It was a tale of two halves for the Bruins, and for many of their players, but a bad string of possessions to close the first half ended up being the Bruins' undoing, as they fall in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT to Villanova 82-70 (box score).
A couple of times tonight I had to take a look at the calendar to make sure it was 2010. When Villanova opened the game with an 8-0 run, it looked like I had queued up a replay of the 2008 tournament game where we were crushed. A couple of threes from Lazeric Jones and another from Tyler Honeycutt opened the scoring for the Bruins, but there was a feeling that the wipeout was coming, and we were just buying time. Villanova torched the Bruins' defense for layup after layup, and although the Bruins were able to stay in it through most of the first half with scrappy play, a subdued first half for Reeves Nelson and a bad half for Honeycutt left few feeling great about our chances.
To make matters worse, the "inconsistent" rules for what constitutes legal contact found the Bruins in foul trouble at virtually every position, and also gave the Wildcats a consistent double digit free throw attempt advantage that mysteriously enough seemed to mirror the deficit that the Bruins faced at any given moment (hence the Christmas reference in the title). A number of unforced turnovers in the final minutes of the first half and a 14-2 Villanova run put the Bruins in a 44-29 hole at halftime.
We saw this many times last year, but unlike last year, the Bruins opened the half with better defense. Honeycutt started to play smarter (no Turnovers after halftime), Nelson and Malcolm Lee woke up from their first half slumber, and Josh Smith was a constant mismatch for Villanova, single handedly changing the game on both ends of the floor. Unfortunately one thing that didn't change from the first half was the "inconsistent" reffing, and Smith found himself in a familiar position; in foul trouble. Lee, Zeke, and Anderson, who put up a surprisingly solid effort off the bench, also found themselves in foul trouble, and the Villanova Free Throw/Free Points Parade began again in earnest. After closing to within 6 late in the second half, Nova hit a couple of timely baskets on back to back possessions and the game was virtually over.
Despite the loss, the Bruins showed fight that they rarely displayed last year, in the face of overwhelming adversity. Villanova showed them how much they still have to learn and improve, especially in that first half lull where they lost focus and turned the ball over, but the second half was largely dominated by the Bruins. We all finally got to see what kind of impact we can potentially get from Smith as he saw a sizable portion of playing time and made his presence known at all times. The Bruins were in the game late in the second half and held Corey Fisher to 6-19 shooting, showing that CBH can still gameplan against an elite opposing player (even if he went to the line 15 times, not all of them deserved). They showed an ability to handle the 1-2-2 zone press despite our concerns about ball handling from this team. The ridiculous foul calls do make you wonder "what if", but there were enough positive signs against a very good team to perhaps start thinking a little bigger in terms of expectations for this team going forward.
That said, Honeycutt still throws some terrible passes. Nelson still takes defensive possessions off, and had a nonexistent first half. The free throw shooting is still subpar. Villanova showed us that we need to improve in the halfcourt by taking away a lot of our transition opportunities with their speed. Way too many one on one and isolation plays that almost always ended poorly for the Bruins. At this point, the focus needs to be on correcting these mistakes, lapses, and self inflicted wounds. If we can do that, we could be, and need to be, rolling when conference play begins.