NCAA gangs up on the Bruins

It is evident the moment you leave south Philadelphia’s grimy streets for the reality of the Wachovia Center parking lot.

On Thursday, before Villanova’s first-round game NCAA basketball game here, in dropping temperatures and spitting rain, dozens of Wildcats fans were outside cooking hot dogs and drinking beer.

I have never seen an NCAA tournament game where everyone felt so much at home.

“Oh, Villanova playing at the Wachovia, that’s a big deal,” said Wildcats forward Shane Clark, a Philly kid. “Everybody comes on down.”

It is further evident the moment you enter the dank building and walk out to the scuffed court.


In the second half of Villanova’s victory over American, that court was consistently showered with raucous cheers that cascaded down from every corner, so loud you could not even hold a conversation about the absurdity of it all.

I have never seen an NCAA tournament game where one team was so loved.

“When the crowd kicks in here, you can just feel the energy,” forward Dante Cunningham said. “It helps you take your game to another level.”

It is there in a locker room that has permanent Villanova signs. It is there in a media guide where half a page is devoted to the Wildcats’ “home away from home.”

From the mouths of babes, it was even apparent in a giant headline in the Villanova campus newspaper that touted the Wildcats’ first weekend draw as a “HOMECOMING.”

The NCAA can rebut it, some Villanova folks can deny it, but there is no ignoring it.

When UCLA faces Villanova today in the second round of the NCAA tournament, it will begin as an unfair fight.

A tournament committee that routinely allows the top two seeds to play within easy driving distance of their home campus inexplicably allowed third-seeded Villanova to play in its backyard, on what essentially is a home court.

“It’s a big advantage, absolutely,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. “I mean, they play here. They know the place. They even know about the dead spots on the floor.”

Howland has been quietly griping about this since the pairings were announced, and earlier this week I wrote that UCLA should be quiet and play.

What was the difference between Villanova playing here and UCLA playing last season’s first two rounds in Anaheim’s Honda Center?

How is Villanova’s advantage any greater than the one felt by UCLA in advancing to three Final Fours with only having to leave California once?

That is what I thought. But Thursday night changed my mind.

Howland has a point, and you only need to see nearly 19,000 fans standing and screaming for Villanova to understand it.

The Bruins heard it the minute they arrived at the arena in the middle of the Wildcats’ opening game.

“We left our hotel and they were trailing American by 10, then when we get here we see they have come back, and we can hear how the energy of the crowd helped them,” UCLA’s Alfred Aboya said.

Howland heard the same thing from his assistants who were watching the game.

“It’s obviously helpful to have your home court behind you when you are down,” he said.

This is indeed different than playing in Anaheim, which is a 90-minute drive from Westwood. UCLA plays at the Honda Center once a year, in the Wooden Classic.

The Wachovia Center is a 25-minute drive from the Villanova campus. Since it opened in 1996, they have played here 43 times.

While Villanova’s record is only 20-23 here, that is mostly because of past teams’ struggles. The Wildcats are 10-8 in recent seasons, with most of those games against top opponents, including a one-point loss to top-seeded Louisville this year.

“Anaheim just has a lot different feel to it for us,” Howland said.

If it sounds like the Bruins are griping, well, they are. But they have a point. And the most honest of Villanova types agree.

“I wouldn’t argue with you,” Wildcats Coach Jay Wright said. “I’d rather play here than play in California, there’s no doubt in my mind . . . there are advantages to being home.”

There’s another coach in Los Angeles that believes in that advantage so much he has dedicated his season to it, and who am I to argue with Phil Jackson?

The Bruins will see it all today, from the crowd’s human energy to the referees’ human nature. They won’t get many cheers, and they won’t get many calls, and, if you ask me, they’ve never faced bigger tournament odds in the Ben Howland era.

It appears the NCAA kept Villanova home because, with seven Big East teams in the tournament and a mandate that none of them meet in the first two rounds, they ran out of options.

But it also appears they blew it.

Just ask Nikola Dragovic, who asked an obvious question of his teammates Friday while watching film of Villanova playing earlier this season in front of a full, cheering and obviously home crowd.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Isn’t that the same court we’re playing them on Saturday?”

Yeah. Wait a minute.


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