Time is running out for slumping Villanova to right the ship

Posted: March 03, 2011

Blame the schedule. Or the injuries. Or the effort. Or the coach. All are fair game given Villanova's monthlong slide.

After being ranked in the top 10 for nine of the first 12 weeks of the college basketball season, the Wildcats endured a brutal February that probably cost them at least a first-round bye in the Big East tournament and a high seed in the NCAA tournament. It also might have cost them their confidence and their psyche, which would cost them any chance of advancing deep in either tournament.

"I think they're really fragile," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Wednesday after watching Villanova a couple of times recently, including Monday night when Notre Dame ran the Wildcats out of their gym. "They've been punched in the mouth. You don't want one loss to turn into two or three or four. That's happened."

There are many reasons 19th-ranked Villanova has lost three straight games and five of its last seven. The Wildcats probably were not as good as their early 16-1 record indicated. As in past seasons, they have relied heavily on three guards for the bulk of their scoring, and when those three - Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher, and Maalik Wayns - don't play well on the same night, Villanova struggles.

The big men have not developed into reliable scorers or defenders. Stokes missed three games with turf toe. Playing with a bruised thigh and a nagging knee injury, Fisher went through a cold spell. Depth, overall, is not there.

This team apparently has great chemistry off the court but has not developed it on the court, something coach Jay Wright acknowledges is his fault. While he would not characterize his team as "fragile," Wright said he and his staff have spent a lot of time working on keeping the players' confidence up.

Everyone is frustrated. Losing has not been easy to take. Not a one-point loss to Rutgers on Feb. 9. Not the 21-point beat-down by Notre Dame on national television.

"Our seniors are devastated, and our sophomores are in shock after every game," Wright said Wednesday. "The seniors know this can happen, but they can't believe this is happening to them in their senior year. The sophomores don't know it can happen, and they're in shock.

"Our challenge as a staff is to make sure that they don't get so down on themselves that we're not continuing to get better every day and we're not going into each game with a great attitude and excitement about playing."

Still, there is more to it. As Bilas sees it, Villanova's best lineup is its smallest, with the three guards on the court. But the Wildcats have not been attacking enough, pushing the tempo, or creating enough scoring opportunities in transition.

There is the equally big issue of leadership. While Wright maintains that his seniors are keeping the team together, Bilas says the Wildcats lack that one guy, like a Dante Cunningham or Kyle Lowry, who will demand everyone play hard.

"They've got a lot of Robins and not a lot of Batmans," Bilas said.

Yes, the schedule has been brutal. Villanova's last three games have been against teams ranked in the top 25. Saturday will not be any easier, when the Wildcats end the regular season at No. 4 Pittsburgh. That is life in the Big East.

Yes, injuries have been a problem. Fisher had an MRI exam of his knee Wednesday afternoon to confirm he had only tendinitis and to soothe his psyche.

But the Wildcats must play better perimeter defense if they are going to make a postseason run. They must rediscover the fire and intensity they had earlier in the season, when they weren't getting beat for loose balls or rebounds. They also must hang tough early, because for too long they have been playing from behind, and the climb back up has been steep.

There is time to save the season, but not much.

"Playing with nothing to lose sometimes can be a nice thing," Bilas said. "I'm not recommending it, but it's not the end of the world."

No, it is not, but after the success Wright has had and the expectations he has created, another early NCAA tournament flameout would be the end of the world for some Villanova fans. Last season's team also lost five of its last seven games, including to 10th-seeded St. Mary's in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

This team is not that team, Wright said. It has better chemistry, a more consistent rotation, and better-defined roles. At this point, this team is playing better than that team was, Wright said. They are just a little off.

If they are off much longer, Wright knows the blame will fall squarely on his shoulders. The schedule, injuries, or effort will not matter.

"I understand how it looks," Wright said. "I understand that I might take some hits because of that. But in the same way when we were doing well and everybody was saying how great we were, I knew that that wasn't true. I knew we were a couple incidents away from what we're going through right now.

"I hear [the criticism], but it doesn't bother me. It just makes me more committed to us trying to do things the way we do them."

Villanova has at least three more games to figure it out. It is not over, but time is not on the Wildcats' side.


Ashley Fox: February Swoon

Here is a look at some numbers that made a difference in Villanova's five costly losses last month:

Feb. 9: Rutgers 77, Villanova 76

Second-half three-pointers: Villanova, 5-9, 55.6 percent; Rutgers, 7-11, 63.6 percent.

Second-half free throws: Villanova, 12-19, 63.2 percent; Rutgers, 10-15, 66.7 percent.

Feb. 12: Pitt 57, Villanova 54

Second-half field goals: Villanova, 8-24, 33.3 percent; Pitt, 9-18, 50.0 percent.

Total free throws: Villanova, 15-20, 75.0 percent; Pitt, 20-30, 66.7 percent.

Feb. 21: Syracuse, 69, Villanova 64

First-half field goals: Villanova, 8-33, 24.2 percent; Syracuse, 13-29, 44.8 percent.

Total three-pointers: Villanova, 5-26, 19.2 percent; Syracuse, 4-15, 26.7 percent.

Feb. 26: St. John's 81, Villanova 68

Total free throws: Villanova, 15-23, 65.2 percent; St.John's, 23-33, 69.7 percent.

First-half three-pointers: Villanova, 5-15, 33.3 percent; St. John's, 8-18, 44.4 percent.

Feb 28: Notre Dame 93, Villanova 72

First-half field goals: Villanova, 10-28, 35.7 percent; Notre Dame, 16-30, 53.3 percent.

Second-half free throws: Villanova, 0-1, 0 percent; Notre Dame, 11-14, 78.6 percent.


Contact columnist Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AshleyMFox.

 

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