- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 21, 2009

“Peace.”

It was an odd choice of words, given that Saturday’s second-round East Region matchup between the Bruins and No. 3 seed Villanova at Wachovia Center is likely to require helmets and a good cut man.

“I don’t think you’re going to see 95-92,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We like that. There’s a respect for the toughness that it takes to be a Big East basketball player that we take a lot of pride in. And I say this in a complimentary way: UCLA is a Big East team. [UCLA’s Ben Howland] coached in our league and plays that way, very physical. And not just physical but mentally tough. Ben is mentally tough, and his team is mentally tough. That’s why they got to three Final Fours. That’s why they’re at the top of that league every year.”

On a list of teams that perennially play the nation’s toughest brand of basketball, UCLA and Villanova likely would join such teams as Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Memphis and Wisconsin.

Narrow the list to rugged guard play on both ends, and the Bruins (26-8) and Wildcats (27-7) rate even more highly.

Howland’s teams have been to three consecutive Final Fours, largely on the strength of suffocating guards like this season’s trio of Shipp (14.4 points), Darren Collison (14.4 points, 4.9 assists) and Jrue Holiday (8.6 points, 3.6 assists).

“Defensively, Collison could be one of the best guards in the country,” said Wright, who praised Collison’s game-saving stop against Virginia Commonwealth’s Eric Maynor in the final seconds of UCLA’s 65-64 first-round escape. “That play to stop him, to not leave his feet on the shot fake and still contest the actual shot, was big-time.”

The Wildcats counter with a similarly guard-centric squad that features Scottie Reynolds (15.3 points, 3.5 assists), Corey Fisher (10.9 points), Corey Stokes (9.6 points), Dwayne Anderson (8.8 points, 5.8 rebounds) and Reggie Redding (6.7 points, 4.8 rebounds). Highlighted by his team’s run to the Elite Eight in 2006 behind the trio of Allan Ray, Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry, Wright’s signature in eight years at Villanova has been relentless perimeter play.

When it comes to the NCAA tournament’s likely marquee matchup of backcourts, this may be as good as it gets short of Detroit.

“There’s no question that guard play is the obvious strength of both teams,” Collison said. “For us, it’s all about containing their dribble. These guys can put it on the floor really well. They’ve got a lot of good guard skills. But if we continue to play defense like we did [Thursday] night, I don’t think it should be a problem.”

To a man, Villanova’s set of guards did everything but salivate at the notion of Saturday’s game devolving into a scrappy, dirty, ugly, defensive scrum. Villanova might be located on the posh Main Line, but the Wildcats are pure Philly.

“They like to turn it into a fight, and that’s the kind of game we like,” Redding said. “We like to get dirty, too. It’s going to be a battle, and that’s good fun. I can’t wait to mix it up with those guys.”

The Bruins’ guards, however, seemed less enthused about the prospect of a 40-minute basketbrawl.

“In the Big East, that’s all it is - winning ugly, because it’s really physical,” Collison said. “Coach Howland, you know he is from the Big East, so it’s rubbed off on us a little. … You don’t want to play ugly, but that’s just how it matches up.”

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