PHILADELPHIA | Some serious home cooking threatens American’s NCAA tournament encore.
When the 14th-seeded Eagles (24-7) meet third-seeded Villanova (26-7) in Thursday’s opening round, the Wildcats will send three times as many D.C. area products out on the floor for the opening tip than American features on its entire roster.
“Yeah, that’s crazy,” said Villanova junior guard Scottie Reynolds (Herndon), one of three Villanova starters who grew up in the area. “It’s wild playing a team that was close to where we all grew up. I know we all played in their gym many times.”
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Like teammates Dante Cunningham (Potomac High School) and Dwayne Anderson (St. John’s), Reynolds visited Bender Arena regularly for all-star games during his superb career as one of the most prolific scorers in Virginia state history. The three have since moved 150 miles north to play for Villanova, and seniors Cunningham and Anderson are completing careers that have produced the winningest four-year stretch of basketball in program history (98-36) and four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.
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”We’re not going to sit back and think about that now, because it’s something that can end so quickly,” said Anderson, a 6-foot-6 swingman averaging 8.2 points and 5.7 rebounds. “But it’s definitely something we’re proud of. We feel like we’ve represented both Villanova and D.C. That record is something we can talk about when we’re old guys gathered around bragging at alumni functions.”
Few players in the country have enjoyed a more startling metamorphosis than Cunningham. An invaluable but overlooked role player in his first three seasons at Villanova, the 6-8 Silver Spring native blossomed into one of the Big East’s most complete players this season. He led the Wildcats in rebounding (7.2) and more than doubled his career scoring average (16.0) courtesy of a potent midrange game.
“Cunningham is just deadly at 16 feet after setting a ball screen and settling in,” AU coach Jeff Jones said. “He’s as complete a player as we’ve seen all season.”
Added Villanova coach Jay Wright: “Dante’s parents are both retired Air Force, so that’s the kind of background and work ethic you’re dealing with. He came here as a soldier, a guy who did all the dirty work - rebounding, hustling, defending. Now he’s added a superb offensive game and leadership. Now he’s an officer.”
And he has clearly read up on AU.
”I wasn’t surprised at all when I saw them pop up opposite us, and I definitely know they are not to be taken for granted. [American’s Garrison] Carr is a tremendous shooter. [Derrick] Mercer is a handful out there with his quickness. Brian Gilmore is a savvy player in the post,” Cunningham said. “And they start five seniors. We all saw how they jumped Tennessee last year, so we know they are going to be a very tough out.”
In last season’s first round in Birmingham, Ala., the Eagles pulled within a bucket of the second-seeded Volunteers with 5:45 remaining but faded down the stretch in a 72-57 loss.
“Watching that Belmont-Duke game the night before, another 2-15 game, really helped us,” Gilmore said of the Bruins’ near upset of the Blue Devils. “We were right there with them, but they responded down the stretch, and we didn’t. Coach [Jones] didn’t watch that game until August, but what he noticed was that a lot of us had that deer-in-the-headlights look against Tennessee. Hopefully that won’t be the case this year with seven seniors and five senior starters.”