NCAA Tourney: Villanova Preview

UCLA is up against it in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday, playing #3-seed Villanova on its second home floor in its hometown of Philadelphia. The Bruins will simply have to play their best game of the season...

All season long, it didn't seem that UCLA understood the gravity of a certain situation, and the consequences.

They didn't play hard enough against Washington State at home in Pauley Pavilion and lost the Pac-10 regular season crown. They got run over by an aggressive USC in the Pac-10 tournament and lost a chance to earn a better NCAA seed.

So, here are the consequences.

Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the #6-seeded Bruins will play #3-seed Villanova at Philadelphia's Wachovia Center, just about 12 miles away from Villanova's campus. The Wachovia Center is the Wildcats' home away from home, playing a few of their games in the facility a year. It's expected that Wachovia will be filled with Villanova fans.

When asked what is the biggest impact on a game in the tournament, Ben Howland said playing in front of a majority of your own fans.

Throw in that UCLA has been a dramatically worse team away from Pauley Pavilion this season, that UCLA teams under Howland are far worse in the second game of the weekend, and that UCLA's senior point guard Darren Collison is hampered by a tailbone injury and UCLA is up against it.

And that's before you even start talking about Villanova's team.

The Wildcats came in fourth in the best conference in the country, the Big East, going 13-5 in the conference and 27-17 overall, ending the season ranked #12 in the country.

They are led by senior post Dante Cunningham (6-8, 230), who embodies the Big East low-block beast. Cunningham is physical and enjoys contact, and makes a living in the paint, averaging 16.3 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, without ever venturing too far from the basket. He does have a penchant, though, for playing too physical at times, fouling out of three games this season, and commonly playing with three or four fouls. On the other end that type of play also gets him to the free-throw line quite a bit.

Cunningham, though, isn't the shot-blocker that VCU's Larry Sanders is, so he won't present the same type of post defensive presence VCU had, which was huge in keeping UCLA out of the paint or altering every shot that was taken in it.

The other half of Villanova's 1-2 punch is junior point guard Scottie Reynolds (6-2, 195). Reynolds dominates the ball and creates for himself and others, but mostly for himself -- averaging 15.3 points per game and 3.5 rebounds. Reynolds sometimes can actually over-dominate the ball, and can be sloppy and turn it over, even though he's better this season than he has been the last two seasons. He's a streaky three-point shooter that can get hot, or go on a cold streak. He's actually hit just one three-pointer in his last 11 attempts, spanning three games. One of his biggest strengths is using his very well-put-together body to get by his defender and draw fouls. He's gone to the line 189 so far this season, and he's shooting 81% from there.

Junior Reggie Redding (6-5, 205) is the "shooting" guard, even though he doesn't live up to that label, averaging just 6.7 points per game and shooting 28% from three. Redding, though, earned a spot in the starting lineup this year, fending off other strong contenders, because he's a very good defender and passer (averaging 3 assists per game). He's more responsible with the ball than Reynolds, and often times Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright will utilize Redding more as the playmaker and Reynolds as the shooting guard.

Senior wing Dwayne Anderson (6-6, 215) is coming off his season-best game, scoring a career-high 25 points and pulling down 8 rebounds while going 9 of 10 from the field and 4 of 5 from three against American. Anderson was critical in Villanova coming back from 14 points down to pull out the win. On top of playing at the top of his game offensively right now, he's also a good, long defender with a great deal of experience.

In fact, Villanova's senior class is the winningest in its history.

And that includes the fifth starter, power forward Shane Clark (6-7, 205), who isn't a great scorer (5.3 per game) or rebounder (3.8), but works as Villanova's enforcer.

Coming off the bench are the two sophomore Corey guards, Corey Fisher (6-1, 185) and Corey Stokes (6-5, 195). It was thought before the season that Fisher would take over the point and Reynolds would move to the shooting guard spot, but Fisher has come off the bench, and given the backcourt some solid relief, averaging 25 minutes per game and a very good 11 points per game, making him their third leading scorer. Stokes is the best outside shooter on the team, with a nice stroke, shooting 43% from three while averaging 9 points and 23 minutes per game.

Sophomore post Antonio Pena (6-8, 235) usually plays about 18 minutes per game spelling Clark and Cunningham, but he didn't get off the bench Thursday, not playing in a game for the first time this season. He's another big, strong body down low that Villanova uses to keep the physical punishment coming at a steady rate.

Those eight make up the Wildcat rotation, even though Wright only used two subs – the two Coreys – Thursday.

Collectively, Villanova is athletic and strong, a typical Big East type of team, that likes to wear you down. American was on fire for about 3/4s of the game Thursday, but the Wildcats eventually beat them down and out-lasted them.

They like to attack you on both ends of the court. On offense, their strategy is to penetrate and dish to their bigs or draw a foul. On defense, they over-extend on the perimeter to keep the opposition from even getting into their offense, relying on their posts to help if a guard does get loose in the paint. They like to front opposing big men and keep the ball out of the middle, and use their size and length to disrupt outside shooters.

Really, the more you analyze Villanova, the more they resemble USC – the USC that UCLA faced in the Pac-10 tournament, that is. They are bigger, longer and more physical than UCLA at just about every position except maybe in the post (where you'd put Alfred Aboya up against anyone 6-8 or smaller in the country).

Offensively, they really rely on penetration and aren't a great outside shooting team. If Reynolds is on a cold streak and you can smother Stokes, you effectively take away their outside shooting. It makes sense, then, for UCLA to use its post double team in this one, to not make it so easy on Cunningham, who isn't a great post passer. You'd also like to try to get Aboya the ball as much as possible, to attempt to get Cunningham in foul trouble. If he has to sit for a good portion of the game, Villanova becomes very limited offensively.

UCLA also will need to get points in transition, and that's really dependent on UCLA's defense playing as well as it can to force turnovers. If UCLA can't turn over Villanova and it becomes a half-court game, Villanova has the clear advantage.

It's difficult to gauge the effect of Villanova nearly getting upset by American Thursday. It if it did anything, it probably functioned as a wake-up call, which is another bad element of the game for UCLA.

It's pretty clear that UCLA, given all of the factors going against it, will have to play its best game of the season. That means it's best defensive game of the season.

Collison, also, will miraculously show no effects from the tailbone injury and play perhaps his best game of the season.

Sorry, Bruin fans, we have to go with the odds here, and there are too many factors pointing toward UCLA's season ending Saturday.

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