There’s never a bad time to talk college hoops with CBS and Fox Sports analyst Bill Raftery. But I must admit that after interviewing him and Verne Lundquist during Championship Week, I thought that was all I’d need for a while.
Then Selection Sunday happened.
Villanova and Saint Joseph’s got drawn together in Buffalo, and CBS assigned Lundquist and Raftery to call their games. So I caught up with Raf again to pick his brain about the Wildcats and the Hawks.
Villanova seems to have an easy matchup against No. 15 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But it hasn’t been that long since the Wildcats got a serious scare as a No. 2 seed from Robert Morris back in 2010 – and that was their last win in the NCAA tournament.
None of the current players were on the team at that time, but regardless, do you think Jay Wright will have his team prepared and not looking past the Panthers?
You know, we'll find out. i think judging by what I’ve heard Jay say, the days off [since losing to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament are pretty helpful. You concentrate on some things that maybe because of the bang-bang-ness of games, you maybe not let them slide, but you're just concentrating on the next opponent. They’ve got a few days to prepare. Nobody is bad anymore, that's the thing that is shocking to everybody. Everybody’s got a guard and a forward. So they can play. I think the kids understand that.
I’m sure many St. Joe’s fans out there are salivating over the prospect of a matchup with Villanova in the Round of 32, just as many Wildcats fans are. But if there was ever a team that would keep the Hawks focused on the present, I’d think it would be Connecticut, between their big name and having Shabazz Napier in the backcourt. What do you see in that game?
I think what Phil [Martelli] is going to do is work on Connecticut. They know enough about Villanova – and I'm sure these kids would like to get another shot at Villanova because of the first game [this season, a 30-point blowout loss at Hagan Arena].
But they know how good Connecticut is, and how good their guards are. It’s an interesting matchup with the point forward mentality [of Halil Kanacevic] and then you've got one of the top backcourts in the country with [UConn’s Napier and Ryan Boatright]. it's easy to concentrate on Connecticut, because if you don't, you don't get a chance if Villanova advances.
Is it possible that people nationally are overlooking UConn? They’re just a 7-seed, but they beat Florida, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Harvard at home. Granted, they also lost at the latter two teams and were swept by SMU, but they swept Memphis and also beat Maryland and Indiana. The Huskies ended up with the nation’s No. 23 RPI and No. 41 strength of schedule. So what should we make of them?
I think [they are overlooked] because Louisville has been easily able to handle, them especially the one game at the end of he season [the AAC tournament title game]. but I think people understand. and sometimes teams have your number too. Creighton-Villanova is a good one in recent memory. the ones that overlook it aren't playing the game.
If the Round of 32 matchup is Villanova-St. Joe’s, how much fun will that be for you?
I'm going to ask them to move it to the Palestra though. On Friday, we're all going to get on a plane after the press conference and go down to Philly and play it at the Palestra.
Those games were so different when I was there. You circled games like that. It still is important, no question but playing in the same building is pretty darn good. I don't think they'll ever go back [to how things were], but the whole city centered on those games. And for Philly guys that had a lady friend, that was date night.
It will be fun, because I know what it means to the guys who play and have played at those two schools. For La Salle, St. Joe’s, to me, is our rival. And I didn’t realize when we were playing that Villanova was St. Joe's rival, I guess because of proximity - and Villanova always was good.
Even looking at the year books, I was looking at [former Hawks coaches Jack] Ramsey and [Jim] Lynam and [Jim] Boyle and all the old coaches on the one side, and some of the old players from my year. There's a lot of reminiscing that goes on. And I guess a lot of guys live vicariously through it.
The pride, belief and happiness that it’s occurring in the NCAA tournament really elevates the stature - if in fact it does happen.
If it’s Villanova-Connecticut, I wonder what the atmosphere will be like, since the arena in Buffalo will likely be full of Syracuse fans for the other game. That would be quite a scene if they have to choose between two teams they don’t like.
What do they do? I don't know. I think they'll probably enjoy a game and pick a side. They've had their fair share of success and some setbacks. But I don't know. I think that's an intriguing inquiry.
I wanted to also ask you abou another Big East team that I have as a dark horse, Providence. Having won the Big East tournament, can the Friars carry the momentum forward?
The one advantage for Providence is the length of the TV timeouts. That, to me, is really big - particularly for [star guard] Bryce Cotton. I think the length of the game enhances his ability to stay on the floor and not be tired. He looked fried the third night in New York. He had not been shooting as well.
But I think they were just into that [game]. They raised their level of their motivation, or interest, or whatever they did. So they probably took a few days to come down and then get perked up once more, but I think those additional rest periods will help. And I think the halftime is longer too, 20 minutes. You add that all up and this kid will play all 40.*
* - Bryce Cotton has averaged 39.9 minutes per game this season. At one point this season, the average was above 40 minutes, because Providence has had six games go to overtime.
In the Atlantic 10, it looks like Virginia Commonwealth might be a dark horse again. Their defense is just so difficult to contend with, and if they beat Stephen F. Austin they can give UCLA some trouble too. How hard is it to prepare for the Rams and coach Shaka Smart’s famed Havoc?
I said on the telecast Sunday that I think what both those teams [VCU and St. Joe’s] do is present a unique style of play. St. Joe’s with the point forward running the offense, and then VCU - you just can't simulate the effort. St. Joe’s rehearsed, had played them before and beaten them before. You had that 3rd or 4th ball-hander at 6-foot-8 whatever Kanacevic is. They’re unique.
And I think VCU is really unique in terms of national play. I don't know of anyone who can get after you like that - even Arkansas [under Nolan Richardson] didn't do what these kids do. The preparation is going to be difficult, because you don't have guys in your second team that can have floor coverage and be as disruptive. So when the lights go on, all hell breaks loose.