MBB Lead: Go West, young ‘Cats

Kyle Scudilla

Twenty-two wins, a No. 19 RPI, a seventh-ranked strength of schedule and 11 road/neutral court wins make a great tournament resume, but a season isn’t validated until CBS Sports’ Greg Gumbel announces a team’s name on the annual “NCAA Basketball Championship Selection Show.”

The Villanova Wildcats had their season’s work validated when they were announced as a recipient of one of the selection committee’s at-large bids, earning the No. 9 seed in the West region. The first-round pairing and potential second-round matchup with Kansas puts the young Wildcats on a crash course with some real NCAA history.

“We’re seeing a very tough, physical team,” Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright said about his team’s opening game against the No. 8-seeded Kentucky Wildcats. “The coach is tournament-tested. He’s going to have them ready.”

Wright can now add himself to the list of tournament-tested coaches, guiding Villanova to the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row in 2007, making it the first time since 1995-1997 that the Wildcats earned a tourney selection three years in a row.

But Wright has said all year that a lot of the credit for getting this young roster, made up in large part by 10 freshmen and sophomores, ready goes to seniors Curtis Sumpter, Mike Nardi and Will Sheridan. He has praised their ability to act as leaders on and off the floor and lead a maturation process that was vital to the ‘Cats’ ability to survive the challenging Big East.

“Any success that the younger guys experience in the future will be in part because of our seniors,” Wright said.

Sumpter stands out as the strongest remaining link on the roster from less successful years of Villanova basketball to the success and prosperity the team has experienced in the last few seasons. The forward from Brooklyn joined the team in the ’02-’03 season when the Wildcats finished just 15-16 and landed in the NIT. It wouldn’t be until his junior year that the team would improve enough to earn an NCAA tournament berth. In just his second NCAA tournament game, Sumpter tore his ACL during Villanova’s win over Florida en route to the Sweet Sixteen. He sat out all of last season with a second ACL tear and watched from the bench as the Wildcats had a record-setting season and made a trip to the Elite Eight. Despite battling injuries this season, Sumpter led the team in scoring and rebounding and is in perhaps the best shape he’s been in all season and ready to teach what he has learned over the course of his postseason days with the likes of Allan Ray, Randy Foye and Jason Fraser to the newer faces of the Villanova basketball program.

Two of those new faces have made their presences felt on the team, particularly since Big East play began and the Wildcats got their tournament run kick-started with a big January win at Georgetown. Scottie Reynolds has rapidly established himself as one of the country’s most exciting freshmen and is garnering a lot of attention headed into Villanova’s first-round visit to Chicago. The point guard was second in the Big East with 18.4 points per game in the conference play this season.

Reynolds is happy that his tournament debut will be in a place he used to call home.

“When they announced everything, I just hoped that we were in and that we were going to Chicago,” said Reynolds, who lived in the Windy City during some of his teenage years.

Reynolds hasn’t been the only freshman earning praise and respect from his coaching staff and teammates. Fellow guard Reggie Redding has seen his playing time skyrocket and, especially lately, has rewarded Wright’s faith in him. Starting twice in the Big East tournament for the injured Nardi, Redding averaged 10 points per game, tying his career-high of nine points against DePaul and then topping it with 11 against Georgetown.

Redding’s hustle play on defense and increased scoring in the tournament made Reynolds “proud to be his roommate.”

While Redding filled in admirably for Nardi, the Wildcats will need to be at full strength to tackle their tough conference draw, which features seven teams who ranked in the Top 20 in RPI. Nardi has been hampered by a bruised left calf and saw little playing time off the bench in the Big East tournament. The senior guard does not want the injury to keep him from playing in what will be his final NCAA tournament, so he said he will be ready to play on Friday. He has joined the team this week for practice drills and is hopeful that the injury will be healed close to, if not, 100 percent by the time Villanova tips off with Kentucky.

The week off between the loss to Georgetown and the game against Kentucky should aid Redding in healing a minor ankle injury he experienced in the DePaul game. Villanova is also hopeful that sophomore forward Shane Clark, who played with a wrap on his left knee during the conference tournament and looked limited in his lateral movement, will be healthy by the time the team reaches the United Center.

While many Villanova fans were somewhat upset with the No. 9 seed, thinking the team’s high RPI and quality wins should have earned it a better draw, the seeding does give the team the ability to create history. Villanova was, of course, a No. 8 seed back in 1985 when it became the lowest seed ever to win the NCAA championship. The Wildcats also have won more NCAA tournament games than any other program in which it has been the lower seeded team.

To make history, a team has to beat history, and if Villanova can knock off Kentucky and Kansas in Chicago, it will be well on its way to doing that once again.