Who could have seen Villanova's slide coming?

Posted: March 02, 2011

I WISH I KNEW what has happened to Villanova in the last month. I, like everyone else, have some thoughts on the matter, though.

I don't think it's lack of focus, as one of my friends has suggested. I still don't think the Wildcats are a bad team. They're just not playing well at the wrong time.

Everybody wants a reason, when the bottom line might be that they're simply not good enough, at least not at the level of success they have become accustomed to.

And the way the 'Cats hit the wall at the end of last season - which I attribute largely to the fact that Scottie Reynolds had put so much into getting them to that point that he had little left to give - only makes people see a pattern is developing. Pardon me, but didn't they go to the Final Four 2 years ago? Oops, almost forgot. And did Notre Dame really just make another three?

I don't think it's necessarily the schedule's fault, although they have lost to four consecutive ranked opponents. But when you look at the overall, the Wildcats will have played 12 Big East teams once. Four of those are among the five conference teams that won't be in the NCAA Tournament. They played all four of them on the road, which is what you want to do. You'd rather play the better teams at your place. They also played Rutgers, the other team that won't make the Madness, home-and-home. Of those five away games against the bottom of the conference, they lost two and nearly dropped two others. Not good.

Of the eight games they had against teams that will be in the tourney, only Connecticut and Notre Dame were on the road. They lost both. But they got Cincinnati, Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette, West Virginia and St. John's in Philly. Not a bad luck of the draw. They went 4-2 in those games.

In addition to Rutgers, they also got Pittsburgh and Syracuse twice. All things considered, it could have been a lot more treacherous. That's one of the reasons I figured the Wildcats would go 12-6. I had them losing one they probably shouldn't, just because. I gave them a split with Syracuse and Pitt. Maybe that was being too optimistic, but hey, they were picked to finish second.

I never thought this was a Final Four kind of team, because that's hard to do. But I did think it was a Sweet 16 kind of group. The loss to Rutgers was obviously one of those things that happens once every decade or so. But this was the year. The UConn game could have gone either way. Ditto Georgetown. They caught Louisville at the right time. I didn't see St. John's being this good.

That's why they call them projections. And that's why so many of them go wrong. But people only care when it's their team that goes the wrong way.

These guys haven't gotten better in the last month. If you don't improve as you go along in that league, you get passed. So now they lack confidence. And it shows.

People ask why they play so much through their guards. Nobody was asking that when they made the Final Eight in 2006, or when Reynolds was doing his thing for 4 years. But the minute things go wrong, their style looks bad. I get that. But when they do try to go inside, what happens? Mouphtaou Yarou has bad hands and a limited offensive game. Isiah Armwood has even less skill with the ball. And Antonio Pena is more dangerous from midrange. That doesn't leave too many options. When you pass it in and come up empty on three or four trips, eventually you're not going to pass it down there anymore. Funny how that works.

Villanova's best finishers are its two guards, Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns. Unfortunately, they don't get nearly enough transition opportunities. And when you try to get to the basket in a set offense, there can be issues. Corey Stokes is the main outside threat. Everyone knows that, including the opposition, who's trying, too.

And when you're constantly playing from behind, as they have been recently, it hardly makes this stuff any easier. Plus, the bench isn't exactly loaded with options. A healthy James Bell and an eligible JayVaughn Pinkston might have helped, but we'll never know. And other teams have dealt with losses as well.

When Fisher, Stokes and Wayns all play well together, what you get is an 11-point win at Syracuse when the Orange was still a Top-5 team.

But how many times has that happened? Not nearly enough.

Could it happen in the NCAAs? Hey, anything is possible.

But the Wildcats have put themselves in a bad position. And the time to get at least some of this fixed is quickly running out. I'm sure Jay Wright will get criticized. And that's certainly fair, just as it was fair when he got the credit for the various runs of postseasons past. He set the bar high. That's what every program aspires to. Except when the ride doesn't play out as anticipated. Then it becomes a burden.

You become a national brand, there are consequences. Both ways. Anyone can deal with the good times. It's the flip side of that fine line that leaves everyone scratching their heads.

But as near as I can tell, Wright didn't forget how to coach since that magical journey to Motown.

Send e-mail to kernm@phillynews.com

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