Bulls put Wildcats on horns of dilemma

NEW YORK -- Not long ago, the Villanova Wildcats seemed like a sure bet for the NCAA tournament.

Now they'll be sweating out Selection Sunday.

The Wildcats' 70-69 loss to 15th-seeded South Florida in the first round of the Big East tournament may leave Villanova on the bubble when NCAA selection committee members discuss bids to the Big Dance.

"We came in here expecting to win and now we have to deal with what comes next," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team coughed up a 16-point halftime lead at Madison Square Garden, thanks to missed free throws and blown defensive assignments down the stretch -- and one ill-advised pass.

Many observers believe the Wildcats (21-11) will be one of a bevy of Big East teams to make the tournament. But if the selection committee places a heavy emphasis on the final 10 games of the season, Villanova may be in trouble.

The Wildcats, who were ranked No. 6 in the preseason and raced to a 16-1 start, lost seven of their last nine and were unranked in the final regular-season polls. ESPN's Joe Lunardi ranked Villanova as an 11-seed in his latest version of Bracketology, after Tuesday night's loss.

Villanova had a one-point lead and the ball with 22 seconds to play when guard Maalik Wayns, positioned on the right sideline near half court, inexplicably tried to inbound the ball to 6-8 forward Antonio Peña, who was standing in the backcourt, a few feet away from the basket.

The pass sailed over Peña's head. Bulls point guard Anthony Crater corralled it and converted a layup to give South Florida its first lead since 9:12 to play in the first half.

Wayns connected on two free throws to put Villanova up one with 12 seconds to play. But Crater, 6-2, came off a screen and beat 6-6 guard Dominic Cheek for a layup with five seconds to go to give South Florida the 70-69 lead and the biggest upset of the first day of the Big East tournament.

"They made all the plays down the stretch," Wright said. "We just couldn't get a stop."

Villanova's interior defense took a hit when 6-10 center Mouphtaou Yarou went down with 4:58 to play in the first half with what Wright described as a concussion and rib injury.

South Florida outscored the Wildcats 16-4 in the paint in the second half. The Bulls also outrebounded Villanova 19-12 after halftime. Villanova shot just 4-of-19 in the final 20 minutes after hitting 59 percent of its shots in the first half.

South Florida (10-22) will face No. 7 Cincinnati at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Wright said after the game that he hasn't been paying attention to any NCAA tournament projections, but admitted "there is a little concern" over where the Wildcats stand heading into Selection Sunday.

"We were looking forward to coming here and playing a number of games, we hoped," Wright said. "This wasn't in the plan."

Ian Begley is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.