Jay Wright says Villanova wasn't that worried about getting a tournament bid

Villanova coach Jay Wright (second from left) with team captains (from left) Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher, and Antonio Pena.
Villanova coach Jay Wright (second from left) with team captains (from left) Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher, and Antonio Pena.
Posted: March 14, 2011

The more Jay Wright watched television in the days after Villanova's stunning 70-69 loss to South Florida in the Big East tournament, the better he felt about the Wildcats' chances of advancing to the NCAA tourney for the seventh consecutive year.

And when Wright and his players watched Villanova come up as the fifth team on the 68-team bracket during the televised selection show, he felt better still.

Despite a five-game losing streak, the 11/2-point underdog Wildcats drew a No. 9 seed in the East Region and will meet eighth-seeded George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association on Friday at 2:10 p.m. in Cleveland. It will be televised on TNT.

Wright said he had read the latest reports from ESPN.com bracketologist (and St. Joseph's official) Joe Lunardi over the weekend, and that gave him "a good feel. . . . We weren't that worried." It was a change from the day after the South Florida loss, when the Wildcats blew a 16-point halftime lead and observers felt they didn't deserve to get in.

"People might have thought that," he said. "When we lost the South Florida game, we were a hot topic of conversation. But a couple of days after that, when all the other things started going on, I think people started realizing, look at [Villanova's] resume. There's more interesting things to talk about. These guys are in. The last couple of days, they stopped talking about us."

The Wildcats, who started the season 16-1, enter the tournament with a 21-11 record that includes seven losses in their last nine games. The Patriots won 16 consecutive games before losing to Virginia Commonwealth in the semifinals of the CAA tournament, and go in at 26-6.

Villanova players had little doubt they were in.

"I wasn't worried about not making the tournament," senior guard Corey Stokes said, adding that he, Antonio Pena, Corey Fisher "and the rest of the guys, we were confident we were going to make it. We just were waiting to see who we would play."

The Wildcats aren't as low a seed as they were thought to be a few days ago, but they're a lower seed than they were in mid-January when they were breezing along looking at a No. 2 or 3. Wright initially used the word "underdog" to describe his team at No. 9, but then backtracked.

" 'Underdog' probably is not a good term for us," he said. "But it's almost like we have to prove ourselves. I think that's how people look at us - where in the past, for the last few years, there's no proving yourself.

"You get a high seed, you're supposed to be in the Final Four, the final eight. Those first-round games were different. Everybody expected you to win. There's a lot of people that will expect us to fail and I can't blame them. But we've had good practices, guys are healthy, and we feel good."

Stokes, who missed four games this season with injuries to his toe and hamstring, said he was 100 percent. Fisher, who has suffered from tendinitis in his right knee, has been practicing.

Wright said center Mouphtaou Yarou, who bruised his ribs, his right shoulder, and his right wrist in a first-half fall against South Florida, was going almost full-speed at Sunday's practice, and the coach expected him to be 100 percent for Friday.

George Mason, which struck a blow for mid-majors by reaching the Final Four in 2006, has played Villanova in two of the last four years. The Wildcats won, 84-76, in 2008 in Orlando and again, 69-68, last season in Puerto Rico, where then-freshman Isaiah Armwood hit the game-winner on the first three-point shot of his college career.

Wright said the Patriots like to create mismatches with a smaller lineup, "being undersized in the post but yet still able to be effective and drawing fouls and scoring in the post. There's a mismatch at every position. That was a problem for us in that game."

Whether they are an underdog or a dangerous team that had underachieved lately, the Wildcats seek to regain their confidence and their midseason form going into the NCAAs. They are planning to treat this as they did in 2008 (Sweet 16) and 2009 (Final Four).

"The five straight losses are over with," Fisher said. "That happened in the past. Now we're in the tournament and we're going to take it game by game. Our next game is George Mason and we're going to prepare ourselves to win a basketball game. We've moved on from last week."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.


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