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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Villanova rises to great heights without great height

The Wildcats have no regular taller than 6-8, which would seem to put them at a sizable disadvantage. But with interchangeable parts, nonstop hustle and defense, they've made it work.

March 31, 2009|CHRIS DUFRESNE | ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Connecticut has a 7-foot-3 center flanked by two bodyguard forwards. Michigan State trots out a skyscraper from Bosnia. North Carolina's inside game centers around Psycho T and other tall timbers.

And then, at this year's Final Four, there's vertically challenged Villanova, the odd team in.

What chance does a 6-8-and-under team have of winning the national title?

Well, it's four tournament wins down and two to go.

Villanova, technically, has a center, two guards and two forwards.

What the Wildcats really are, though, is amorphous.

Their lineup is a kaleidoscope of shooters, leapers, defenders, floor-divers and bruise makers.

Dante Cunningham is the 6-8 "center," but that's only to give the public address man a position to announce.

The other pieces range between 6-1 and 6-7 and are often interchangeable. Their names are Scottie Reynolds (6-2) and Dwayne Anderson (6-6) and Reggie Redding (6-5) and Shane Clark (6-7). Off the bench are two terrific Coreys: Fisher (6-1) and Stokes (6-5).

On the court, the names and faces become blended blurs of Scottie Anderson and Dwayne Reynolds and Shane Redding and Reggie Clark.

UCLA Coach Ben Howland, whose team lost a second-round TKO against the Wildcats, said of Villanova: "Basically it's like playing against four and five guards at times."

Villanova may not be the best team in the Final Four -- only one Wildcat, Cunningham, earned all-Big East honors, and he was second team.

But Villanova may be the most interesting outfit.

Coach Jay Wright has proven you don't have to have a monster truck at center to make the Final Four.

John Wooden's first national title team at UCLA, remember, won it all in 1964 without a starter taller than 6-5.

What Villanova really is: gum on your shoe, blood on your nose and a poke in the eye.

The Wildcats are wildly relentless and, basically, they defend, harass and rattle you into submission.

They don't go hard for 15 minutes and then break for coffee.

Anderson, a senior guard/forward, says if the other team is playing ugly, Villanova wants to play, pardon his English, "more uglier."

He was asked to describe what brutal means.

"Brutal," he said, "is diving for every loose ball, hard fouls and just getting after it."

Everyone will remember Reynolds' driving basket with half a second left to beat Pittsburgh in the East Regional final Saturday in Boston.

The play that epitomizes the Wildcats' four-victory run in this tournament, though, was made by Anderson, in mop-up time, against UCLA.

Villanova was up by 22 points at the Wachovia Center when an exhausted Anderson sensed he was about to be substituted out.

Anderson wanted to show the younger 'Cats how things are done, though, so he raced after UCLA guard Darren Collison and dislodged the ball from behind with a Superman dive.

Villanova's radio play-by-play announcer said Anderson looked like someone diving into a swimming pool.

"We want banging for loose balls, rebounds, bodies flying and hitting the floor," Anderson explained. "That's just something we take pride in."

Villanova has been a matchup nightmare for opponents in this tournament.

In a regional semifinal, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski watched tag-teams of Villanova defenders hold two of his top scorers, Gerald Henderson Jr. and Jon Scheyer, to combined four-for-32 shooting.

"We faced a team that was probably one of the worst teams you could face for us," Krzyzewski said, "because they can defend all five positions and switch and do a lot of things."

Against Duke, nine Wildcats scored, seven with at least six points. Seven Villanova players average between 5.3 and 16.2 points a game, with eight averaging 18 or more minutes.

At that pace, Villanova may consider a revolving door between the bench and scorer's table.

Duke's Henderson, who averaged 17 points a game, never got a good look at the rim and finished with one basket in 14 tries.

"We just kept coming at him, kept throwing different guys at him," said Redding, one of Villanova's defensive specialists.

Pittsburgh, in the East final, seemed to have a considerable inside edge in the post with the 270-pound DeJuan Blair occupying city-block space.

But while Blair finished with a game-high 10 rebounds, Villanova won the total board battle, 33-28.

"They're very aggressive," Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon said after his team's 78-76 defeat. "They continue to come at you. And I think that's the biggest thing that stands out . . . they're constantly into you and then at the same time they rebound well with a smaller group. They're experienced, they're strong, and they play with amazing determination."

Villanova will need every ounce of it Saturday against North Carolina, which appears to be the stronger team across the board.

If you're not careful, though, as UCLA's Collision discovered, Villanova will catch you from behind.

"Just what they did to UCLA and to Pitt and Duke, it's hard to imagine anybody playing better than they are right now," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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