Two seemingly inconsequential acts stood out in Villanova’s 94-91 Big East conference win over Providence last Thursday. The first occurred at halftime, just after a Friar slipped past a flat-footed Nova defender, grabbed the rebound of a desperation three-point heave, and scored a buzzer-beating layup.
Nova led, 49-34, but that didn’t stop one Nova player from giving his lazy teammate a quick, disapproving basketball-shove to the chest (it happened quickly and the cameras didn’t linger long enough to identify the two).
Then, early in the second half, Scottie Reynolds was sprinting upcourt on a secondary break when he slowed down to milk the clock, a beat before coach Jay Wright signaled him to do the same thing. What do the two plays reveal? These players are thinking for themselves on the court, playing aggressive but smart basketball, and not overly reliant on their coach.
Those are the teams that make noise come NCAA tourney time. And, if Nova’s recent tourney history is indicative, that noise will come late in the tourney.
Villanova’s current run of four straight tourneys is the school’s longest since the Wildcats went to seven tourneys between 1980-86, a run that included the ’85 title. And in three of the last four, Nova lost to the eventual national champion: Kansas in the Sweet 16 last year, Florida in the 2006 Elite Eight, and North Carolina in the 2005 Sweet 16.
History aside, this team is built for tourney success now. At 19-4, 7-3 in the Big East, Nova wins with an aggressive defense and a varied inside-outside offense led by hard-to-match-up 6-9 forward Dante Cunningham, and equally tough-to-stop junior guard Scottie Reynolds, both of whom have lit up opponents for 30-plus points. They have a solid seven- to eight-man rotation full of scorers with double-digit potential.
Three of their four losses have come to teams currently in the top 10 (UConn, Louisville, and Marquette). The Wildcats won’t beat themselves and they stay close with good teams: their four losses are by an average of less than six points.
Tuesday’s game against visiting No. 10 Marquette is the toughest test remaining for No. 13 Nova, which has won 25 straight at the Pavilion. If the Wildcats win, they’d be favored in all of their remaining games and could finish the regular season with 13 straight wins and a likely 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA tourney.
Put it all together—smart players, aggressive defense, inside-outside scoring, a deep rotation, recent tourney success, and a possible high tourney seed—and you’re looking at a Final Four contender.