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Wildcats no longer need to take a backseat

The Wildcats run through a unique dribbling drill in preparation for their game with Duke. The Wildcats run through a unique dribbling drill in preparation for their game with Duke. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / March 26, 2009
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Back in November, New York-based advertising agency Anomaly was working on a funny - if offensive - campaign for ESPN's college basketball coverage.

The idea was to have students representing different schools working at an ESPN call center, and trying to get people to watch college basketball.

The "joke" was the caricatures they would cast of the "typical" students from those schools.

So, say, a Texas girl, according to a leaked memo, would be "straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog." A guy from Kansas would be "straight off the farm." And the girl from Tennessee would be so Orange crazy that "the ice tray in her orange fridge freezes the water she dyes orange."

The bit was killed as soon as the memo leaked.

But there were a couple of descriptions that may - in some ways - have been a little fitting.

The Duke student was "a smart, with it, young white male. He's handsome. He's from money. He is, in short, the kind of guy everyone can't stand. He is the kind of guy everyone wants to be."

"Villanova," the memo read, "is the poor man's Duke - he's not quite as handsome, he's not quite as rich, he's not quite as dapper. After two or three beers, though, who cares? As he's friendly enough."

Asked if being called a poor man's Duke was an insult or compliment, Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright had to take his time thinking about it.

"Good question," he said. "We don't mind being blue-collar guys, so we'll take that. And we have respect for Duke, so if we're a blue-collar version of Duke, we'll take it."

Their styles are similar, the schools are similar, and two wins from the Final Four in Detroit, their goals are similar. The teams meet tonight in the East Regional semifinals at TD Banknorth Garden, and the consensus is they were practically separated at birth. For additional symmetry, they've both won five of their last six.

Their players know each other from AAU circuits and high school ball. Their coaches find themselves fighting over the same recruits. ("They come into the Northeast and do very well, unfortunately," Wright said.) And they ooze mutual respect.

"I think all of us, coaches and players, have watched Duke over the years, we have great respect for them," Wright said. "We love how their team plays. We obviously love a lot of their players because we recruited a lot of them and didn't get any of them."

No one in the Villanova locker room shies away from the idea that the Wildcats could essentially be Duke light.

"I definitely think that's true," said senior forward Dwayne Anderson. "Coach Wright, he has a certain philosophy - that's play hard - and Coach [Mike] Krzyzewski, they take the same approach. We have guards, they have guards. They also have guys that can score down low. So we're kind of similar in many ways."

Krzyzewski won't deny the similarities, pointing at the way the teams use their personnel. Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Gerald Henderson, Nolan Smith, and Elliot Williams have essentially fluid roles, with the only ground rule being to defend. With no true low-post player, Wright allows Scottie Reynolds, Reggie Redding, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, Anderson, and Shane Clark to operate the same way.

"I don't think we planned it this way," Wright said. "I think we'd all love to have a major low-post presence and a shot-blocker. But if you don't, you've got to find a way to play.

"I think both of us are playing the best players, and that can be difficult to play against."

Duke and Villanova aren't quite Xerox copies. They're more chiral. (Think left hand, right hand).

Duke has the history. The name recognition. The mystique. The three national titles. The 14 Final Four trips. It has the clout.

Krzyzewski explained in six words how Duke convinced Henderson to pick the Blue Devils over the Wildcats: "It's what a national school does."

Villanova has the recent success. The four Sweet 16s in the last five years. The rising star of a head coach and the overflow of recruiting talent. But its last national title came in 1985.

Krzyzewski's been around long enough to recall it.

"I think Villanova is one of the great schools in the history of college basketball," he said. "It's one of the outstanding programs."

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