The Villanova Wildcats are in the Sweet 16…again. This is the fourth time in the past five years that 'Nova has reached this round (in the off year, the Wildcats lost in the first round against Kentucky).
And even if they don’t advance to their second Elite Eight appearance in that same time span, one thing is clear: Villanova has become an elite program. The Wildcats have done it as a No. 1 seed, as a No. 12 seed, and now again as a No. 3 seed.
Over the past few runs they did it with outstanding guard play. This year, they have stellar guards yet again, but they also have healthy post players that can really score inside and rebound the basketball. The Wildcats are not forced to live and die by the three-pointer this year like they have in the past.
They won several games by feeding Dante Cunningham in the post. Shane Clark and Dwayne Anderson have become offensive rebounding machines that clean up on missed shots from the outside or after Corey Fisher, Scottie Reynolds, or Reggie Redding drive the lane.
Next up for Villanova is an encounter with the Blue Devils of Duke University. Beating Duke is no small task. Its coach is the boyhood idol of Villanova coach Jay Wright, and for good reason.
The legendary Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski, has led Duke to three NCAA championships, ten Final Fours (the third-most in history), and 11 ACC championships in his 29 seasons at Duke. He currently has more wins than any other active coach.
Wright admits that Duke standout Gerald Henderson (a Philadelphia-area product who attended the same high school as Wright’s children) broke his heart when he chose Duke over Villanova (it had come down to the two schools). However, Wright has no shortage of great players on his team. More importantly, he has a great team.
Villanova was the shortest team in the Big East this season, but the Wildcats sure didn’t play like it. They don’t play anyone over 6’8’’.
They had no one player who rebounded in the top 10 in the conference (Cunningham was 15th and Anderson was 25th) but they managed to come in third in the Big East in defensive rebounding as a team and finished ninth in offensive rebounding (out-rebounding their opponents by almost five boards per game).
Villanova finished fourth in the conference overall, earning Wright the coach of the year award.
Because the Wildcats play such unselfish team basketball, I think they can beat Duke and advance to the Elite Eight. As they did against UCLA, they will need to play Villanova basketball and not allow Duke to dictate the style of play.
Both teams have excellent guards. I think the X-factor in this game will be Scottie Reynolds. In the first two games it’s been the senior forwards who have carried the Wildcats.
In the American game, both Cunningham and Anderson dropped in 25 points. Against UCLA, they each had a double-double (points and rebounds). Four other players added double figures in scoring.
If Reynolds can break out of his funk and score 18 or more points, drive to the bucket, knock down his open three-pointers, and get to the free throw line, I think it will be enough to put Villanova over the top.
Reynolds also has to do a better job on defense. Too often he will cheat into the middle and then can’t get back out to the perimeter quickly enough to defend against a three-point shot.
The Wildcats, who shot nearly 90 percent from the free throw line against American, shot just 75 percent against The Bruins. As the best free throw shooting team in the Big East this season, they need to shoot better than 75 percent against Duke.
Redding and Anderson will have to do a good job of guarding Henderson, as he seems to be able to score from anywhere. They will also have to keep an eye on Kyle Singler, who averaged almost eight rebounds and over one block per game this season.
Reynolds, Redding, Stokes, and Fisher must be sure they pick up Jon Scheyer on the wing as he shoots just a shade under 40 percent from three.
Villanova has to be careful to stay out of foul trouble. The Wildcats really set the tone against UCLA with a hard foul early by Reynolds, followed soon thereafter by a hard foul by Cunningham.
Cunningham picked up a second foul and had to sit for the last 10 minutes of the first half. Aside from that, the Wildcats really never got into foul trouble and were able to play the game they wanted. They won by 20.
Villanova has proven this year that it can hang with the biggest dogs in the yard. The Wildcats were a missed tip away from beating Louisville. They played UConn and Texas to single-digit losses. They beat Syracuse twice, beat Pittsburgh by double digits, beat Marquette, and most recently crushed national powerhouse UCLA.
A win over Duke would be huge for Villanova. Wright would have a win over his boyhood idol, and after beating UCLA and Duke back-to-back, the Wildcats would get either Xavier (the weakest No. 4 seed in the tournament in my opinion) or the Pittsburgh Panthers (whom they have already beaten).
A win here and there is no reason the Wildcats can’t advance to the Final Four and even to a national championship.
In the end, it will come down to one thing this Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET in Boston: Which team wants it more?
I beg anyone to differ that Duke (or any other team) is any hungrier than Wright and the Villanova Wildcats.