PHILADELPHIA (AP)—Villanova has the home court, this time it wants the advantage.
Jay Wright’s strongest memory of the Wildcats’ first-round victory in 2006 at the Wachovia Center isn’t that it was the first one on a path toward the regional final.
It’s the way Villanova’s off-campus home sounded.
The arena was packed and rocking, although the fans sure weren’t root, root, rooting for the home team. The neutral fans that normally dominate NCAA tournament sites started pulling for the overwhelming underdog and 16th-seed Monmouth to knock off the No. 1 seed Wildcats.
When the Hawks kept the score close in the second half, they found a whole new flock of fans.
“I never really try to pay attention to the crowd,” Wright, Villanova’s coach, said on Wednesday. “But it hit me. So I knew it hit the players. I was thinking, is this our fans turning on us or this everybody else jumping on Monmouth? I realized it was all the other teams going for the underdog.”
Stick within striking distance on Thursday and 14th-seeded Patriot League champion American (24-7) might have a chance of at least winning over the crowd even if it doesn’t win against Villanova.
The Wildcats (26-7) are not even 20 miles away from their posh suburban campus when they play their first-round game in the East Regional. Their fans don’t have to travel, a bonus in the depressed economy, and the Wildcats know every nook and cranny of the south Philadelphia arena.
They also learned from three years ago the importance of a fast postseason start to keep the crowd behind them.
If not, American is ready to pounce and finish what it started last season.
The Eagles were the 15th seed in the 2008 tournament and were tied with Tennessee at 40 with 11 minutes left, and trailed by two with 5 1/2 minutes to go in the heart of Alabama country. While the cheers weren’t terribly loud or intense, American felt the fans unexpectedly rallying them down the stretch.
“The longer we’re in it, the more pressure there is on the favored team,” American coach Jeff Jones said.
The Eagles went cold in the waning minutes of their NCAA tournament debut and ended up losing to the Vols by 15, a defeat that took Jones months to review on tape. That team was in awe of their first real glimpse of big-time basketball, big crowds and the national spotlight. American believes all the March jitters have dissolved this year.
“This time around, I think we’re prepared for that,” American forward Brian Gilmore said. “We know this is another big stage. We can’t afford to be taken aback and on our heels like we were last year. We have to be the aggressors from the start.”
Jones held an informal team meeting this week where he reminded the players that it was OK to have some butterflies, but the Eagles are in the tournament to win, not just enjoy the attention and swag that comes along with an NCAA berth.
“Knowing that will give us more sense of ease out there and let us play our game instead of kind of having our jaws dropped by the awe of the crowd and all that stuff,” Gilmore said.
The Eagles are one of the hottest teams entering the tournament, winners of 13 straight and 19 of 20. They went 11-6 on the road and are one of only five teams in the country with at least 11 road victories, which could be a boost up the road in Philly.
“Being able to play on the road is the sign of a champion,” guard Garrison Carr said. “It was something that Coach emphasized from the start of the season by putting so many road games on the schedule.”
Yes, that the road warrior mentality is a nice attribute. The cold reality is, American was crushed in its non-conference losses to NCAA teams Oklahoma and Maryland, and lost by 24 at Georgetown.
Villanova was knocked out of the tournament three of the past four years by the eventual national champion, and the other loss was against Kentucky. The Wildcats finished fourth in the Big East season and expect to make it through the weekend.
But they know what the Eagles are thinking in the hours before their shot at pulling off the upset.
No one expected much out of the Wildcats last year when they finished .500 in the Big East, then were the 12th seed and one of the last at-large teams in the field.
Villanova surprisingly won two games to reach the round of 16 where it was eliminated by Kansas.
American starts five seniors who have already led the program to a breakthrough with the first NCAA appearance last year. Now a tournament victory would be a perfect way to cap their careers.
The Wildcats are determined to stop them.
“I know they want to go out on top and what better way than to knock off Villanova and go further in the tournament?” Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds said.