TAMPA, Fla. - On a day normally devoted to putting as many eggs as possible in one basket, the task here was getting all the seeds out of one building. This wasn't an early-round weekend; it was a pomegranate.
Put all the seeds together in this site of
improbability yesterday and they added up to 50, a record for one NCAA second-round doubleheader. The St. Pete Times Forum, the House of Turnabouts, is a short distance from the esplanade where they throw a huge, often raunchy, parade each January honoring a revered local buccaneer named Jose Gasparilla.
Instead of "Throw us your beads," hoops junkies, whose pools were trashed by the exits here of Vanderbilt (4), Clemson (5), Drake (5) and Connecticut (4), were yelling "Throw us your seeds."
The only reason Villanova's Dirty Dozen isn't the only 12 seed headed for a Sweet 16 matchup this week is because the Wildcats will be joined in that group of the few, the proud, the survivors, by another blue-snow team. Western Kentucky, a fellow 12, will stagger off to Phoenix looking like Gasparilla revelers who partied in Ybor City too long after outlasting No. 13 San Diego.
Scottie Reynolds, the Wildcats' dervish sophomore guard, was the best player in town. He could have been Jose Gasparilla himself, cutting away the rigging of the listing Clemson and Siena galleons with two bravura performances.
Against Siena, coach Fran McCaffery's relentlessly pressuring rotation of mercury-quick guards came at Reynolds and freshman backcourt mate Corey Stokes in waves. Reynolds burned them for 25 points on top of the 21 he scored in Friday night's epic 'Round Midnight comeback that sent No. 5 seed Clemson home. Stokes rammed home 20 in his best game of the season.
"I might have been asking a little bit too much of Scottie at the end of the Clemson game," Jay Wright was saying after the deceptively tough, 84-72 win over former Penn point guard McCaffery's young Saints. "He had some turnovers at the end. But today, he was amazing - just two turnovers against pressure the entire game."
The Wildcats are headed to Detroit for a Friday Ford Field matchup with No. 1 seed Kansas, a wide-body team that makes Clemson's maulers look puny.
The 'Cats punched their ticket with a comeback for the ages. Down by 18 against the Tigers' withering pressure, they battled back to make it a game at halftime, then totally dominated a deep team that had lost three pressure-packed games to mighty North Carolina, two in OTs. Yesterday, they tacked on a brilliant opening burst to go up 26-12 midway through the first half.
Then Villanova got sloppy, shooting poorly, making bad decisions, committing dumb fouls. Siena had the look of a team that could unfurl a run at any time. Once the Saints jumped out on highly regarded Vanderbilt, the Commodores were cooked.
The younger the team, the more pronounced the spikes from peaks to valleys. Wright explained how it works with this young team as it matures and flirts with a greatness that might be another year away.
"I want to say Siena is very smart about the way they play," Jay said. "Fran, he really gets it. They did that to Vanderbilt. If that team gets a lead with their guards, and the way they can handle the ball and pass it, you're in big trouble. We were scared to death to get behind them early, because we weren't going to be able to press them and turn them over and take them out of what they do. That was important . . . Once you get that lead, it's so hard to keep playing every possession and not take a break. It's the hardest thing to do in sports, I think. It's harder than coming back. When you come from behind, you have nothing to lose. But there's a lot of game pressure on you. There's a lot of tension when you have that lead . . . "
When the Wildcats limped into their hotel after the Clemson victory, it was 2:30 a.m. They looked like the Pirates of the Caribbean after a bad monster day. "We had guys with IVs in them," Wright said. "We were shot."
Associate head coach Brett Gunning and trainers Jeff Pierce and Lon Record talked him into calling off Saturday's scheduled practice. They soaked in the whirlpools, doing hot and cold contrasts. A scheduled trip to the Phillies' exhibition against the Tigers was canceled.
"I wanted to go and I didn't have anything to do," Wright said. "I was watching film. My film was done. But my whole family and everybody - we had a lot of people - they all went." And sat through what became a three-inning rainout.
Jay also has backed off a plan to stay over and attend today's Phils exhibition. "Coming in here I said the best weekend we could have is if we win two, we could send the team home and I could stay and watch the Phillies [today], it would be a dream weekend for me. But now I'm chickening out. I can't stay. I've got to go back with the team."
Me, too. Back to good old Charlie Manuel and his suddenly hot team.
Checking through Villanova's NCAA appearances over the years, I discovered that this was the first Big 5 team I have covered since the 'Cats went one-and-done against LSU in 1990.
And here's some irony . . . Me covering a coach, Jay Wright, who was a star at Bucknell, the university that expelled me in 1954 for a minor motor-vehicle infraction involving seven parked autos, and who is now coaching Villanova, a university that expelled starting center Bill Conlin Sr. toward the end of the Roaring Twenties.
Just when we thought we were out . . . They pulled us back in again. *
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