Anderson is “heart and soul” in Villanova’s run through March

Nathan McGann

Head Coach Jay Wright prides himself on coaching as hard as his players play. He admits that he can only expect his team to give a full 40 minutes of “Villanova basketball” as long as he coaches for a full 40 minutes.

“As a coach, if you tell the players to play for 40 minutes, you better be coaching for 40 minutes,” Wright said. “You better be walking the walk. We have to do that. We have to set the example. You’ve got to play for 40 minutes.”

This was his simple explanation for looking exhausted after the Wildcats’ 20-point victory over No. 6-seeded UCLA in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Wright patrolled the Villanova bench like a predator stalking his prey. He chewed into officials and screamed into players’ ears.

He continuously carries himself with an unmatched intensity and ferocity that demands only the very best from his players. But, those of us who have followed Wright and the Wildcats’ this season have noticed a soft spot buried beneath the Armani and rugged exterior. Simply mention this senior class and Wright lights up like a proud father, although he’ll never admit it.

In a season during which ‘Nova Nation saw its coach win Big East Coach of the Year, its big man win Most Improved Player, its sparkplug earn the Sixth Man award and the team advance to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years, no story matches that of this senior class graduating with the most wins in Villanova history and the first to ever reach 100 victories.

On this guard-oriented squad, senior forwards Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark, Dante Cunningham and Frank Tchuisi have meant so much to the Wildcats’ success – and none more so than Anderson.

On Selection Sunday, Wright announced just what Anderson brings to the table.

“This guy is our heart and soul,” Wright said. “He really has been our leader for a couple of years. He’s a quiet leader. On the outside it might not look like that, but on the inside of our team, he is our heart and soul.”

Many are surprised the 6-foot-6-inch swingman from Silver Springs, Md., even made it to his senior season on Lancaster Avenue. Anderson admits that those close to him were suggesting he transfer to another program before his junior season if he wanted to see playing time. During his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Anderson combined for a meager 6.6 minutes per game and 2.5 points per game.

“Yeah, everyone around me said I should transfer,” Anderson said.

Thankfully, Anderson enjoyed his surroundings and decided Villanova was where he wanted to stay. With no seniors on last year’s roster, he accepted the role of co-captain and excelled. Now, he is a fixture in the starting lineup. Anderson’s game has come around to match his leadership abilities, and the team has reaped all of the benefits.

Against American University in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Anderson was arguably the main reason the No. 3-seeded Wildcats overcame the 10-point first-half deficit and avoided the upset. His 25 points were a career-high, as were his eight rebounds. Even more impressively, Anderson shot 9-10 from the field and 4-5 from 3-point range. He had 11 of Villanova’s first 17 points.

At the half, Wright emphasized, yet again, that if this team was going to go deep into the tournament, they needed to play “Villanova basketball,” and Anderson didn’t need to be told twice. With 6:21 remaining in front of more than 19,000 screaming fans, Anderson hit yet another 3-pointer, giving Villanova the 58-55 lead they would never relinquish.

Expecting Anderson to match his game against American when he took the court against UCLA in his final game before the Villanova faithful in Philadelphia was just unfair. After all, perfection is hard to top.

On paper, Anderson’s stat line was mediocre at best. He was 4-14 from the floor, including 0-4 from beyond the arc. But try and tell the coaching staff Anderson played subpar, and they would completely disagree.

“He was amazing,” Assistant Coach Pat Chambers said after the game. “He didn’t hit many shots, but he controlled the ball. He dives. He gets rebounds. He was not giving in to human nature. He was not giving in to being tired.”

By the end, Anderson clocked a Villanova game-high 34 minutes and 11 rebounds. He played physical and was mentally tough from start to finish. After diving for his third steal while UCLA guard Darren Collison brought the ball up the court, Wright decided the time had come for the senior to come out. Anderson was spent as he made his way over to the bench and took a seat.

While others hit shots and produced more eye-popping stats, it was Anderson’s “Villanova basketball” style of play that had Wright wishing he could have put Anderson back in to give him the standing ovation the senior deserved. Anderson surely did not have ovations on his mind. He had just helped his team destroy UCLA. He had the chance to play another day. His team had another chance to cement itself in Villanova history.

Now, the Wildcats travel to Boston to play the No. 2-seeded Duke Blue Devils for a trip to the Elite Eight. Duke lives and dies from the 3-point line; this is no mystery. Wright will, once again, be asking for his team to give 40 minutes of tough, physical basketball. There will be no easy baskets.

You can be sure that, when Anderson takes the floor of the TD Banknorth Garden tonight, he will continue to do what he has done all season – be an extension of his coach on the court. And you can be sure that Wright’s soft spot will grow just a little softer.