Anyone who doubts Villanova's toughness should take a look at Darren Collison's lower lip. Swollen and stitched shut with sutures that were caked over in dry blood after Villanova's 89-69 victory over UCLA in the East regional on Saturday, it looked like a piece of barbecue chicken that had gotten just a little too close to the flame.
Such was the intensity of the Wildcats defense. They set the tone early, maintained it late and, as a result, cruised to their second Sweet 16 appearance in as many years. "We've had games where we've had leads and just kind of got lackadaisical," said Wildcats coach Jay Wright. "I just wanted them to understand when they played 40 minutes how good the results can be."
By far, the best byproduct of that wire-to-wire effort was the havoc it wreaked on Collison's game. Usually the picture of sangfroid on the court, Collison struggled to keep up appearances against the Wildcats D. He could scarcely get a shot off, let alone make one (a 52 percent shooter, he finished with 15 points on 40 percent shooting); barely complete a pass, let alone see his targets clearly (he had a game-high five turnovers). What's more, he rarely drove to the hoop unchallenged. The first time he did -- some 26 seconds into the game -- the Wildcats' Scottie Reynolds sent an early message by ripping Collison and his shot attempt to the ground.
Collison would emerge from that experience slightly bloodied, but he remained unbowed in defeat -- particularly when it came to defending the Pac-10's pride. After the loss, he felt compelled to stand up for the league and renewed charges that it may indeed rank among the softest major conferences in the country.
"It's nothing we haven't seen," Collison said of Villanova's toughness, even though he'd make regular appeals to the officials for mercy. "We just didn't get the recognition for physicality. Big East is the main conference that gets credit."
And understandably so. Both teams came into the game looking for blood. But only one actually drew some.
1. Villanova can make defensive adjustments. After getting ambushed in their first round game against American, to the tune of 53.3 percent shooting from three in the first half, the Wildcats D was much quicker to wear down the Bruins with the same unrelenting pressure and physical play that eventually thwarted AU's upset bid. They disrupted the Bruins' sets with their constant bumping and banging, intercepted their passes with well-timed jumps into the passing lanes and redirected drives by collapsing around the ball in the paint.
2. When the Wildcats attack the glass, their offense follows. When DanteCunningham went to the bench at the 12:36 mark in the first after picking up his second foul, the Wildcats seemed as if they'd have no choice but to abandon their inside game for an outside one. (Though Cunningham had only four points at that point, he was central to Villanova's efforts to control the paint.) Indeed, they did start bombing away, and their precision from the perimeter in the first half (they shot 5 of 12) is a credit to the Wildcats' commitment to rebounding. Furthermore, their determination on the offensive boards (where they finished with a 41-29 edge) and commitment to keeping possessions alive helped get them a lot of second and, once, a third look at a three-pointer.
3. The Final Four is promised to no one. But for the last three years, UCLA made it seem that way. The Villanova loss not only marks the end of an era, but the end of the road for seniors Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya -- all of whom figured prominently in that remarkable run. Still, their exit doesn't necessarily mean the Bruins will be going into hibernation come March. It just means they won't be up as late as they used to.
Dante Cunningham. He caught some grief from me on Thursday for an interview answer that was too cliché and a first name with too many alternate spellings. (Naturally, I chose the wrong one.) Against UCLA, he gave me occasion to make amends for both with his 18-point, 10-rebound performance that helped the Wildcats make short work of the Bruins. He showed soft hands around the basket, tenacity on the boards and mostly lived up to his nickname, Trouble, which he earned for being such a pest on the court.
The physicality didn't end for the Bruins when the halftime horn sounded. Because both teams were assigned locker rooms opposite from their bench, the Bruins, after spending the last 20 minutes fighting through the Wildcats' defensive pressure, had to walk behind the scorers' table through a tide of Wildcat players headed the other way just to get off the floor. And even then the Bruins mustered little in the way of resistance.
So far, second-seeded Duke has managed to cobble together an effective inside game without a traditional go-to threat. But it'll be difficult for the Blue Devils to get that going if the Wildcats keep up their tough guy act. "We pride ourselves on letting other teams know how it's going to be for the rest of the game," Reggie Redding said. If Villanova can strike a similar tone early, that next game will be a long one for Duke.