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The Dante Cunningham Excellence in Basketball thread


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PHILADELPHIA - Villanova senior forward Dante Cunningham no longer is a role player.

He has blossomed into the Wildcats' most complete, consistent player during what is becoming a special season. Cunningham ripped off 31 points on 12-of-15 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds yesterday as the 16th-ranked Wildcats (19-4, 7-3 Big East) raced to a 102-85 victory over No. 20 Syracuse (18-6, 6-5) at the Wachovia Center.

Villanova won its fifth straight in conference play, putting itself into position to make a run at a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

With his confidence soaring, Cunningham is in position to follow in the footsteps of Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry and Allan Ray, who all made NBA rosters following a 28-win season in 2006 that saw the Wildcats make the Elite Eight.

The 6-8, 230-pound Cunningham never got the credit he deserved for that magical run, doing all the little things up front for a team that switched to a four-guard offense when forward Curtis Sumpter suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preaseason.

But he is opening eyes now.

"Every year I've tried to add new and more things to my offensive game," Cunningham said. "I saw all the things Randy and Allan did to lead the team. When they were seniors, they did all the little things. That's what I'm trying to do now."

Cunningham's ability to make mid-range jumpers has been particularly impressive on a streaking team that is playing more efficiently than it did three years ago.

"As great as that 2006 team was, we have everything you need - the great guards, the great 3-point shooters, the great wing men who can cut the the rim," Cunningham said. "This was a season I was definitely looking forward to. This was my last year. All the seniors, we look at each other and we say, 'This is it. We've got to make our push, got to leave our mark at Villanova.'"

Villanova coach Jay Wright has maxed out the talent on this team. The 'Cats, who got 16 points and eight rebounds from sophomore wing man Corey Stokes and put five players in double figures, dissecting the 'Cuse's normally sticky zone with 54.5% shooting, are versatile at all five positions. They have become very good at making the second and third pass and making shots from various spots on the floor. They crash the boards, play aggressive perimeter defense and have two point guards - Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher - who both can make plays off dribble penetration.

There was a time when Villanova's success was heavily predicated on Reynolds having a big scoring game. But Cunningham, Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark, Fisher and Stokes all have shown they can score in double figures and pick up the slack when Reynolds struggles.

Reynolds shot just 3-for-11 against the Orange. But the 'Cats never stopped rolling against a team that has traditionally caused Villanova problems, scoring 53 points in the first half and eclipsing 100 points for the first time since they got 102 against Notre Dame two years ago. They simply had too much quickness for the 'Cuse, compiling 23 assists on 36 baskets.

"We can't play man-to-man against this Villanova team," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim confessed.

Cunningham, who also scored 31 points against Fordham and has scored in double figures in 20 of 22 games, came to Villanova from Silver Springs, Md. He was the D.C. Metropolitan Player of the Year after leading Potomac, Md., High to a perfect 27-0 record and a state championship.

Cunningham, who chose Villanova over Maryland and Georgetown, comes from a military family. Both his parents are 30-year retired Air Force veterans. "When he came, we thought we were getting a general," Wright said. "We got more of a soldier."

Cunningham in previous seasons concentrated on defense and rebounding - things he knew would get him on the floor. He spent last summer working in the weight room and put the time in to polish his perimeter game, constantly watching tapes of his shot. He has blossomed, becoming one of the most pleasant surprises and improved players in the Big East.

I'm starting to hear NBA rumblings about Dante Cunningham. I'm personally not convinced that his stock is high enough to be drafted, but I would be surprised if he didn't get a look as an UDFA.


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