Even Wildcats amazed by run

March 25, 2008 7:46:13 PM PDT
Quick, try to find Davidson on a map. Name Western Kentucky's conference. This is the time in the NCAA tournament when basketball fans love to root for those double-digit-seeded underdogs and all those fuzzy stories that come along with those stunning - and bracket busting - upsets.

Then there's 12th-seeded Villanova.

From the Big East. The 1985 national champions. And in the round of 16 for the third time in four years.

Doesn't exactly have that "Hoosiers" feel, does it?

"Just because more people know who we are, doesn't mean people aren't surprised we're here," said Wildcats guard Corey Fisher.

Nope, not at all. Turns out, even the Wildcats (22-12) are a bit surprised to be playing top-seeded Kansas (33-3) in the Midwest Regional semifinals in Detroit on Friday. The Wildcats suffered through a miserable five-game losing streak, lost a game to Georgetown with 0.1 seconds on the clock, have no seniors and fretted that a .500 conference record might keep them out of the 65-team field.

While upstart schools like tiny 10th-seed Davidson (in North Carolina) and No. 12 seed Western Kentucky (of the Sun Belt) received triumphant homecomings, some in the Philadelphia area like to thumb their nose at Villanova because it plays in the ritzy suburban area known as the Main Line.

All that mattered at Tuesday's practice was that the Wildcats were still playing. It's not 'Ova, Nova.

"Everybody thinks we're not that good; we had no seniors, no leadership," Fisher said. "Now look. We're in the Sweet 16."

Waiting for them are the Jayhawks, a program the Wildcats beat three years ago to launch their climb back to national prominence. Villanova beat then-No. 2 and undefeated Kansas by 21 points on Jan. 22, 2005, and went on that season to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time under coach Jay Wright.

"We have a good chance of playing our best game of the year Friday night," Wright said on Tuesday. "We have a chance to get better this week. We've got to use this week to get better."

The Wildcats are here because they overcame an 18-point deficit to beat No. 5 seed Clemson and followed with a win over 13th-seeded Siena. While Villanova's win against Clemson was considered a shocker, Wright and his Wildcats have had a season full of comebacks when it seemed like they on the brink of being finished.

Villanova lost five straight, including a 77-55 thrashing against city rival Saint Joseph's on Feb. 4 that seemingly ended any hope for a possible fourth straight NCAA tournament bid. The Wildcats had made deep postseason runs the last three years with upperclassman and future-NBA players like Randy Foye and Allan Ray.

"I don't think there were any low points, just tough times during that stretch," Wright said.

Without a player at the level of Foye or a senior to pull them all together, Wright would e-mail or text daily upbeat messages to the Wildcats. Wright wouldn't let the freshman get down about losing and wanted them to know he still believed they could become a tournament team even as the Big East record teetered at .500.

"I knew we were going to be good, I just didn't know when," Wright said. "I knew there was a chance it might not be until next year. I knew this group would be together, I didn't want it to be next year."

Had the Wildcats been left out of the tournament, they could have blamed a pair of losses suffered with less than a full combined second on the clock.

Villanova lost to North Carolina State 69-68 on a foul and free throws with 0.4 seconds remaining in November and lost 55-53 at Georgetown in a game decided on a foul call 75 feet from the basket with 0.1 seconds to play in February.

The effort in the Georgetown game impressed Wright.

"OK, we lost, but we played Villanova basketball and that's how we've got to play," he said.

Wright also made a lineup change, moving Scottie Reynolds from shooting guard to point guard in early March. Reynolds, last year's Big East freshman of the year, had bounced around the backcourt and never really found his comfort level. Since Reynolds knew he'd be the regular point guard, he's come through in the clutch.

Reynolds scored 21 and 25 points in the first two tourney wins and played with stitches over his right eye from a nasty collision in the Big East tournament. He had the stitches removed on Monday and has a scar that follows the path above his right eyebrow.

Reynolds will take a few more scrapes and stitches if it means the Wildcats can keep on playing.

"We knew how good this team could be," Reynolds said. "It was a matter of when it was going to happen, when we were going to click. We knew we had the talent, we had to have the commitment that everybody was going to do it for each other."