MBB PREVIEW: Pivotal week lies ahead for tourney-hopeful Wildcats

Tim Richer

Entering this week, the big knock on the Villanova post-season resumé was its lack of quality wins, and a slow start in the Big East would appear to hamper the Wildcats’ tourney chances. Only a victory in a gritty, defensive battle at Georgetown prevented ‘Nova from starting out 0-4 in conference play.

Recent back-to-back home victories against ranked opponents have catapulted the ‘Cats tourney chances. After beating No. 20 Notre Dame at the Pavilion and No. 21 Texas at the Wachovia Center, the Wildcats are on the rise in the recent polls.

Rise of the underclassmen

2007 has been marked so far by the dominance of freshman point guard Scottie Reynolds. Reynolds has been leading the ‘Cats in scoring in the new year – averaging over 19 points per game in ’07. The young star from Herndon, Va., recently excelled on the national stage against Texas, scoring 26 points and outplaying the Longhorn Diaper Dandies, Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin.

Also stepping into prominent roles with the Wildcats have been sophomores Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark. Cunningham has emerged as the main interior offensive threat, starting all 20 games and averaging almost nine points and six rebounds per game. His athleticism and toughness have sparked two strong outings, with 19 and 16 points against Notre Dame and Texas, respectively.

Clark has quickly developed as Villanova’s most versatile player. He has become the team’s sixth man and spot-started against Texas with Curtis Sumpter injured. Clark took advantage of his starting role, racking up 11 points and 12 rebounds against Texas. He has also been ‘Nova’s top defensive player, garnering assignments against the opponent’s top scorers.

Rematch with the Irish

This Saturday marks the second contest between Villanova and Notre Dame. In their first matchup last Wednesday, ‘Nova cruised to a 102-87 victory at the Pavilion. Reynolds dominated the game, putting up a career-high 27 points.

The rematch takes place at Notre Dame in the Joyce Center, where the Irish are undefeated. They feature a 14-0 home record, including a win over then-No. 5 Alabama, after which the students stormed the court in celebration.

The key to stopping the Irish is containing their leading scorer, Russell Carter, a physical guard who averages over 18 points per game. In the first matchup, Carter displayed great outside shooting paired with the ability to create his own shots even when heavily guarded. Fortunately for the ‘Cats, Carter got little help from his teammates at the Pavilion.

Villanova has shown that they are highly susceptible to good 3-point shooting. Guard Colin Falls is expected to play well, coming off a 17-point performance on 5-10 shooting from beyond the arc against ‘Nova in game one.

Notre Dame is still going to be without starting point guard Kyle McAlarney, who is serving an indefinite suspension after being arrested for possession of marijuana.

A second win over the Irish would loom large for Villanova. Notre Dame looks like a lock to make the NCAA tournament, after out-of-conference wins against Alabama and Maryland and a solid start in the Big East. If the Wildcats were to sweep both games, the selection committee would have a hard time denying them a tourney berth.

Another ranked opponent

The Wildcats play their second game at the Wachovia Center this season when they host the No. 9 Pittsburgh Panthers on Monday. The Panthers come into this game with the top record (5-1) in the Big East.

Stopping Pitt’s offensive attack is no easy task. It features 7-foot guard Aaron Gray, Preseason Big East Player of the Year. The Wildcats must use the same tactics and prevent-defense that they used on Georgetown center Roy Hibbert when they held him to just two points and no field goal attempts. Expect to see freshman Casiem Drummond come off the bench to stop Gray.

In addition to having a strong inside presence, Pitt has four strong guards that could all take over the game. Sharpshooters Levance Fields and Ronald Ramon must be guarded at all times on the perimeter. Mike Cook and Antonio Graves provide formidable shooting threats and can also take it to the hole.

Pittsburgh’s strongest asset is its deep bench and its ability to play up to four reserves in big minutes. ‘Nova must avoid getting into a fast-paced game in which Pitt’s bench can exploit that of the Wildcats.

The key to victory for Villanova against Pitt is going to be working the ball inside to Cunningham, who has been an offensive force in ‘Nova’s recent victories. In two of their three losses, the Panthers have been dominated by big men. Center Brian Butch (Wisconsin) put up 27 points and power forward Mario Boggan (Oklahoma State) scored 30 against Pitt’s vulnerable defense.

This should be one of the toughest games that ‘Nova plays all year. The Wachovia Center will be a much-needed advantage for the Wildcats, as they are 8-1 in the Philly arena for the last three years.

If there is any game all season where Villanova can prove its NCAA tourney worth, this is it.