Villanova lost its first game of the season last week, but the similarities are still striking.
Saint Joseph's played guards, plenty of them, with NBA-level players Jameer Nelson and Delonte West (two first-round picks) as well as Tyrone Barley, Pat Carroll and Chet Stachitas. The inside game consisted primarily of two role players in John Bryant and Dwayne Jones.
“ The biggest difference is that we had Jameer [Nelson] and they don't. ” — Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli
Villanova leans heavily on a four-guard lineup of Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry. The post is manned by a foursome of role players in Jason Fraser, Will Sheridan, Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham.
Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, who will play the Wildcats on Feb. 7 at the Palestra, sees the mirror image.
"The biggest comparison is the spacing on the court, the use of the dribble," Martelli said. "The ball pressure is different, since they go three-quarter and halfcourt pressure while we went at you man-to-man [on defense]. The biggest difference is that we had Jameer and they don't."
Nelson was the national player of the year. Foye and Ray could be first-team All-Americans, but aren't likely to win POY and they aren't dominant the way Nelson was that season.
"They have wonderful, wonderful players and their inside guys are better offensively than ours were," Martelli said.
Penn coach Fran Dunphy coached against both teams, losing by eight to the Hawks in 2003-04 and by seven to the Wildcats last month.
"The guard play on both teams was, and is, extraordinary," Dunphy said. "The Nelson-West combination with Pat Carroll as a shooter was phenomenal. Villanova has great guard play, too. Neither one was a box of chocolates to play against. The knowledge of the game and the way they carry themselves is what you want to see."
One major difference is the league and schedule. Saint Joseph's opened with Gonzaga in New York and beat the Zags. The Hawks also beat Cal in Oakland. They then swept through their Big Five games, including beating Villanova at the Pavilion. Saint Joseph's didn't lose until Xavier blasted the Hawks in the A-10 quarterfinals.
Villanova got beat at home last Sunday by Big East foe West Virginia. The Wildcats head to Texas on Saturday and already have beaten Oklahoma at home. Villanova also won at Louisville and faces UConn twice.
"Just because they didn't go 27-0, that doesn't lessen the comparison," Martelli said. "Another difference is how this is playing out in Philadelphia. Villanova got attention much earlier because the Eagles were out of the [NFL] picture. When we were on our run, the Eagles went until the NFC Championship game in late January. Football is king here and people didn't notice us until we were 16- or 17-0."
Martelli said he likens the way the Wildcats have embraced the attention to the way Saint Joseph's did two seasons ago, especially after Nelson landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"It became all encompassing," Martelli said of the attention. "We actually had to have an autograph policy. We had to think about how we were going in and out of hotels and how we left the court. I'll never forget the last road trip to UMass and Rhode Island, and we had 300 people lined up at Springfield College after a practice."
Martelli said he told Wright to keep in mind that the players need time and space and that the coach should take on a number of the interview requests.
"By the end of the season, it was like literally being in a bubble," Martelli said. "We were floating through the experience."
Dunphy said it's been pretty special for Philadelphia to have had two teams of this caliber within a three-year period. The Hawks were a No. 1 seed and lost in a thrilling Elite Eight final to Oklahoma State. The Wildcats haven't been No. 1 in anything yet, but certainly have the goods to get there by season's end.
The big question: Who would win a matchup between the 2003-04 Hawks and the 2005-06 Wildcats?
"They had so many pros and we've got work to do," Wright said.
"I don't know but I'd sure like to pay to see that game," Dunphy said.
Of course, Martelli had the answer.
"You know what would happen," he chuckled. "I would have to diagram a last-second play and outwit Jay Wright. Of course I would say my team would win."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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