Behind 'tactical' fans, Butler snaps Villanova's 20-game win streak

Behind 'tactical' fans, Butler snaps Villanova's 20-game win streak

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Wildcats have been carrying it around with them since Kris Jenkins’ three-pointer cemented his place in Villanova and college basketball history for all of eternity.

Through the offseason, and in each of the 15 games thus far, the 'Cats have lugged it around with them.

To Villanova, its fans, alumni and students, it’s the No. 1, proudly placed right next to the school’s name in the college basketball rankings, exactly where Jenkins and the 2015-16 ‘Cats left it nine months ago, on that historic night in Houston.

But to everyone else, it’s a giant target, peppered with each of Villanova’s opponents' best shot, its bullseye barely noticeable from all the abuse.

On Wednesday night, Butler fans at Hinkle Fieldhouse might as well have been salivating when the top-ranked ‘Cats took the floor.

Fans of the No. 18 Bulldogs started in early and often, and nobody was spared. For the entire 40 minutes of Wednesday night’s Big East contest, Butler fans poured it on Villanova’s players, the referees, and most of all, Jay Wright. And it didn’t go unnoticed.

As Wright addressed the media after the 66-58 loss (see Instant Replay), a slight grin grew on his face when comparing the Butler crowd to that of Villanova’s most recent opponent prior to Wednesday night, Creighton.

“[Creighton’s and Butler’s arenas] are tough, but there’s a great passion for basketball [at Butler],” Wright said. “Creighton is a little more euphoric. This place, this is a little more tactical in their cheering.”

“Tactical” is putting it lightly. After a disagreement with a call by one of the referees midway through the first half, Wright spun into a manic state of anger, having to be held back by players and coaches, earning a technical foul.

From that moment on, the Butler student section just 12 feet from the end of the Villanova bench chanted “Jay Wright sucks” at every opportunity throughout the rest of the game.

The student section’s effort to get into Wright’s head was hardly the highlight of Butler’s sellout crowd. The 'Cats entered on a 20-game winning streak, the longest in school history, accompanying Villanova’s No. 1 ranking. The energy inside Hinkle Fieldhouse made every Butler basket feel like it had the magnitude of Jenkins’ three-pointer in Houston. Whether Butler was chipping away at a six- or eight-point lead, tying the game or taking the lead, the reaction to every make was indicative of what was truly at stake — taking down No. 1.

“It was an unbelievable environment. It was the loudest I’ve ever heard Hinkle in my short time here,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “Our guys fed off that. We always do. Our crowd and the energy it brought, it was major. I think we only had eight assists — [the crowd] deserves at least one of them.”

The crowd took the noise to an even higher level in the final 1:50 when sure-handed Villanova committed two of its six turnovers on the night. Kris Jenkins attempted a cross-court pass that was intercepted and Josh Hart grabbed a rebound before having it swiped by Kamar Baldwin, who followed with an up-and-under layup for a six-point Butler lead with 57 seconds remaining.

“You have schools with great basketball tradition that expect to win. When they play at home, they really expect to win,” Wright said. “When you look at the results, they played really good team defense. I was very impressed. Wasn’t one of our best night’s defensively. They run some good stuff. They all share the ball, you can look at the balance. That broke down our defense a little bit."

As the clock hit zero, the crowd was so loud that it masked the sound of the buzzer. Students from each of Butler’s cheering sections stormed the court, meeting at halfcourt to jump up and down with the Bulldogs, emphatically celebrating the victory.

Afterward, Hart was asked whether being the defending national champions, the No. 1 team in the country and riding a 20-game winning streak felt like a giant target on the back of every Wildcat thus far throughout the season.

“No. Not really … we don’t really feel … um, no,” Hart said, trying to find a way to explain it best.

“I don’t think there’s any added motivation that we’re No. 1 and defending champions,” Hart added. “We knew before this year that we were going to get every team’s best shot.”

On Wednesday night, the Wildcats got the Bulldogs’ best shot on the court and from all angles of the crowd. But make no mistake of it, while Butler left its mark on the bullseye of that giant target on Villanova’s backs, it isn’t going anywhere. And the Wildcats should want it that way.

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Penn, Villanova back for more championships at Penn Relays

Like many people who come from nearby high schools, Penn senior Chris Hatler has been running at the Penn Relays since he was 15. But his initial experience at the famed meet did not go exactly as planned

“The first relay ever, I fell in the first 100 meters,” he said, “and made a fool of myself.”

Such can be the dangers of overwhelmed teenagers competing at a competition that also features college and professional stars — a three-day track & field carnival that is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country.

But last year, Hatler became one of those college stars himself, helping Penn to a dramatic win in the 4xmile — the host school’s first win in that event since 1950 and its first championship in any of the meet’s marquee distance relays since 1974.

Now, with the 123rd running of the Penn Relays set to kick off in full Thursday — the same day that the NFL draft begins across town — Hatler is ready to add another wheel before graduating, along with fellow senior Nick Tuck.

“Last year was exciting to win the 4xmile, but I kinda felt like for the seniors last year, it was their win, it was their wheel,” said Hatler, who also helped the Quakers set a school record in last year’s distance medley relay. “I know Nick and I kinda have a little grudge here. We want our own wheel for ourselves our senior year. So we’re gonna come out and see what we can do.”

Although the USA vs. the World races Saturday to highlight the meet, the college relays are often the most exciting with wild sprints to the finish line occurring in front of packed Franklin Field crowds. Last year, in between Team USA races, then-senior Thomas Awad chased down two other runners in the 4xmile to give Penn the victory on national TV, before being mobbed by Hatler, Tuck and Keaton Naff. 

Hatler couldn’t quite see the track from where he was standing but had a feeling that Awad — one of the most accomplished athletes in Penn’s track & field history — would come through on the final lap of his Penn Relays career.

“You never bet against Tom at the end of the race,” said Hatler, who earlier this year cracked the 4-minute-mile barrier. “We kinda knew it was gonna happen.”

Few other people expected it because the host school hasn’t always been competitive in the college championships at Penn Relays. But another local school always is — Villanova.

And the Wildcats are glad to get some more competition from their Big 5 rival.

“It was thrilling for me to see it happen,” Villanova men’s track coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “This is really the home school. We’re happy to be sharing the stress of Penn [Relays] every year with the real home school.”

As for his own team, O’Sullivan said the Wildcats are dealing with injuries so it may not be in top form for the men’s distance medley relay (Friday, 5:30 p.m.), men’s 4xmile (Saturday, 1:15 p.m.) and the men’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:40 p.m.), the first two of which will be broadcast on NBC Sports.

But he touted the talent of redshirt freshman Logan Wetzel, among others, and seems ready to throw some youngsters into the fire.

“I always say Penn is a defining arena for kids to grow up,” said O’Sullivan, who ran the Penn Relays as a student at Villanova. “You really start to learn. You prepare a year for Penn. 

“My junior year, we were annihilated, lost everything, and it one of the most humiliating moments of my life because so much is expected of you and you drop the ball. I spent a whole year just waiting for Penn, just training for Penn. The year I made the Olympic team, I kid you not, running at Penn, winning at Penn, was way more important for me at that time of my life. That’s how big it is.”

Villanova women’s coach Gina Procaccio also ran the Penn Relays in college and has similar feelings about the significance of the meet. And she’s ready to lead her powerhouse teams to more championships in the women’s distance medley relay (Thursday, 5:30 p.m.), the women’s 4x1500 (Friday, 1:20 p.m.) and the women’s 4x800 (Saturday, 4:10 p.m.).

Those relay teams will be led by Angel Piccirillo, a fifth-year senior who redshirted last year, and junior Siofra Cleirigh Buttner — two of the best distance runners in the NCAA. But it won’t be easy for them as this year’s field will be stacked with the likes of Oregon and Stanford.

But no one has done better at Penn Relays than the Villanova women, who have won 14 DMRs all time, including four straight from 2012-2015.

“I’m not one to shy away from the competition,” Procaccio said. “I like to earn those wins.”

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

About midway through Monday night's Big 5 Hall of Fame ceremony, the oldest inductee of this year's class paid homage to the youngest.

That's how much hoops legend George Raveling, a 1960 Villanova graduate, was blown away by Penn alum Ibrahim Jaaber's impassioned speech that ended with a powerful poem about how basketball saved him.

"It kept running through my mind that you represent everything good about sports," Raveling said to Jaaber. "And I hope you'll continue to use your wisdom, your influence, to make the game better, to make the world better. As a 79-year-old-man, soon to be 80 in June, I want to tell you that if I come back in the next life, I want to be like you."

That touching moment, in many ways, was a perfect encapsulation of the ties that bind the Big 5, from one generation to the next. But aside from Raveling and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon -- who, despite battling Alzheimer's, courageously gave an acceptance speech to a standing ovation at the Palestra -- this year's class was filled with contemporary guards who clashed in some great Big 5 games not too long ago.

Among them were two current NBA players in Saint Joseph's icon Jameer Nelson (class of 2004) and former 'Nova star Randy Foye (2006), as well as Temple's Lynn Greer (2002) and Jaaber (2007). La Salle women's player Carlene Hightower (2008) was the other member of the star-studded class defined by tough, gritty Philadelphia guards.

"The inductees here for the Hall of Fame have got to be maybe the greatest class we've ever put together," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who closed the night by accepting the Big 5 Coach of the Year award right after Josh Hart took home Player of the Year honors. "I grew up in Philadelphia and we always talk about what a great place the Palestra is -- and it is. But when you listen to Lynn, Randy, Coach Rav, Ibby, Jameer, you know why this is a great place. It's because of all the great man that have played here -- outstanding, humble, articulate, intelligent men that understand they're part of something that's bigger than themselves. That's what makes the Big 5. That's what makes the Palestra."

Nelson, the National Player of the Year during St. Joe’s historic 2003-04 season, certainly showed what kind of person he is, inviting all of his old Hawks teammates who were in attendance to stand behind him as he accepted his Hall of Fame award. And he even choked up at one point as he described what those teammates, coach Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's University have meant to him as he's forged a long and fruitful NBA career.

"Without them, none of this would be possible," said Nelson, the Hawks' all-time leader in points (2,094) and assists (713). "These guys mean the world to me."

Nelson, now with the Denver Nuggets, just wrapped up his 13th season in the NBA, calling it an "unbelievable ride" for a 5-foot-11 kid from Chester. That's two more years spent in the league than Foye, who Nelson thanked for forcing him to be better back in their college days. He also called Greer one of his "great friends" and said that Jaaber's speech "touched me in so many different ways, I wish more young kids could hear it."

"I'm very grateful to be inducted with you guys," Nelson said, although he did point out that when he was at St. Joe's, the Hawks had Villanova down 43-9 at halftime one year. 

"But those next couple years, we paid y'all back," said Foye, now with the Brooklyn Nets, during his own speech.

Those rivalries were especially meaningful to Foye, who also played against Jaaber in both high school and college.

"Being from North Jersey, you never hear about the Big 5," said Foye, a first-team All-American and Big 5 Player of the Year in 2006. "For me coming here and witnessing it up close and personal, it's just something truly amazing."

Foye added that everywhere he goes, he tries to embody what a Philly guard is -- "small but play big," as he put it -- while reminding people that he's proud to be a Villanova alum. The same can be said of Raveling, a longtime college coach and executive who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

"I'm so proud to say I'm a Big 5 product -- and a proud graduate of Villanova University," Raveling said. "I look back many times and realize the wisest decision I ever made in my lifetime was to enroll at Villanova University."

Just as he opened his speech, Raveling also closed it by saying he was "proud" to enter the Big 5 Hall of Fame the same year as Jaaber, whose remarks touched on spirituality, family and a unique journey from Morocco to New Jersey to Penn.

Jaaber also made sure to thank the person who perhaps embodies the Big 5 more than anyone else: former La Salle player, former Penn coach and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy.

"I don't think I could have had a better coach for me in my situation than my Coach Dunphy," said Jaaber, the 2006-07 Big 5 Player of the Year and the all-time Ivy League leader in steals (303). "I'm almost embarrassed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before Coach Dunphy."