On Friday, this was Upset City; today, it’s the City of Brotherly Love.
At least until the 12:10 p.m. opening tipoff.
The city is still buzzing over the remarkable string of upsets that occurred on Friday, including No. 13 Siena’s 83-62 dismantling of No. 4 Vanderbilt, the only game of the four that wasn’t close.
Now the Saints (23-10) have a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 in Detroit out of the Midwest Region, but they’ll have to get past a relentless opponent from Philadelphia, No. 12 Villanova (21-12), which has created a tangled web of storylines.
Siena head coach Fran McCaffery is all Philadelphia, having grown up there and graduated from a Big Five school, the University of Pennsylvania.
Assistant coach Mitch Buonaguro was a Villanova assistant to Rollie Massimino for eight years, including 1985, when the Wildcats upset Georgetown for the national championship.
Assistant Andrew Francis was an assistant under Jay Wright at Villanova for the last three years.
Siena point guard Ronald Moore is from Philadelphia, although he wasn’t recruited by any of the Big Five schools because he was too small.
The Siena assistants couldn’t help but marvel at the possibilities when they first saw the brackets on Selection Sunday.
“I was excited for them, then when I saw our name pop up, I thought, wow, it couldn’t be real,” Francis said. “I turned to Mitch and just shook my head and said, ‘Mitch, how about that?’ We just laughed.”
“You sometimes say to yourself, how does this even happen? But it happens,” Buonaguro said.
“It’s really surreal, it really is,” Wright said.
Here they are, though, in the first of two games pitting a 12 seed against a 13 at the St. Pete Times Forum, an incredibly improbable double-header left by the wreckage of four big upsets, including two that went into overtime. Western Kentucky and San Diego from the West Region will play after the Siena-Villanova game.
The Saints are counting on some inside knowledge from Francis, a New York City native who played for Fulton-Montgomery Community College. He worked closely with most of the Villanova players and knows how the team likes to play. That still might not be enough against a tough Big East opponent that is making its 29th NCAA tournament appearance and rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat
No. 5 Clemson on Friday.
The Saints will take any edge they can get, though, as they attempt to make school history by reaching the round of 16 for the first time.
“I understand the plays, because I was a large part of what they were doing, but Coach Wright is a great coach, and I know he makes a lot of adjustments every year and tries to maximize what he has in terms of personnel,” Francis said.
“The bond with Philly coaches is very unique,” McCaffery said. “Considering for a very long time in the Big Five we all tried to beat each other, but there is a tremendous respect there.
“The connections just never end.”
Massimino watched Villanova’s game on Friday, and will be back for this one.
The coaches are already anxious about the outcome and its ramifications.
“It’ll be tough, because Jay’s a good friend,” Buonaguro said. “We’ll try to compete like any other game, then there’ll be congratulation and best wishes. I think the feeling will be you’re playing a friend, and it’s tough.
“He’ll [Massimino] be in the middle, I think, because he likes me and Jay and Fran.”
“It’s going to be bittersweet, either way,” Francis said. “I never want to wish anything bad on Coach Wright and the Villanova family, so it’s tougher than people think, because you really care about those guys and the program. But I love the guys in our locker room and care about where our program is going, so it’s not going to be easy either way.”
“It’s almost too comfortable being around everybody, and you know you’ve got to battle tomorrow,” Wright said.
Villanova presents a profoundly different matchup for Siena than Vanderbilt did.
The Wildcats aren’t as tall, and resemble the Saints insofar as they’re guard-oriented and like to drive on defenses to explore shot opportunities.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of the Wildcats is that they don’t panic.
Besides the comeback against Clemson, Villanova was able to beat LSU early in the season on the final shot after being down by 21.
“We saw the comeback,” Siena center Josh Duell said. “We know what they’re capable of doing. You can’t relax with this team. It’s important if we get a lead to try and hold it and continue to focus on our game plan.”
“If the threes aren’t falling, they still defend, they still rebound and they still compete,” McCaffery said. “As they got closer and closer to even, I think it was evident to the Clemson players what kind of fight they were in. I kind of looked at it like, as soon as Villanova took the lead, that was it. They weren’t going to lose.”
Even if Villanova proves to be a more difficult assignment than Vanderbilt, the Siena players are flying high with confidence.
They believed they belonged in this tournament, and that was only reinforced by the impressive win over the Commodores, who were never really in the game.
“We went into that game not thinking we were an underdog,” Moore said. “We felt that we were better than Vanderbilt, and we played like we are better than Vanderbilt.”
“I knew we were going to get the lead on them,” said junior guard Kenny Hasbrouck, who scored 30 points. “The whole night, I was thinking I don’t know how we’re not going to be better than this team. I just knew how focused and concentrated everybody was.”
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