Big East Notebook: Men

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March 26 will be a day that has been four years and 100 games in the making.

It's a day that probably shouldn't be happening, or at least that's what the pundits who scrutinize college basketball with a giant magnifying glass will tell you. But it's happening nonetheless, and it really shouldn't come as a surprise. Not if you were paying attention.

Back in 2005, a lanky kid from Maryland began his college career at Villanova. It was a moment that went unnoticed to many. That year's edition of the Wildcats boasted three future NBA players and a hotshot coach in Jay Wright. An undersized freshman power forward with a shaky shooting stroke wasn't exactly the talk of Philadelphia.

The kid, Dante Cunningham, was never supposed to amount to more than a role player, anyway.

Which is why he and Villanova have made such a perfect fit. They're both perpetual underdogs, always underappreciated and undervalued. Even when the Wildcats made noise as a team to watch out for, nobody was really listening.

In the past five years only three teams have made the Sweet Sixteen four times, the first two being perennial powers North Carolina and Memphis. The third? Villanova. Even with three lifelines, you wouldn't have guessed that.

Of course, the Tar Heels have a national championship and Memphis played in the title game last year. Villanova has yet to reach the Final Four, which is part of the problem.

For a solution, look no further than Cunningham. He spent much of his first two seasons proving the critics right, never averaging more than 10 points per game and helping to keep Villanova in basketball purgatory, between being a first round knockout team and a serious championship contender.

But Cunningham has finally blossomed into what many thought he would never be — a star. After an encouraging junior season, the 6-foot-8 forward simply blew up in his final year at Villanova, averaging 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game.

The awards came in droves after the breakout campaign — Second Team All-Big East, Most Improved Player. But what really mattered was the 28-7 record, the fourth-place finish in the Big East, the No. 3 seed in the tourney, and a No. 12 overall ranking in the polls. So Cunningham had finally turned Villanova into a serious threat, only no one realized it.

You can't blame the world for not giving Cunningham's Wildcats the time of day. They were predicted to finish only fifth in their conference, which doesn't seem like the crime of the century until you realize that the NIT-bound Notre Dame Fighting Irish were supposed to finish fourth.

The Wildcats were buried underneath monsters like Pittsburgh, Louisville and Connecticut all year. Even after their stellar season and receiving a No. 3 seed, many experts were picking Villanova as their "upset."

Which brings us back to March 26. It's a day that's happening because the Wildcats squeaked out a closer-than-expected win over American University and then crushed UCLA in round-two. It's the day that senior Cunningham will have the chance to extend his school record 100 career wins to 101. It's the day Villanova will face-off against Duke in the Sweet Sixteen.

But more than anything, it's the day that Villanova could earn the respect they have always deserved.

Tourney talk

A record five teams from the Big East advanced to the round of 16. They are No. 1 Louisville, No. 1 Connecticut, No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 3 Villanova and No. 3 Syracuse.

Pittsburgh looked shaky in the early rounds while Connecticut absolutely bullied its first two victims. The Huskies beat Chattanooga 104-45 in round one, which was the second largest margin of victory in tournament history. Louisville will face off against No. 12 Arizona next, the lowest seed remaining in the Sweet Sixteen. Connecticut will take on No. 5 Purdue and Pittsburgh will play No. 4 Xavier.

The two games to watch will be Villanova versus No. 2 Duke and Syracuse versus No. 2 Oklahoma.

Player of the week

While most of the attention focused on Pittsburgh's colossus DeJuan Blair in the Panthers' game against No. 8 Oklahoma State, Sam Young was quietly killing the Cowboys.

Well, if it's possible to score 32 points in a quiet way. The athletic forward simply took over the game once the Cowboys made it their prerogative to contain Blair. The Pittsburgh big man still eeked out a double-double with 10 points and 12 boards, but it was Young who made Oklahoma State pay.

The Panthers advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth time in eight years.

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