What has been surprising is how quickly the fall came after the Wildcats won 20 of their first 21 games and climbed to No. 2 in the national rankings. Since then, beginning with a Feb. 6 game at Georgetown, Villanova has lost six of 10 games.
During the regular season, Wright attributed it to a tough back end of the schedule. Yesterday, he said the Wildcats had improved after three good practices, but ran into a hot-shooting Marquette team that was just a little better.
Where the line between rational analysis and rationalization lies depends on your point of view. The players are still saying the correct things despite the recent losses. Wright continues to accentuate the positive. Nevertheless . . .
"Early on when we were winning a lot of games, we were making mistakes and making up for it by outscoring people," Wright said after yesterday's loss. "I told them we were going to be playing better teams and weren't going to be able to do that. But if we took what people were saying about us then, then we have to take the hits now. Publicly, we deserve the hits now, but internally we're OK, because we understand we're getting better."
The progress may not pay its real dividends until the 2010-11 season, which will be fine for the younger players but won't do much for seniors Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding, who are dreading the final goodbye.
"As a competitor, you don't want to lose. Anybody who knows me knows I would give a leg to win," Reynolds said. "But as a leader, you've got to look at the bigger picture and that's we're continuing to get better."
The greatest improvement is still needed at the defensive end of the floor. Villanova led the Big East in scoring offense this season but was 14th of 16 teams in scoring defense. Yesterday, coming out of a 30-30 halftime score, the Wildcats allowed just their fourth 50-point half of the season. Marquette shot 65 percent from the floor in the second half, and was a perfect 6 for 6 on three-pointers. The Golden Eagles are good, but they didn't have to be that good.
Trying to hold the game together, Wright went with experience and didn't have a single first-year player on the floor in the final seven minutes of the game. Every player out there was part of last season's great run, but without the inside defense that truly made that team great.
So, they scrambled and clawed, as they always do, and tied the score at 70 with just over two minutes to play. Then someone missed a rotation and they lost track of Marquette's leading scorer, Lazar Hayward, a significant oversight, and he made a three-pointer and the game headed to the foul line.
"It was a tough one," Reynolds said, "but we have to continue to stay together. Whether we win or lose, we do the same thing. We go back and look at the film and try to get better, try to turn the negatives into positives."
They have about a week of practice before the next game and each of the Wildcats appears to believe the gospel Wright is preaching. If they keep working, good things can happen. If they are still in it, they can still win it.
That's true as far as it goes, although the Wildcats have gone from being a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament to a 2 seed, and, now might have even put their standing as a 3 seed in jeopardy. Their body of work is still impressive, but six losses in 10 games is hard to ignore.
"Whether people want to believe it or not, we are playing better now than when we were No. 2 in the country," Reynolds said. "But we're not perfect. We are going to make mistakes."
Up until now, the mistakes could always be fixed with time, but time is exactly what the Wildcats are suddenly lacking.
"We'll try to make this a positive as best as possible," Wright said yesterday. He's good at that and the words will be the sincere. Whether they can be louder than a month of box scores is the real question.
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