BOSTON - The calendar turns and the obstacles grow larger. It is what the NCAA Tournament is about. You get scared in one round and you grow up in the next round and you hope that the momentum continues. Hope. Through everything, it remains the dominant emotion.
To paraphrase Bill Parcells, the old basketball coach, you are what the tournament says you are. And what the Villanova Wildcats are is an elite American college basketball program. When they arrived for their Sweet 16 game last night against the Duke Blue Devils, it was their fourth journey of this distance in five seasons. It has been a fantastic run, an elevating period of time for the program.
But they all wanted more - kids, coaches, thousands in the stands at the TD Banknorth Garden. Greed. That remains the second-most dominant emotion.
And now, hopeful, greedy, all of that, Villanova stands on the precipice again. For the second time under coach Jay Wright, the Wildcats are one game away from the Final Four after running Duke out of the gym last night, 77-54. Tenacious on defense, relentless on offense, physically dominating for every one of the court's 94 feet, Villanova now has a game against Pittsburgh remaining between them and the happiest basketball place on Earth.
And, this just in:
What a monster the Big East is.
"We want Pitt . . . We want Pitt," is what the Villanova crowd chanted with about 2 minutes left last night. It will be a brawl against brothers. It will be physical and it will be familiar. It will be wonderful and it will be hell.
"I think everybody in the Big East likes this," Wright said. "Us being in the East [Regional] and having two Big East teams playing. I know the Big East takes a lot of pride in the conference - we all do. But you know what? If we're not going to win the final game, and not go to the Final Four, I'll be glad it's Pitt.
"But I hope it's us," he said.
There was this great Villanova atmosphere in the Garden. It wasn't like the Wachovia Center last week, certainly, but the pro-Nova bias was evident half an hour before tipoff when the crowd booed the arrival of the Blue Devils for their warmup. It stayed that way throughout. Boston might be an ACC city these days because that is where Boston College landed a couple of years ago, but the Big East roots still run deep. It was a Big East building last night. And it will be tomorrow.
"It's something that we kind of look forward to," senior Dante Cunningham said. "We know that they're going to come out tough just because we played them before [and beat them in the last college game at the Spectrum]. We're not going to take them lightly."
Still, last night, there was still this feeling . . .
The Wildcats didn't shoot it very well in the first half (34 percent) but Duke shot it worse (28 percent). And while Villanova could be happy with its 26-23 halftime lead, there was still the sense that it should have been more. They got to the rim with ease against Duke. They looked quicker off the dribble.
In the last 15 minutes of the half, this was how the Wildcats scored their points: slam, 8-foot jumper, follow, layup, layup, layup and free throw, two free throws after a drive. Villanova attacked the interior of the Duke defense and then it attacked some more. The pregame assumptions played themselves out in that way, then.
But they led by only three at the break, with a great shooting Duke team shooting only 7-for-25, only 28 percent.
It was, in many ways, ominous . . .
The Wildcats busted out of their dressing room to start the second half. Their lead was 32-25 after a Shane Clark driving layup with 18:01 left. But then the whistles started to blow. It was a deep concern for everyone who watches this Villanova team play in the battering Big East - that quick whistles would help Duke. And there it was: The Wildcats had five team fouls in the first 3 1/2 minutes of the second half. The crowd pleaded in unison, "Let them play . . . Let them play . . . "
So all of those various concerns hung in air . . . and the Wildcats ignored them all. They systematically dismantled the Blue Devils, owning the paint. They watched as Episcopal Academy's Gerald Henderson missed his first 11 shots of the game, a living nightmare. And they just attacked and attacked and attacked some more.
They play in the best college league on the planet, and last night was a living testament to that truth. Three Big East teams are through to the final eight, and two more are still playing. Tested all season by the physicality of the league, and by the coaching, and by a myriad of styles, there is nothing that a team like Villanova has not experienced by now.
One more, then.
Hope, greed, etc. *
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