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Beyond the Arc: Gameday Villanova

I know, I know, Blue Devil nation. You've been waiting all day, refreshing your feed to both Twitter and the Chronicle Sports Blog, pacing your room, mentally preparing yourself for this hopefully prescient preview. Problems with identifying the media shuttle--"You can't miss it," the doorman said. We proved him wrong--and with signing up for the Internet have stalled it this far. But here goes:

THE CONTENTS: No. 2 Duke battles No. 3 Villanova in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament at approximately 9:57 p.m. at TD Banknorth Garden in dreary Boston, Mass. You can see the game on CBS with the delightful Verne Lundquist and the effervescent Bill Raftery. You can hear it locally on 620 AM.

brittonTHE EXPOSITION: The Blue Devils enter the game after surviving a second-round tussle with No. 7 Texas in Greensboro. Duke coasted past Binghamton in the first round.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, played arguably the most impressive game of the Tournament so far in their 89-69 dismantling of No. 6 UCLA--a team that had gone to three straight Final Fours.

Duke and Villanova last met in the NCAA Tournament in 1978, a game won by the Blue Devils. Overall, Duke owns a 2-1 mark against the Wildcats in the Tournament.

THE PROTAGONISTS: The Blue Devils got big contributions from their three stars against Texas Saturday, with Gerald Henderson steering the offense, Jon Scheyer saving the ball and the day, and Kyle Singler providing a key tip-in.

But you can't overlook the play of the bench in that matchup with the Longhorns: Nolan Smith has essentially recaptured his role as Duke's third guard, Brian Zoubek was stunningly effective against Dexter Pittman, while David McClure and Lance Thomas did what they always do: rebound the ball in key spots.

To me, Thomas is one of the keys in this game. We've talked all season about his versatility on the defensive end: Thomas can guard bigger guys down low and smaller guys on the perimeter. Tonight, he faces off with a guy who is essentially the exact same size as him in Dante Cunningham. How does Thomas hold up?

THE ANTAGONISTS: By now, you've heard about how Villanova is kind of a mirror of Duke. The Wildcats are guard-oriented, they like to spread the floor and drive, with Cunningham as a 6-foot-8 outside/inside forward. Villanova brings two of its best guards off the bench in the Coreys: Stokes and Fisher. Stokes can stroke it from outside and acts as the Wildcats' main zone-buster while Fisher finishes about as well as any 6-foot-nothing guard in the nation.

The heart of the team, though, is the senior Cunningham and junior guard Scottie Reynolds, who has seen his stats slip while the 'Cats have gotten better in his three seasons. In order for the Blue Devils to win, they need to pressure Reynolds--who is not a pure point--in the backcourt to try to force turnovers. At the same time, they need to be conscious of helping in the lane; Duke can't allow Villanova's guards the same freedom to finish they afforded Varez Ward and the Longhorns Saturday.

THE CONFLICT: Can Duke defend Villanova? Most expect this to be an uptempo, high-scoring game. It will come down to two things: Who makes more shots, and who keeps the other team out of the lane.

I HEARD VILLANOVA IS AGGRESSIVE AND PHYSICAL. IS THAT TRUE?: Yea, but not to the extent a lot of people talked about following the Wildcats' win over UCLA. Villanova committed a couple of hard fouls against the Bruins, which forced UCLA into a bit of a shell and contributed to the rout. It didn't hurt, of course, that the Wildcats weren't missing on the other side of the floor.

Look for Villanova to do the same thing in making its fouls count. But I don't think it will rattle the Blue Devils. After all, Gerald Henderson has responded to that kind of physicality before.

TIM'S FAVORITE PLAYER IN VILLANOVA HISTORY IS...: Easy. In a time when everyone--including 10-year-old Tim--was rockin' the black socks started by Jalen Rose and the Fab Five, Kerry Kittles took it to a whole new level with his one-sock-up, one-sock-down routine in the mid-90s.

I miss the Steve Lappas Era. Nobody in Philadelphia does.

JAY WRIGHT'S PROVEN TO BE A GOOD HIRE, EH?: Very quietly, Wright has taken Villanova to four Sweet 16s in five years. Only North Carolina and Memphis have done that in the same span.

HAVEN'T HAD MUCH LUCK ONCE THERE, THOUGH: Wright is 1-2 in the Sweet 16 so far, with an overtime win over Boston College in 2006 (on a well-designed inbounds play in the final seconds) and losses to eventual champions North Carolina in 2005 and Kansas in 2008. Not a bad record.

BUT IT PALES IN COMPARISON TO DUKE'S: Well, not quite. The Blue Devils are 1-4 in their last five trips to the regional semis, with three of the losses coming as No. 1 seed. If you extend it two years, that record is 2-5, with four losses as a top seed.

Duke hasn't lost a game in the Sweet 16 as a No. 2 seed in my memory. (Cop-out!)

HAVE YOU GIVEN UP ON YOUR OTHER PICKS?: Never! Internet problems stalled me, but they were pretty mundane. UConn, Pitt and Marquette were my initial picks, and I stand by them! That over-the-line call was dubious (and brought back some horrifying memories of a similar call in a 6th-grade championship involving yours truly).

But yeah, Memphis over Missouri.

THE DENOUEMENT: This is the game everyone's waiting for in the Sweet 16. The teams are incredibly balanced, and they both play a fun (read: perimeter)(sorry for what we in the business would call "editorialization") up-and-down style. I think Villanova might come out with the initial punch early and knock Duke back; it's tough to adjust to the Wildcats' mixture of speed and physicality. But the Blue Devils have made a habit of bouncing back this season, and they've hit their shots when they've needed to over the last two weeks.

In the end, there's one reason I'm tipping the scale (to like 51/49) in Duke's favor, and it's the guy wearing No. 15 in white tonight. Gerald Henderson, unlike any other player on either of these teams (or any in the East Region, for that matter), has the ability to get to the basket and make the big bucket when the Blue Devils need it. Tonight, they'll need it, and Henderson will come through late. March 26--the same day as Walton's 21-of-23 title performance, Bird-Magic I, and Arizona-Illinois--adds another thriller to the ledger.

THE VERDICT: Duke 84-81.


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