- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | The underdog Wildcats hope to go back to the future in Detroit.

In 1985, an undersized team from Villanova surged through an NCAA tournament dominated by the Big East to reach a Final Four highlighted by the two teams that spent the bulk of the season ranked Nos. 1 and 2 (Georgetown and St. John’s). A pair of teams defined by All-American centers (Memphis’ Keith Lee and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing) stood in Villanova’s path to the title as the lowest seed remaining in the tournament.

Any of this sound familiar?

“There certainly are some similarities,” said coach Jay Wright as his Wildcats (30-7) prepared to face the top-seeded Tar Heels (32-4) on Saturday at Ford Field. “There’s no question which team is the underdog.”

Wright’s squad has fashioned a more consistent season than the eighth-seeded bunch Rollie Massimino took to Kentucky’s Rupp Arena in 1985, but Villanova is also the only team resembling a glass-slipper candidate in Detroit.

North Carolina and fellow No. 1 seed Connecticut (31-4) were popular preseason picks to rumble to the Motor City. And No. 2 seed Michigan State is playing close to home and making its fifth Final Four appearance in the last 11 seasons under coach Tom Izzo.

“At this point, nobody needs more motivation,” said Villanova senior forward Dwayne Anderson, a Silver Spring native. “But we’re fairly used to the underdog role, and we’ve been feeding off it all season. All you can do is leave it all on the floor and hope things break your way.”

For a relative Final Four stranger like Villanova, the magical ride to Detroit already seems like the culmination of a series of fortunate breaks.

The NCAA bracket broke down nicely for the smaller Wildcats. Their first three tournament opponents (American, UCLA and Duke) lacked a strong post presence. While the Wildcats had to cope with Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair in the Elite Eight, no other region would have afforded the Wildcats the luxury of facing only one true center en route to Detroit.

Going back a bit further, who would have predicted Dante Cunnigham’s senior-season metamorphosis? The 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward averaged 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in his first three seasons at Villanova before blossoming this season into an All-Big East performer and the team’s leading scorer (16.2 points) and rebounder (7.4). Of any player left in the tournament, Cunningham has perhaps the best midrange game.

“He started to play like that at the end of last season, and that’s why we made our Sweet 16 run,” Wright said. “But there’s no question that we couldn’t have accomplished what we did this season if Dante doesn’t make a huge performance leap.”

And what about junior guard Scottie Reynolds?

The author of Villanova’s game-winning shot against Pittsburgh never would have landed at Villanova if Kelvin Sampson hadn’t bolted Oklahoma for Indiana in April 2006. Even after his future with the Sooners fell through, Reynolds would have played at Georgetown if John Thompson III had made room for him by chasing off a practice-only player like Sead Dizdarevic. The Herndon native never considered the Wildcats during his initial recruitment, and his only visit to the campus before signing with Villanova was a serendipitous trip to the Pavilion in 2005 to watch Oklahoma play the Wildcats.

“Yeah, it’s crazy how it worked out,” Reynolds said.

Even Wright’s return to the school where he served as an assistant with Massimino (1987-92) almost didn’t happen. After seven successful years at Hofstra, Wright almost accepted the vacant post at Rutgers in the spring of 2001 before a whirlwind weekend of events.

“It was basically within a day,” Wright said. “The Villanova job wasn’t open. It was a Friday afternoon. Joe Jones was an assistant [at Villanova], and he called me and said [then-Villanova coach Steve Lappas] is going to UMass. I was actually supposed to meet [Rutgers athletic director] Bob Mulcahy and the university president on Sunday morning. And Saturday morning, [then-Villanova president Father Edmund J. Dobbin] called me.

“That was it, no haggling, nothing. It was a total no-brainer. I had never thought of it before because I never thought [Lappas] would leave. There had been like four coaches at Villanova in 60 years.”

Circumstance plays a role in every team’s title run. And the marks of good fortune are all over this Villanova bunch - just as they were 24 years ago.

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