NCAA Tournament: Cunningham a catalyst for Duke’s next opponent
By Dan Gelston
Associated PressVILLANOVA, Pa. ó Dante Cunningham had to dust off the history books to find something appealing about Villanova.
Three Final Four appearances, including a national title in 1985, look nifty on banners hanging from the rafters. For today’s players born after Rollie Massimino coached the Wildcats to their only NCAA championship, the 1980s may as well as have been ancient history.
“Villanova was a big-time school way before my time,” Cunningham said Monday.
Now? Well, Cunningham believes the Wildcats are back as one of the elite teams in basketball. Go ahead and put Villanova up there with UCLA, Duke, North Carolina or any other household power and Cunningham likes how the Wildcats compare.
Villanova (28-7) is in the round of 16 for the fourth time in five years, an achievement only Memphis and UNC can boast. Of course, the Tar Heels have a national championship, and Memphis has played in the title game during that span while the Wildcats have yet to reach the Final Four.
The Wildcats are definitely back on the map as title contenders, and Cunningham is a pivotal reason why Villanova is playing against Duke (30-6) in an East Regional semifinal Thursday in Boston.
The tentative, jittery freshman who deferred to NBA-bound guards like Randy Foye and Allan Ray has morphed into Villanova’s go-to scorer in the post. He leads the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding, he and gives them the physical toughness inside that helped them rough up American and UCLA ó especially the Bruins ó in their first two tourney wins.
Cunningham, a second-team All-Big East pick, has worked his way into Villanova’s only senior NBA prospect.
“As the years went on, things change,” Cunningham said. “Developing as a player myself, understanding what the team needed to win more games, I just had to become more of an offensive threat. Honestly, I think it wasn’t too hard just because I put in the time, I put in the time off the court working on my individual game. So when the time came for me to step up as an offensive player, it really wasn’t that hard.”
Cunningham was named the Big East’s most improved player, pumping up his scoring average from 10.4 points as a junior to 16.3 this season. He scored 25 and 18 points in the first two tournament games and grabbed a total of 17 rebounds.
Wildcats coach Jay Wright hoped Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 forward, would have become a legitimate scoring threat earlier in his career. Cunningham showed flashes of becoming one as a sophomore when he posted four straight double-digit scoring games, only to disappear offensively for stretches while the guard-oriented offense carried the load. Even last season, his game log was littered with single-digit scoring games though his rebounding remained strong.
“He would always give the ball up,” Wright said. “Even halfway through his junior year, he’d give the ball up in big situations, not out of fear, just out of respect for Scottie (Reynolds) and Dwayne (Anderson) and the other guys.
“Finally toward the end of his junior year, he really started to take pride in being a go-to guy. He came in this year from Day 1, you could tell. ‘This is my team, I’m going to make the plays at the end.’ ”
No Wildcats player is doubting this is Cunningham’s team now. He’s part of the winningest senior class in school history, with the total at 100 victories, and wants to be remembered as leading Villanova to its first Final Four in 24 years.
“He takes pride in what the guys before him did for him, and he’s trying to leave the same legacy,” Reynolds said. “He’s trying to leave his mark on Villanova basketball.”
Cunningham has failed to reach double-digit scoring in only three games. Perhaps not coincidentally, Villanova lost two of those. He had two games of 31 points and 12 rebounds. The only thing Cunningham is looking to pass these days is the credit for his success onto his teammates.
“The team has been behind me the whole time,” he said. “The confidence that they have in me to put the ball in my hands makes it even easier.”
The Maryland native considered the Terrapins and Georgetown before settling on Wildcats even at a time when Villanova “wasn’t the school to go to.”
Wright sold Cunningham on the Villanova family and the former greats he was bringing back into the fold. It was a family Cunningham couldn’t wait to join.
Wright had the Wildcats on the cusp of a breakthrough when he got them back into the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years in 2005. Now the Sweet 16 has become a habit, and it’s one Cunningham isn’t willing to quit.
“We like what we’re doing and where we’re going,” he said, “and we want to keep it up.”