NCAA hoops: Villanova next for Tar Heels
By Eddie Pells
Three of the teams are Final Four regulars, programs that expect to be practicing and playing in the first week of April.
Trying to pull a postseason surprise is Villanova, a school that lacks the tradition of North Carolina, Michigan State or Connecticut but possesses the biggest shocker in NCAA tournament history on its colorful resume.
Villanova once again will enter the Final Four as an underdog, though hardly the kind it was in 1985, when Rollie Massimino’s team was seeded eighth and shot 78.6 percent to knock a growing Georgetown dynasty off its pedestal.
This time, the Wildcats (30-7) are a No. 3 seed coached by Jay Wright. They have a semifinal meeting set for Saturday at 8:47 p.m. against the Tar Heels, who edged Villanova during the Sweet 16 in 2005 and later won three more games to capture the title.
Win or lose, Villanova already has a moment for the ages from this tournament: Scottie Reynolds’ end-to-end rush for the winning layup against Pitt on Saturday.
“It’s something you think about as a youngster, advancing yourself to the Final Four or winning the championship,” Reynolds said. “And to do it with these guys on my back and the players that came before us, I think that that contributes to our program.”
Villanova is, no big surprise, the long shot among this group of four, listed at 8-1 at the Las Vegas Hilton race and sports book. Carolina is the 5-6 favorite, while UConn is 5-2 and Michigan State, which is playing 90 miles from home, is 5-1.
A nice ray of sunshine for a state that has suffered more than most over the past year when it comes to job losses and the recession.
“I’m just hoping we’re a silver lining in what’s been a little bit of a cloudy year for us,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “I’m hoping that we’re the sunshine, I’m hoping we’re something to embrace, be involved with, and I hope they all support us because, you know, I haven’t even had time to think about UConn.”
The last team to play the Final Four in its home state was Duke. The Blue Devils lost to Arkansas in the 1994 title game in Charlotte.
Jay Kornegay, executive director of the Hilton sports book, said Villanova can’t exactly be looked at as the lovable underdog it was back in 1985 ó or even the next George Mason, the 2006 long shot. Not possible considering the Wildcats come out of the Big East as a No. 3 seed.
“But we’ll see a buildup this week, and the Cinderella could be created because they’ll be facing the tournament favorite,” he said.
Carolina (32-4) is an eight-point favorite against ‘Nova, and the winner will play Monday night for the title against the winner of the Michigan State-Connecticut semifinal. UConn (31-4) is favored by four.
Michigan State’s win over Louisville on Sunday prevented this Final Four from having three Big East teams, the way it happened when Villanova won it all in 1985. But there is still a chance of an all-Big East final.
“I’m worried about the next game,” Wright said. “But if history repeats itself, I’ll take it.”
North Carolina, making its second straight Final Four appearance, will try to make up for an inexplicably bad first half last year. The Tar Heels fell behind 40-12 to Kansas in the semifinals, a blowout so bad that CBS announcer Billy Packer said the game was over.
They rallied to within four but wound up losing. North Carolina’s star, Tyler Hansbrough, decided to return for his senior season.
He got what he was looking for ó as did the rest of the Tar Heels. They’re heading to their record 18th Final Four, and Ty Lawson is dominating after missing the first game of the tournament with a toe injury.
“It’s a different team,” senior Danny Green said. “It’s a new year, a new day.”
North Carolina, Connecticut and Michigan State are all looking to join Florida as the second team with two championships in the 2000s. Connecticut is actually looking for its third title since 1999.
This has not been an easy trip, or season, for Jim Calhoun’s team. The Huskies lost shooting guard Jerome Dyson in February yet still managed to get a top seed in the West Regional.
Calhoun spent time in the hospital when the Huskies were in the first round, battling a bout of dehydration. More recently, the coach has been answering questions about possible recruiting violations.
“I’m as happy as I can possibly be about the basketball situation,” Calhoun said. “I’m so proud. I said to the kids, so happy for this group. I mean, I feel like busting out just because I just think they are really special, what they did once they get dealt a real tough blow. It took some bounces, it took some bruises.”
Some might say the Spartans (30-6), second seeds and underdogs in their regional final against Louisville, had the benefit of low expectations. Not really, though, for a team now making its fifth Final Four trip since Izzo took over in 1995.
“Pressure. Pressure is what Michigan State is about,” guard Travis Walton said. “You know, Coach always tells us about his story, two years into his job, he had pressure to deliver. He delivered.”
Izzo has been talking about playing the Final Four at Ford Field in Detroit since the season began.
“It will be a proud moment,” Izzo said. “When I took this job and dreamed about where I could take the program, where we could take it, it’s these kind of things, it’s these kind of events.”