Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Highs and Lows of Wells Fargo Teams

Here in Philadelphia, there are two professional teams that call the Wells Fargo Center home and one college basketball team that plays a handful of its home games in the building as well. The fortunes for those three teams — the Flyers, Sixers and Villanova — have been quite surprising of late.

Villanova began the year the same way most Jay Wright teams begin the year, by rattling off win after win to go 16-1. Then Kemba Walker hit a ridiculous floater to give the Wildcats their first lost in conference play and just second loss on the season.

That ending was difficult to stomach, but there's no shame in losing at UConn by two points, especially with the way Kemba Walker was playing at the time. Nova rebounded nicely to roll Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, and the Cats looked like a real force to be reckoned with. Then it all fell apart.

Nova lost by 15 at Providence, then dropped a heartbreaker against Georgetown. Back-to-back wins against Marquette and West Virginia looked to get Nova back on track, but looks can be deceiving. What came next can only be described as self-destructing. Villanova lost to a bad Rutgers team in spectacular fashion.

Little did we know that that finish would turn out to be the true identity of this team. Since that epic choke job, Villanova has been a really, really bad basketball team. They headed into last night's first-round Big East Tournament game against South Florida having lost four straight games. After defeating Maryland on Jan. 15, Nova finished the regular season 5-9 in its last 14 games. They hadn't beaten a ranked opponent since defeating then No. 25 West Virginia on Feb. 5, and the only two wins Nova had since that West Virginia game came against Seton and Hall and Depaul … winning by a combined 5 points.

Somewhere along the way, this team that had started 16-1 and risen to the top 5 in the nation turned into an absolutely awful basketball team. And it all came to a head last night.

Having choked away a bye in the Big East Tournament, Villanova entered Madison Square Garden as the 10th seed, taking on the 15th-seeded South Florida Bulls. Early on, the Wildcats had cause for concern, getting off to slow a start, but then they took over. Corey Stokes was active and connecting from distance. Maalik Wayns and Corey Fisher were on point. And Nova built a 16-point lead. Everything looked good. After a very tough stretch to end the season, it looked like Nova was regaining its confidence and would move on and hope to right itself in the Garden.

Then everything came crashing down yet again. Stokes disappeared. Fisher disappeared. Mouphtaou Yarou got hurt. And Nova folded. It was embarrassing. Fisher forgot how to play basketball. The front line behind Yarou couldn't do a damn thing. And the rest of the team looked lost out there.

The only player who seemed game was Maalik Wayns, who finished with a game-high 24 points, but even he couldn't make it last.

Nova let the Bulls back in the game, but they still had the outcome in their control. Nova was up by three with less than a minute left when Corey Stokes stole the ball. The Bulls then fouled Wayns, an 80-plus percent free throw shooter, to put him on the line. Nova had not missed a free throw all game. But Wayns went ahead and missed the front end of a one-and-one, Bulls ball.

Still, South Florida did what a bad team does, literally trying to give the game away. Shaun Noriega slipped and turned it over to Nova. With 37 seconds left, Corey Stokes, a 90 percent free throw shooter who led the Big East in free throw percentage, was fouled. And guess what? That asshole missed the front end of a one-and-one too. Unbelievable.

What happened next was even more despicable. South Florida connected on two free throws to make it a one-point game. Then Wayns, a player I absolutely love, made one of the single worst passes in the history of college basketball. He lobbed a pass up back toward his own basket. It was out of the reach of Antonio Pena, stolen and laid in with 23 seconds, 68-67 South Florida.

Wayns momentarily made up for it by hitting two free throws to put Nova back up a point, but it didn't matter. Dominic Cheek played laughable defense — see none whatsoever — on Anthony Crater, letting him just go right by him for the game-winning layup.

It's as if this Villanova team is going out of its way to find new ways to lose. Blowing a 16-point lead against a far inferior (talent-wise) opponent, excellent free-throw shooters missing crucial foul shots down the stretch, inexplicable turnovers, and just letting a guy get an uncontested layup to win the game. Those are qualities of a bad team. A really bad team. And that's what Villanova is and has been for more than a month, a bad basketball team.

For the first time in memory, this is a Jay Wright team that literally has no composure and no heart. None whatsoever. Corey Fisher forgot how to play basketball. Corey Stokes is a bona fide choke artist. Antonio Pena's first half of the season proved to be a fluke. The bench is terrible. And the sophomores, as talented as they are, make incredibly boneheaded plays in big moments. Maalik Wayns with the missed free throw and horrific pass. Dominic Cheek failing to develop offensively and literally yielding a layup with the game on the line. And Yarou, while possessing tons of talent, is still raw.

This is a bad team that looks poorly coached right now. That's just the facts. Jay Wright is a fantastic coach and these players are really talented, but none of the parts have been good in 2011. None of them. Wright hasn't developed the youngsters enough. The seniors completely faded down the stretch. And this team has literally gone from a promising power to one of the worst teams in the conference. I honestly don't see Villanova winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. They will be an 8 seed at best, and even that is generous given the way the Wildcats are playing.

A once promising season has completely turned into a disaster. I'm not sure anyone saw this coming.

Conversely, the Sixers have had a completely opposite trajectory to their season. In Doug Collins' first season at the helm, the Sixers picked up right where Eddie Jordan left off, starting the year an embarrassing 3-13, including losing the first four, then losing six straight. It was terrible.

But since, the Sixers have been one of the best teams in the NBA. No, they're not going to be a contender or anything, but the Sixers have become a winning basketball team that I'm pretty sure no one wants to see in the playoffs. And they're doing it with a truly team mentality.

Take last night's game for example. The Sixers easily handled the Indiana Pacers 110-100 and took at 65-53 lead into the half. That was despite the leading scorer having all of four points after 24 minutes for Philadelphia. When it was all said and done, seven Sixers had scored in double figures: Thaddeus Young (18), Jrue Holiday (16), Andre Iguodala (16), Jodie Meeks (15), Elton Brand (12), Spencer Hawes (12) and Evan Turner (10).

Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand are playing some of the best basketball of their lives. Last night, Iggy added 10 assists to record a double-double, and Brand had 8 boards. Beyond that, Jrue has continued to develop, and there are no questions anymore about his selection. He is this team's point guard of the future. Jodie Meeks has turned into a nice scorer and is the team's most reliable three-point threat. Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams have been fantastic off the bench, and after a slow start in the NBA, rookie Evan Turner keeps developing the more he plays.

Honestly, the Sixers are a fun team to watch. They've won three straight, 7 of their last 8 and 9 of their last 11. After that 3-13 start, they're now 33-30 on year and virtually a lock for the playoffs, just a game behind the new-look Knicks for sixth in the East. Yes, they still have their issues — namely giving up double-digit leads in the 3rd and 4th quarters — but they are finding ways to win and certainly moving in the right direction. People should start taking notice.

As it stands, the Sixers will most likely have to face Boston, Chicago or Miami in the first round. An upset still would require an awful lot of luck and near flawless play. But this team should put a scare into anyone else in the East if for no other reason than they play the game the way it's meant to be played —  moving the ball, running the floor and hustling nonstop. And if they can find a way to catch Atlanta and pass the Knicks for the 5th seed, they could very well give Dwight Howard and the Magic a real scare.

For the first time in a while, it's actually fun watching the Sixers again.

Then there is the matter of the Flyers. This team has been atop the Eastern Conference for so long that it's hard to be overly upset with the four-game losing streak that they finally ended last night. But unlike Matt P. at The700Level, I do care about the play of late.

Do I think the Flyers will be fine? Yes. They are too talented, too deep and have too many good players to continue to struggle, and the body of work for the season speaks for itself. They are, after all, still leading the entire Eastern Conference with 88 points and have games in hand over most of the teams chasing them. But that doesn't excuse the bad play of late.

The Flyers lost to four teams that frankly they should beat during that streak. The Senators have the fewest points in East and second fewest in the NHL, yet they lost to them 4-1. The Maple Leafs are 5-1-4 in their last 10 games, but they're also 10th in the East, a team the Flyers should handle, not lose to by folding late. And while the Sabres and Rangers are fighting for every point and have far more desperation than the Flyers, sitting at 8th and 7th in the conference respectively, the Flyers should be able to beat one of those teams. Instead they lost a tough one to the Sabres and got completely embarrassed by the Rangers.

The good news is the Flyers got back to their winning ways last night, beating the worst team in the NHL 4-1. But the victory over the Oilers wasn't all that consoling either, mainly because the same troubles that have plagued them during the losing streak crept up.

Now, in the first period, the Flyers did exactly what they should do. They completely dominated the entire period, outshooting the Oilers 17-1 and taking a 2-0 lead, highlighted by an absolutely brilliant stretch pass by Matt Carle to spring Danny Briere for the breakaway.

If it wasn't for Edmonton goaltender Devan Dubnyk standing on his head, the Flyers easily could have been up 4 or 5. But as good as the Flyers played in that first period — and don't get me wrong, they really took it to Edmonton —  they still had trouble with their power play and connecting on passes.

Ladislav Smid earned a five-minute major for mashing Darroll Powe from behind face-first into the boards. On the ensuing major, it took the Flyers 3 minutes before they actually set up. And while they ultimately did tally on a Jeff Carter goal, they wasted the first 3 minutes of a five-minute major and missed an opportunity to completely bury the Oilers in the first.

I cannot understand for the life of me why a team this talented cannot figure out the power play, but their man-advantage is atrocious. It has been all year. To me, the biggest culprit is that these guys routinely try to get too cute, try to make the perfect play, instead of just keeping it simple. They need to get back to firing the puck and crashing the net, none of this cute stuff.

Anyway, after a owning the first period, the Flyers fell flat in the second. Edmonton just looked like a hungrier team. The Flyers were making lazy passes, turning the puck over, playing on their heels. It was maddening. Luckily, Sergei Bobrovsky was outstanding, preserving the lead, and the Flyers actually made it 3-0 on an absolutely beautiful set play off of an offensive zone draw. Claude Giroux won a draw back to James van Riemsdyk, and immediately Kimmon Timonen went backdoor. JVR hit him with a perfect pass, and Kimmo drew the defense and the goalie. Then he calmly passed it to a wide-open Jeff Carter for the slam-dunk goal.

But then the Flyers continued an alarming trend, giving the goal right back just 55 seconds later on a great deflection by Jean-Francois Jacques. That's something the Flyers have been doing routinely during this slump, surrendering a goal immediately after scoring themselves. It's been maddening.

And even though the Flyers held on with Blair Betts adding an empty-netter, they were far from impressive the rest of the way. The defensemen had some really terrible turnovers. Instead of making the smart, safe plays while protecting a two-goal lead in the third, the Flyers tried risky passes and put themselves in bad positions. Far too often, they try to enter the zone by stickhandling or making tough passes, instead of just dumping and chasing, using the forechecking style Peter Laviolette wants.

Defensively, far too often they look backward, try to reverse the puck and end up turning it over instead of just chipping it out of the zone and living to fight another shift.

And most frustrating of all has been the reluctance some of these guys have had with the puck. Claude Giroux has been outstanding all season and is without question my favorite player on this team. But lately, he has been passing up way too many shots, electing to pass instead. I know he's creative, a great passer and a guy who looks to pass first, but sometimes you just have to let it fly. Over the course of this rough patch, he's passed up prime shooting lanes in the slot and around the net, instead opting for a worse play. The man needs to shoot a little more. The same can be said for Kris Versteeg.

And defensively, the top four have been outstanding still as you would expect. Timonen, Coburn, Pronger and Carle continue to be stalwarts. But lately, that third pair that has been so awesome all season has begun to struggle. Andrej Meszaros simply has been taking too many penalties, though he managed to stay out of the box last night and had a nice game. But Sean O'Donnell, who thoroughly impressed me this year, has struggled lately. He's been getting beat on some goals, and suddenly he has the yips, coughing up the puck like Eric Desjardins in the playoffs.

The good news is these are all things that can be easily corrected and I'm confident they will. The Flyers have been too good for too long, and the talent is still there to continue to be elite. But they definitely need to pick up the intensity and play smarter, playoff-style hockey here soon. Because as we saw last year with the Flyers, a lower-seeded team can catch the top seeds off-guard and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

And as Nova has shown, sometimes a little slump can snowball into something much bigger.

1 comment:

  1. I ain't gone front. I thought Nova was on their way to something special this season. They came out of the blocks like they were going to be impossible to deal with. Not sure what happened but it faded quickly.