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March 20, 2006

Villanova looking forward to hitting the road

PHILADELPHIA - Villanova is ready to hit the road.

Sitting on their familiar bench, having a bright, blue V painted in their usual locker room and a faithful cheering section that pumped them up when games got really rugged was a splendid way for the Wildcats to open the NCAA tournament.

But top-seeded Villanova (27-4) could have done without the added headaches that come with playing so close to campus, like nonstop ticket requests, signing countless autographs - and all that extra pressure.

When the Wildcats play fourth-seeded Boston College (28-7) on Friday in the Minneapolis Regional semifinal, it will be their first trip outside the Northeast since late February. Getting on the plane will be a welcome relief to a team ready to put the distractions behind.

''We really enjoy as a team the time that we spend together, just coaches, players hanging out,'' coach Jay Wright said Monday. ''We always get that on the road. There is an enjoyment to being on the road for us and that's what Minneapolis will be like. We think we're even tighter on the road. We're going to really take advantage and enjoy that.''

There's been plenty for the Wildcats to enjoy already this season, with a Big East regular-season co-championship, a No. 2 national ranking and their first No. 1 tournament seed. They got a couple of tighter-than-expected games against Monmouth and Arizona at the Wachovia Center, but played well enough to advance to the round of 16 for the second straight season.

The close games weren't the only surprises. After relying almost exclusively on their four-guard lineup for the bulk of their points and rebounds, Dante Cunningham, Will Sheridan and Shane Clark all showed the frontcourt can contribute when needed.

Known by his childhood nickname ''Bump'' - because he was overactive in the womb - Sheridan did the dirty work underneath this season as Villanova's only starting big man. He set the screens, grabbed some boards and usually let the four guards get the points and the glory.

When the guards are double-teamed, or they run into a wall of big bodies near the basket, they kick out to Sheridan, who usually delivers. He had 16 points in 37 minutes in their 82-78 win over Arizona on Sunday, strong numbers after averaging only 5.2 points entering the game.

''His unselfishness is not an act,'' Wright said. ''It's almost like he cherishes it.''

Freshmen Clark and Cunningham, neither of whom played 30 minutes in a game this season, must have surprised an Arizona team that only seemed interested in stopping Allan Ray and Randy Foye.

The 6-foot-9 Cunningham was part of perhaps the play of the game, when his blocked shot on a driving layup set up Ray's 3-pointer on the other end for a 65-57 lead and snuffed an Arizona run.

Cunningham grabbed a career-high nine rebounds, and Clark was a tough inside presence as well, even if his stats didn't reflect it, giving Arizona's own guards something to think about before driving the lane.

''One of the things you can't hide is how a player is going to play in the most stressful conditions, when the big lights are on,'' Wright said. ''You throw them into the fire, you see how they respond. You know if they're a player or not. You can just see it in their face. You can see it their confidence level. And in those two, they responded the best in the biggest game.''

Villanova will need that type of production again against a Boston College team familiar to the Wildcats from their years as Big East rivals. Starting with an Eagles win in 2002, the winners alternated the last six games, ending with the Wildcats' 76-70 victory at the Pavilion last season.

Wright is glad this one, with so much more at stake, is on a neutral court.

''It was so difficult because we were a one seed and people were talking about making plans to Minneapolis right in front of our players and not even realizing what they were doing,'' Wright said.

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