DIBIASE: Villanova set to play underdog role one more time

Justin Dibiase

Pinch yourself, you’re awake. The Villanova Wildcats are in the Final Four for the first time since 1985. Say it again if you have to.

A season that began with hopes and uncertainties has landed on college basketball’s biggest stage. As Scottie Reynolds’ hanging shot softly floated through the air and dropped through the net with 0.5 seconds remaining, a deafening roar spread through bars and houses 300 miles away.

The game was a sign that the age of the Wildcat is upon us. Jay Wright has brought a new successful brand of basketball to Villanova, and this winning trend won’t be going away any time soon. Before the legendary battle with Pitt, Billy Gillispie was fired from his post as head coach at Kentucky. After the news broke, all eyes turned to Jay Wright, but the coach was quick to silence any lingering rumors.

“Someone mentions your name, you’re flattered,” Wright said. “You’re crazy if you don’t say that, or you’re not being truthful if you don’t say that. But I don’t want my name mentioned anywhere. I love Villanova. I’ve got a great athletic director [Vince Nicastro], great president [the Rev. Peter M. Donohue]. As long as those guys are there, I’m good.”

That type of swift rejection for the highest position at a college basketball mecca says a lot about what Villanova is and where it’s going.

For all the motion and emotion that made Reynolds’s last-second drive one of the greatest plays in Wildcat history, it was a bunch of motionless shots that ultimately decided the game. Twenty-three of them to be exact.

Free throws can say a lot about a player. Put a guy on the line in the gym with nothing but painted concrete surrounding him, and he sinks two calmly and coolly.

Knock down those concrete walls and show him the 20,000 sets of eyes peering into his soul, begging him to make it or yelling at him to miss. Show him the bright scoreboard that reminds him of the grave importance of his shot. Now hand him the ball, back away and see how many he can make.

On Saturday, the Wildcats faced this pressure 23 times and found the net on 22 of those shots. They don’t just handle pressure well, they live for it.

This Wildcat run to Detroit was unexpected by basketball gurus across the nation. Flying under the radar for most of the season, ‘Nova never garnered the type of attention that their Big East brethren saw. The gurus constantly searched for the next great NBA star in the regular season and the tournament. Darren Collison. Gerald Henderson. DeJuan Blair.

They pointed to these names while they gave their reasons why Villanova would lose. After all, there are no NBA lottery picks on the Wildcats’ roster currently; so why are these analysts continually wrong about the team that refuses to lose? They don’t need numbers. They don’t need charts. All they need to know is that tourney time is all about heart, and ‘Nova has plenty of it.

Along with Reynolds, the senior captains have raised the program to new heights. Over the past four years, they have quietly amassed more wins than any other class in the history of Villanova basketball.

Clark, Cunningham and Reynolds have been seeing playing time since their arrivals at Villanova, but Dwayne Anderson has a different story. Anderson was mired deep into the Villanova bench during his freshman and sophomore years. While several Wildcats transferred after not receiving the playing time they wanted, Anderson stuck with ‘Nova and is now an integral part of this Final Four team.

This team has battled through two storied basketball universities in UCLA and Duke and a Big East powerhouse in Pittsburgh. Now the toughest test awaits. If Duke was the Diet Coke of the ACC, then North Carolina is the Red Bull. The Tar Heels are just as talented in the backcourt as Villanova with Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. National Player of the Year candidate Tyler Hansbrough is similar to DeJuan Blair in his size and toughness.

The last time these teams collided was in the 2005 NCAA tournament, when North Carolina ousted a young Villanova team 67-66 in the Sweet 16. It was Jay Wright’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament with Villanova. Oh, how things have changed since then. The familiar faces of Allan Ray and Randy Foye have been replaced by Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham. What was once a floundering program is now nationally respected.

On the flip side, not much has changed in Chapel Hill. The faces are different but North Carolina is still a national powerhouse. After the Tar Heels defeated ‘Nova in 2005, they went on to win the National Championship. This time around Villanova is looking to return the favor. It’s only fitting that Villanova would be the underdog among the four vying for the crown. After all, it was just 24 years ago when the ‘Cats pulled off the greatest upset in tourney history, a 66-64 triumph over John Thompson, Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in Lexington.

So here it is, the Final Four: an achievement to celebrate for sure, but also a reminder that there is still work to do. There’s no time to stop and admire until that Final Four becomes one.


Justin DiBiase is a senior civil engineering major from Franklinville, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected].