It might sound crazy, but I am anxiously awaiting the Villanova-Lafayette game. How could I say that? I didn't attend Villanova. I am not a graduate of Lafayette. Villanova is a No. 1 seed that should trounce a lowly 16th seed.
However, the storylines and personal connections make this a contest worth watching for me. March Madness is here and as a Temple graduate and Lehigh Valley resident, I could be perceived to be in a tough spot. That couldn't be farther from the truth. As the brackets were unveiled Sunday night, I took great delight in seeing how the selection committee paired two local teams against each other in the "second" round.
I have tremendous respect for what Jay Wright has done at Villanova. His program is ridiculously good, and his fashion is top-shelf. Maybe some of it is jealousy. OK, a lot of it is jealousy. I was too young to truly understand the 1985 Wildcats led by Rollie Massimino and Ed Pinckney. I liked Kerry Kittles and the battles he had with Allen Iverson and Georgetown in the mid-1990s as a teenager. The Final Four run from 2009 with names such as Reynolds, Redding and Cunningham was a real pleasure to follow and opened my eyes to the program on the Main Line.
This year, the Wildcats are poised to make another deep run, led by senior wingman Darrun Hilliard II of Bethlehem. The 6-foot-6 Hilliard played at Liberty High School and, let me tell you, we don't see players like that too often up here. The Lehigh Valley, at the high school level, is known for state championships in football and wrestling. The area is hardly a hotbed for basketball. Emmaus High produced Aaron Gray, who went on to star at Pitt for Jamie Dixon's then-Big East power. Gray made the transition to the NBA but had minimal success.
Hilliard has joined Gray. Hilliard had a stellar career in high school and has certainly lived up to the expectations at Villanova. He has been an impact player for three years and has averaged 14 points the past two seasons and been a long-range sniper. He has helped make this Cats team a legit national title contender. Needless to say, a smile emerges on my face every time I hear Gus Johnson refer to him as "Bethlehem Steel" during a broadcast.
Lafayette is a small, private institution in Easton. The Leopards are members of the Patriot League, have a bitter rivalry with Lehigh, and didn't begin offering basketball scholarships until 1998. This will be the first time the Leopards have reached the tournament since 2000, when the team coached by Villanova grad Fran O'Hanlon fell to John Chaney and the Temple Owls, 73-47.
I grew up five minutes from Lafayette's campus and vividly recall watching the 1999-2000 Leopards. Lafayette was fun to watch and was paced by Germantown Academy grad Brian Burke.
The Wildcats are 22-point favorites. Chances are they cruise by 30. But as a kid who grew up around Lafayette basketball, went to Temple, respects Villanova and absolutely relishes this time of the year, I look forward to this game as much as any on Thursday or Friday.