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Villanova follows Cunningham in NCAA Tournament

What you see in the box score each game from Villanova junior forward Dante Cunningham is pretty darn impressive.

He's the Wildcats' second-leading scorer, by far its top rebounder and shot blocker and is second in steals. But it's what isn't there in cold, bold type that's made a world of difference.

"He really has been the catalyst for our team this season," coach Jay Wright said.

Cunningham, the last major link to the team that lost to Florida in the Elite Eight in 2006, has assumed the leadership role both on and off the court for the youthful Wildcats.

And it's that often unnoticed contribution that helps explain just how in the world Villanova (22-12), a team that seemed headed for the NIT but eked into the NCAA Tournament field as a No. 12 seed, will be playing No. 1-seeded Kansas (33-3) on Friday in the Midwest Region semifinals in Detroit.

"He just plays all out all the time," Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds said. "I think everybody on this team wants to have that mind-set, have that energy, have that passion on both sides of the ball."

"Every basketball player strives for that; that's why we play the game," Cunningham added. "You go out there and you know it's your team. You have to run it. If you win, it's on you. If you lose, it's on you. I love it."

Not that he embraced it immediately.

"Both of his parents were military officers (in the Air Force) and I thought when we got him that was going to make him a great leader," Wright said. "What I found out was it made him a good soldier. He listened. He did what he was told. But he didn't want to tell anybody else what to do."

Cunningham couldn't afford to be that way this season.

The Wildcats had no seniors returning and he was the most experienced of four juniors, playing in all 33 games (with four starts) as a freshman and then all 33 games (with 27 starts) last season. During that time, he said the seniors tried to get him ready for more responsibility.

"Dante was like my younger brother; he was my roommate, so he watched how I prepared for games and we would always talk at night," said former star guard Randy Foye, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves in his second NBA season. "I'm not surprised at how well he is doing. & I could tell even then, when he was a freshman, that he was going to be a real good player and leader."

Cunningham, 20, who averages 10.4 points and 6.4 rebounds, admits he's more comfortable letting his actions do the talking, but he had no choice other than to became more vocal and demonstrative. He's even grabbed some players, off to the side, and yelped out, "You've got to do this better, you've got to do that better."

Most important, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Cunningham has lived his own mandate.

When the Wildcats snapped their five-game skid against Seton Hall on Feb. 9, he matched his career high with 21 points in the 72-70 win. A couple weeks later, he had nine points, five rebounds and five steals in a critical 67-65 win against then No. 13-ranked Connecticut. Oh, yeah, Cunningham played 39 minutes.

In its NCAA Tournament opener against No. 5-seeded Clemson on Friday at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Cunningham was fouled on a drive and hit a pair of free throws to break a 66-66 tie with 1:37 left. Villanova won 75-69.

"Scottie was getting worn down by their intense pressure and we took it out of Scottie's hands and gave it to Dante," Wright said. "And Dante went and made a big play."

During an early timeout in Sunday's 84-72 win against Siena in the second round, after Villanova used a 12-1 run to take command, Cunningham was shouting encouragement and demanding continued focus. He would score all 14 of his points in the second half to seal the win.

"One of our challenges this year was for Dante to become a go-to guy," Wright said. "He plays as hard as anybody in the country, night in and night out. He does whatever it takes. & He's a guy who's got to continue to carry us."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

Villanova follows Cunningham in NCAA Tournament 03/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 5:28pm]
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