Dante fuels the fire

DETROIT – The rule, coaches say, is to never look ahead, to relish the moment instead of fretting about the future.

Still, Jay Wright can’t help himself.

As much as the Villanova coach is enjoying the program’s first Final Four berth since 1985, Wright admits there are times he thinks about Life After Dante.

“Every now and then,” Wright says, “I walk into our locker room after games and ask my assistants, ‘What in the world are we going to do next year without Dante Cunningham?’ “

An even better question: What would the Wildcats have done without Cunningham this season? Certainly a 30-7 record wouldn’t have been in the cards – much less a spot in Saturday’s national semifinal against North Carolina.

But with Cunningham averaging team-highs in both points (16.2) and rebounds (7.4) the Wildcats have exceeded expectations.

“I don’t feel like we’re underdogs,” Cunningham said of the matchup with heavily favored North Carolina. “I think everyone is pretty much on an even plane. We’ve worked as hard as anyone to get here.”

No Wildcat, though, has made strides quite like Cunningham, who entered his senior season with a career scoring average of 7.1 points. This year Cunningham was named the Big East’s Most Improved Player. He also earned second-team all-league honors.

“In the past, he was a soldier,” Wright said earlier this season. “Now he’s an officer.”

Fitting that Wright would use military jargon when talking about Cunningham, whose parents spent 30 years in the Air Force before retiring. Cunningham was born on Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and lived in Germany for four years as a young child.

Now 21, Cunningham’s upbringing has clearly had an affect on his mannerisms. His handshake is firm and he looks people in the eye when he speaks. Those kind of leadership skills have played huge dividends for a Villanova squad that counts Cunningham as one of its most influential leaders.

Cunningham is part of a senior class that has won a school-record 101 games.

“One of the biggest reasons we’re [in the Final Four],” guard Scottie Reynolds, “is because Dante stepped up this season. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

Cunningham arrived at Villanova four years ago figuring it might be awhile before he played a role. While coaches at Georgetown and Maryland made promises of immediate playing time, Wildcats coach Jay Wright told Cunningham that most of his first season would be spent on the bench.

With veteran forwards such as Curtis Sumpter, Will Sheridan and Jason Fraser ahead of him, Cunningham was content to be an understudy. But injuries to Fraser and Sumpter forced Cunningham onto the court. He averaged just 2.2 points but gained invaluable experience.

That was also the season that Villanova lost to Florida in the Elite Eight.

After averaging 8.7 and 10.4 points, respectively, the following two years, Cunningham entered his senior campaign poised to play a bigger role. He said he never told himself he needed to have a breakout or that he should be contributing more.

Instead, it was preparation that led to the increased production.

“It’s just understanding the offense more and understanding what this team needs to win,” Floyd said. “That and just watching and lots of film over the summer.”

And taking lots of shots.

Cunningham has become a deadly shooter from 15 to 18 feet and also has an array of moves in the paint that he hopes will land him a spot on an NBA roster. Cunningham is currently projected as a second-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft.

Still, as good as he’s been offensively, Cunningham will have to come up big on the other end if the Wildcats have any hopes of defeating high-scoring North Carolina on Saturday. To do that Cunningham will have to play well against Tar Heels forwards Deon Thompson, Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller and – most notably – Tyler Hansbrough, last season’s National Player of the Year.

“He has so much intensity,” Cunningham said of Hansbrough. “He’s always around the ball. He’s continuously pushing and rebounding and getting position.”

Asked if he’s faced players with similar drive, Cunningham said: “Everyone pretty much has that [work ethic] in a way. But UNC is always on TV. He’s at a great program and doing well. He’s outscoring everyone that ever played at North Carolina. He’s good at it. He’s doing a great job.”

Saturday’s game will also give Cunningham a chance to go against North Carolina’s Ty Lawson. The two played on the same Little League squad as 7-year-olds and were later members of the DC Assault, an elite AAU program.

Cunningham said Lawson’s father was his first coach.

“He was pretty intense, but it was never yelling and screaming,” Cunningham said. “He had a joking side, too. With him it was never, ‘You have to win! You have to win!’ Instead it was always, ‘Have fun! Have fun!’”

For Cunningham and Villanova, that hasn’t been a problem.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Apr 2, 2009