The Villanova Wildcats absolutely trounced Miami on Thursday night, 92-69, sending them to the Elite 8 for the first time since 2009. Incidentally, that also was the last time Villanova made the Final Four.
That 2009 appearance was the university’s first appearance in the tournament semifinals since 1985, and New Orleans Pelicans forward Dante Cunningham was arguably the team’s best player in leading them to that point.
“It was amazing,” Cunningham told Basketball Insiders. “We go back to the university all the time and we get so much love for being that Final Four team.”
The Wildcats won the national championship in improbable fashion in 1971, but outside of that and a strong 1985 season, ‘Nova had a relatively rough stretch from the 1980s through right about the time Cunningham stepped aboard in 2006.
From 2000 to 2004, Villanova didn’t make the tournament at all, the university’s longest dry streak since the 1970s, but the arrival of Randy Foye and then later Cunningham really helped turn things around.
“It had been a long time since we had made a run like [the Final Four run in 2009], and I was as senior that year so I was a pretty large part of it,” Cunningham said. “When I was a freshman, there was Randy Foye running things, and that was when we made our first Elite 8 run. I was coming up then, probably the eighth, ninth man by then, but when we went to the Final Four I was at the head of the ship, running things.”
Cunningham recalls those days fondly, and it’s hard to blame him. Not only did he average 16.1 PPG that season, a six-point boost over his junior campaign, but he chipped in 7.5 rebounds per night and over a steal and a block per game. It should come as no surprise that he was named the Big East’s most improved player that season, and as the cherry on the sundae, his team beat both UCLA and Duke in the early rounds of that tournament, putting together an impressive run with a group of guys that Cunningham still reveres.
“I just remember how we came together and just never really had any beef with each other,” he said. “We went to class together, met up after class, it was always something. I really can’t remember many times from college where there weren’t eight or nine of us all together.”
Cunningham really came on his senior season, but choosing Villanova in the first place, right as they were starting to return to respectability, had just as much do with his budding independence as it did the team’s improving record.
“Generally speaking, it’s just a great organization,” he said. “I wanted to be in the Big East, partly because my sister was in the Big East, but it also was far enough from home where my mom couldn’t just show up and be at my door, but was close enough to make the trip there and back in a day when they wanted to.”
It was a decision made by a kid, which he no longer is, but he looks at this year’s crop of Villanova young players, now in the Elite 8, and hopes they realize the opportunity that’s in front of them.
“I hope they enjoy the moment,” he said. “It seems easy to get there, and at the time you feel like you can get back there every year, every time, but they have to act like this is it. You just don’t know when your last game is going to be.
“I’m happy for them, of course,” he continued. “It’s a great team they’ve got this year and they’re really playing together right now. Now, they just have to stay focused and finish the goal at hand.”
And he’ll be in their corner the whole way. Cunningham actually still heads back to campus whenever he can to help mentor some of the younger players, just like former Villanova great Kerry Kittles used to do when Cunningham was still in college.
“Once you’re a Wildcat, you’re always a Wildcat,” he said, “I still feel that way.”
He’ll feel even better about it if the 2016 Villanova Wildcats complete what could be a magical run through the NCAA tournament. So far, they look well on their way.
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