South Florida’s upset of ‘Nova exposes Wildcats’ fatal flaw

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NEW YORK – Anthony Crater averaged 4.0 ppg in 34 minutes during the 2010-2011 regular season.

But it was Crater, who transferred into South Florida after failing in a ten game experiment as Mike Conley’s replacement at Ohio State, who scored four points in the final 23 seconds as 15th seed South Florida knocked off 10th seed Villanova 70-69 in the Big East Tournament’s first round on Tuesday night.

With 23 seconds left, Crater stole a Maalik Wayns inbounds pass and scored on a layup. After Wayns hit two free throws at the other end of the floor, Crater crossed up Dominic Cheek, driving down the right side of the lane and finishing a wide open layup that would end up being the game winning basket.

“The last play, a screen was designed for me to come off,” Crater said after the game. “But the lane was open and I took it.”

Were you surprised the lane was that open?

“Yes, sir. Yes.”

He wasn’t the only one.

As great as it is to see South Florida, the first 15 seed to ever win a game in the Big East Tournament, pull out a victory and as refreshing as it is to see a kid like Crater, who hasn’t followed the easiest path to college, become the hero, the story here isn’t South Florida.

It’s Villanova.

Tonight was the fifth straight loss for the Wildcats. It was their seventh loss in their last nine games and ninth in the last 13. It’s gotten to the point that there’s a legitimate question as to whether this team deserves to be in the NCAA tournament.

“We were feeling good coming into this game, we had great practices and we were looking forward to coming here and playing a number of games,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “You know, this wasn’t in the plan, so I don’t have the answer right now for what we’re going to do next.”

“We came in here expecting to win and now we have to deal with what comes next.”

What comes next will, almost assuredly, be the NCAA tournament. The work that Villanova did early in the season is enough and the back end of the bubble is weak enough that they can feel safe. How long they will last is a different story.

It begs the question — what is plaguing Villanova? How can a team with size up front and two all-conference caliber guards disintegrate at the end of the season?

It certainly isn’t a lack of talent. Villanova looked as good as they have all season long in the first half. They scored 49 points in that half and shot 59.3 percent from the field. They hit 7-12 from three. Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher, and Maalik Wayns combined to go 12-22 from the field for 39 points. The problem was the second half. Villanova’s offense was atrocious. Every possession, it seemed, came down to Maalik Wayns or Corey Fisher trying to create off the dribble at the end of the shot clock. No matter how you slice, 4-18 shooting in a half is never going to get it done.

Wright wouldn’t specifically comment on the problems — when asked why the offense bogged down in the second half, Wright said “the main reason I can’t say, but the second most important reason is I thought we got tentative with the lead” — but he alluded to a deeper problem talking to reporters after the press conference.

“We’ve stuck together, we’ve remained positive, we’ve kept a great attitude, that we’ve done well,” Wright said. “Our execution, our confidence on the floor, our defense, our rebounding, those things we’ve struggled with.”

“We haven’t won a game in so long. Everybody got a little scared, a little short on their shots and we just didn’t play with confidence with the lead.”

Keep in mind, this Villanova team is essentially the same team that collapsed down the stretch last season, losing four of their last six in the regular season before flaming out against Marquette in the Big East tournament and squeaking by Robert Morris in overtime in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with the help of some beneficial whistles.

Could it be as simple as this Villanova team simply doesn’t know how to win?

I’ve said it time and time again, winning is a skill. The ability to lay in the clutch and play with a lead is a learned characteristic.

Call it what you want — guts, toughness, moxie, leadership — this Villanova team doesn’t have it.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.