Cam Wynter (above, last season) was named the 2021 CAA Tournament Most Valuable Player. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
Two City Six teams are going to the NCAA tournament this week, but the journey to get there is vastly different.
Villanova, which captured the championship in 2016 and 2018, is making its 40th visit overall, including seven-straight seasons from 2013 to 2019 before the tournament was cancelled due to COVID last year, while Drexel is making its first NCAA tourney appearance in 25 years.
Villanova is the No. 5 seed in the South region and plays No. 12 seed Winthrop on Friday. The entire tournament will be held in the state of Indiana beginning Thursday.
“We are so excited to start this final portion of the season," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright on a Zoom call Sunday night. “We always talk about never taking this for granted, it is such an honor to play in the NCAA tournament, but this year, more than ever, just to be able to make it to this point, and know you have a chance to play in this great tournament, is an incredible accomplishment, and I wanted to make sure our guys understood that.”
Drexel, the No. 16 seed in the Midwest region, plays top-seeded Illinois in the first round also on Friday and also in the Indianapolis area at a time and a place to be determined.
Illinois (23-6) won the Big Ten Championship on Sunday afternoon against Ohio State. The Dragons (12-7) earned their historic bid by winning the Colonial Athletic Association Championship.
“Every challenge is an opportunity,” Drexel head coach Zach Spiker said. “It’s all about your mindset and what your outlook on life is and your perspective. We’ve got a group that I think is really excited, we haven’t been to the tournament in 25 years, now we’re in the tournament, and we have a very talented opponent.”
Although not from a Power Five conference, the Wildcats (16-6) face a talented Winthrop team that has lost just once in 24 games.
“This is a tough matchup, they are similar to Creighton, which has given us a lot of trouble,” Wright said. “They have a lot of 3-point shooters, they have great skill level, great offensive execution, play fast, a tough matchup for us.”
Over the years, the No.5 vs. No. 12 seeded game has been a trendy upset pick. But Villanova has been seeded No. 5 before in 2005 when it beat New Mexico and No. 4 seed Florida to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16.
“When you play in the NCAA tournament, you know you’re going to play a great team,” Wright said about the champions of the Big South Conference. “That is what you get in the NCAA tournament. I think I would be saying that about any team.”
Wright said it was a relief to get this far after facing the challenges of COVID.
“It really is a great sense of relief and a sense of accomplishment and there is a great sense of gratefulness that we have been able to get here,” said Wright, who was named a finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last week.
The Wildcats, who were the No. 1 seed in the Big East tournament, were knocked out by eventual tourney champion Georgetown 72-71 in the quarterfinals Thursday at Madison Square Garden. The loss ended a nine-game winning streak in their league tourney that began in the 2017 quarterfinals. The Wildcats won an unprecedented three-straight conference crowns from 2017-19 before last year’s tourney was cancelled.
“We’ve been explaining to the guys that a tough loss against Georgetown is not the end of the world, it’s not how you come back the next day,” Wright said, “and I’ve been pleased with our guys’ attitude.”
Nova remained in New York City at the hotel and practiced each of the last three days.
“We have stayed in the bubble,” Wright said.
The Wildcats, who will leave for Indiana on Monday, are making the familiar journey to the NCAA tournament, but without the usual cast of veteran players.
“I think we only have Jermaine Samuels, Brandon Slater and Cole Swider who played in the NCAA tournament, it is the first time for everyone else,” Wright said.
“It is one of the great experiences of your sporting career and your basketball career,” Wright said about his message to the young Cats. “To enjoy it and make sure you leave everything on the floor and don’t take it for granted, and don’t think you will be back next year.”
Of course, the Cats will be playing with out sensational senior point guard Collin Gillespie (Archbishop Wood), who suffered a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the first week of March against Creighton.
Sophomore Chris Arcidiacono made his first career start for the injured Big East Player of the Year, who averaged 14 points, 4.6 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (above, last season) leads the Wildcats in scoring, averaging 15.7 ppg. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Gillespie’s 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked second in the league, but more importantly, Nova won when he played. In 118 career games , Villanova has won 94 of them.
“We don’t have any excuses,” said Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who scored 26 against Georgetown, about playing without their floor leader against Winthrop. “We will be ready to go on Friday.”
Robinson-Earl, a 6-9 sophomore forward, was named a Sporting News Third Team All-American, will play in his first NCAA tournament.
“It’s an experience that every basketball player wants to be in,” said Robinson-Earl, who led the Wildcats in scoring at 15.2 points and rebounding at 8.4. “We are in a pandemic but I’m fired up to go out and play.
“Everything we have been doing all season has been leading up to this and the job is not finished yet, we are excited go get after it.”
Jermaine Samuels, a 6-7 senior forward, said he was grateful to have the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, which will have limited fans.
“A lot of us have sacrificed a lot, not seeing friends, not seeing family, but we all know it was for this opportunity right here and we’re going to try and make the most of it,” said Samuels, a Big East honorable mention selection after averaging 11.8 points and 6.3 rebounds.
“They are a great team,” Samuels added,” it should be interesting.”
Drexel is facing a truly great team in the Fighting Illini, perhaps the hottest team in the country the last few weeks.
“Certainly every prognostication and prediction had us in the 15 area, some 14, so it was a surprise, but I don’t think it’s anything,” Spiker said about the seeding. “If you’re in that category, 14-15-16, you never know what the reasoning is and how it can happen, but listen, if you’re a 14-15-16 you’re going to have to play a near-perfect game anyway, I think we all know that. It’s the opportunity to be in the NCAA Tournament, we need to play well and it doesn’t change whether we’re a 14, 15, or 16 seed.
“We’re going to play the Big Ten champions, and they’re going to play the Colonial champions. We’ll see what happens.”
On Tuesday night, the Dragons held onto a 63-56 win over Elon for the coveted CAA title and book their first trip to the NCAA tournament in a quarter of a century.
“We just, we’re happy to be here, wherever they placed us is where they placed us,” said Drexel junior guard Camren Wynter, the CAA tourney MVP. “ I don’t think we’re worried about the seeding, at this point any game’s going to be a difficult game. We’re just going to go in there and play as hard as we can.”
Wynter, an All-CAA guard, said the most surreal moment so far wasn’t seeing Drexel’s name flash on Selection Sunday.
“I think as the buzzer sounded in the championship game, we all ran out there on the court, everyone was jumping up and down and it was incredibly exciting and it really set in, what we just accomplished, it’s been a dream of mine since i was a kid. It was very unreal
“I’m still a bit on Cloud 9 from it.”
In 1996, Malik Rose led the Drexel to its only NCAA tournament win with a first round victory over Memphis before losing to Syracuse in the second round.
No matter the outcome against Illinois, Drexel is dancing again.
“Extremely excited, it’s an opportunity of a lifetime, getting to the big dance,” said James Butler, a 6-8 forward. “In Illinois we get a touch matchup, but that’s what March is made for, a lot of crazy moments happen in March and we’re looking to be part of that.”