‘Cats hope experience leads to Final Four

Nathan McGann

Despite the glitz and glamour that accompanies playing in Madison Square Garden, the trip to New York for the Big East tournament was a failure, to say the least. With a double-bye and a confident roster led by four seniors, the Wildcats had one thing in mind – coming back to Philadelphia as champions.

After surviving Marquette on a last second reverse layup by senior guard/forward Dwayne Anderson and watching as both Connecticut and Pittsburgh fell to Syracuse and West Virginia respectively, it seemed as if the only challenge Villanova had to overcome was beating Head Coach Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, a team to whom the Wildcats lost by only one in the regular season.

Unfortunately, there were no last-second shots, no more miracles to be had.

Similar to their first game against the Golden Eagles, the Wildcats closed out the first half with a respectable lead and were playing well on both offense and defense. The second half was a much different story.

The top-seeded Cardinals opened the second half on a 17-2 run and never looked back. During the run, it seemed as if no one wearing their white jerseys could miss. Louisville hit five 3-pointers, jumping out to a 43-36 lead in fewer than five minutes. To make matters worse, the Cardinals found their league-best defense that had served them so well throughout the course of the regular season.

Guards Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds had no answer for Pitino’s full court press, combining for 13 turnovers, and the game was over before the final buzzer sounded. It was one and done for the Wildcats in New York once again.

“I think they’re the best defensive team in the country,” Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright said. “I thought we had a chance to win this, but you’re playing the Big East champions.”

All was not lost, however, because unlike last year when the Wildcats and the rest of the ‘Nova Nation had to wait and see if the team would be playing in the NCAA tournament, Villanova was assured a place this season. The only questions were who were they going to meet and where.

On Sunday, the selection committee announced its field of 65 tournament teams and Villanova was awarded a No. 3 seed in the East Region, where it will meet American University, champions of the Patriot League, tonight at 7:20 p.m. More importantly, the Wildcats will open in Philadelphia, playing at the Wachovia Center, a site all too familiar for Wright and his players.

“There are pluses and minuses, but the plusses do outweigh them,” Wright said. “It’s an advantage. You get to stay home an extra day, keep some normalcy. It’s a building you’re familiar with, your fans can come, that’s all great. But we learned a couple of years ago that there’s also a lot of distractions.”

As in the Big East tournament, this year’s Villanova squad has great expectations to perform at a high level and advance deep into the tournament. Several experts feel this team has the ability to go all the way to the Elite Eight, and some have mentioned the words Final Four.

“We’re going to keep on doing what we’ve been doing since September and hope that’s good enough, and it all works out,” said Reynolds. “At this point, it’s about the game, not seeding. You can be the 50th seed or a No. 1. You’ve got to perform, regardless of who you’re playing or where.”

A distinct advantage that this team has is its previous tournament experience. The four seniors -Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark, Dante Cunningham and Frank Tchuisi – were all on the No. 1-seeded group that advanced to the Elite Eight, but fell short to the eventual national champions. In four of the last five NCAA tournaments, Villanova has managed to move on to at least the Sweet 16.

“This senior class has the experience of [playing at home with the distractions],” Wright said. “I’m hoping that gives us a way of dealing with the expectations that we didn’t have the last time.”

Nevertheless, a team can have all of the experience in the world, but it comes down to who you’re playing against, and the road to this year’s Final Four is certainly formidable for the Wildcats.

The opening round matchup against the American Eagles cannot be taken lightly. They have two small senior guards, in Garrison Carr and Derrick Mercer, who are quick to the rim and shoot very well, and their 6-foot-8-inch senior forward Brian Gilmore has above average skills on the low-post. The Eagles are coming into this tournament with the nation’s second longest winning streak of 13 games, only behind Memphis’ 25-game streak.

Looking beyond the first round if the Wildcats move on, Villanova can expect to play UCLA, a team that seems to be in the Final Four every year, Duke and then Pittsburgh before they make the trip to Detroit.

In order to do so, the Wildcats will need to play at the level they did in January and February. Although they lack the size and athleticism of other tournament teams, Wright’s players are very skilled and the bench is deep. Sophomore guard Corey Stokes averages 9.7 points off the bench, and Fisher, the third leading scorer, averages 10.8 points.

While Villanova seems to have found its defense that disappeared late in the season, the recent inconsistency of Reynolds and Cunningham offensively is a concern.

Because of Stokes and Fisher, Reynolds has been able to afford random off-nights, but when Cunningham struggles, so do the Wildcats. Except for Duke, the projected opponents have size down-low that needs to be matched by Cunningham. Wright should have them prepared.

“I’m just excited to have the opportunity to play in another NCAA,” junior guard Reggie Redding said. “We want to make another run. We just have to take care of business. We’ve been pretty good at that all year.”