‘Cats look to build on strong regular season

David Cassilo

The men’s basketball team finished its regular season on March 5 with a win over Providence, 97-80. The win gave the Wildcats a 13-5 conference and a 25-6 overall record.

The team finishes the season in fourth place in the Big East, allowing the Wildcats to have a double-bye into the quarterfinals.

The fourth-place finish was one spot higher than Villanova was picked to finish in the preseason Big East poll. The poll had the Wildcats finishing behind UConn, Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame.

One of the reasons Villanova was able to defy expectations this season was the performance of senior forward Dante Cunningham. Fresh off a junior season in which he averaged 10.4 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, Cunningham was looked to as an emerging player that would need to step up and assume a bigger role on the court.

The senior forward devoted significant time during the offseason to improving his game, specifically his jump shot. The result was the best season by far of Cunningham’s career. He enters the Big East Tournament with averages of 16.4 ppg and 7.3 rpg.

His success has garnered attention outside the Big East as well, as he has been nominated as one of 15 finalists for the Oscar Robertson Trophy, given to the Player of the Year as chosen by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

Cunningham headed an offense that led the Big East in scoring in conference games with 79.5 ppg. The Wildcats scored at least 90 points four times and at least 100 points twice.

Their strong offense resulted from incredible balance. They were the only team in the conference to have eight players average at least 5.0 points per game. In conference games, Dwayne Anderson, Cunningham, Corey Fisher, Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding have each led the team in scoring in at least one game.

Although their offense had been so successful, it was the Wildcats’ defense that prevented the team from reaching elite status for most of the season. From Feb. 4-25, the Wildcats allowed at least 72 points in all seven of their games, including over 90 points twice. Their play led Head Coach Jay Wright to call the team the worst defensive team he has ever coached.

However, in its final three games, it appeared Villanova hit its defensive stride. The Wildcats allowed only 54 points to Georgetown, held Notre Dame to a season-low 60 points and limited a high-scoring Providence team to just above their season average in points.

The Wildcats will look to stay on that roll when they begin play in the Big East Tournament today against Marquette. In what has been dubbed the “greatest conference in college basketball history,” Villanova will need to win three games in three days against what will most likely be three NCAA tournament-quality teams in order to win the championship. Villanova will be looking to win its second title in the tournament’s history, the first coming in 1995.

There is also a lot at stake in New York in terms of Villanova’s seeding in the NCAA tournament. Most experts have Villanova currently as a third seed in the tournament, but with a strong performance this week, the Wildcats could be rewarded with a second seed.

Furthermore, Villanova is trying to be chosen by the selection committee to play the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at the Wachovia Center. Winning at least two games this week could be enough for that to happen.