For Villanova, Fisher, it's not how you start but how you finish

Corey Fisher has struggled with kneetendinitis but says now he has 'my bounce to my step back.'
Corey Fisher has struggled with kneetendinitis but says now he has 'my bounce to my step back.'
Posted: March 16, 2011

AS YOU ENTER the Davis Center, the practice facility for Villanova basketball, there's a video running on the lobby wall beneath these words: "To play for those who came before you." And there's a part where guard Corey Fisher, one of three senior starters, identifies many of the Wildcat greats whose pictures line one of the hallways. When he's completed the rundown he says, "One day I hope to be there."

He came to the Main Line as a high school All-America from North Jersey, in the same class that also brought Corey Stokes, another big-time backcourt player from that area, and Antonio Pena, a power forward out of Brooklyn by way of a Connecticut prep school.

The expectations were obviously high. As freshmen they came off the bench for a team that made an improbable run to the Sweet 16. As sophomores they were reserves on a Final Four squad. Last season they started for a group that started off 20-1 before fading late. This season they were picked to finish second in the Big East. They started 16-1. Now, they're a 21-11 team heading into the NCAA Tournament as a 9 seed, having lost five straight.

Not the way many envisioned it unfolding. And Fisher, who has played down the stretch with tendinitis in his right knee, is the one who gets singled out most for all the stuff that's gone wrong. Despite the fact that he made second-team all-conference and averages a team-high 15.4 points a game, slightly more than Stokes, and also tops the Wildcats in assists and steals.

But the 6-1 Bronx native has had his moments both ways. And he's viewed as the face of the program, the role that Scottie Reynolds filled for so long. It's not without its burdens. Still, it's part of a package deal.

"If you're a Villanova guard, you follow this tradition, you get a lot of attention," said coach Jay Wright, whose club has drawn George Mason (26-6), the Colonial Athletic Assocation regular-season champion, in a second-round East Regional matchup on Friday afternoon in Cleveland. "What comes with that is, if you're perceived to not deliver, then you've got to take the heat. I think [it's like that] for all of us here.

"I feel bad for him, that this senior season has gone the way it has. That's what I'm so proud of, from all three of them. It's what we talk about behind closed doors, how they've kept this together. We've never had any problems. The young guys have learned a lot from how they've handled it.

"Fish hasn't blamed anything on anybody. He hasn't made any excuses. He brings it every day. His focus has been on the team. He never comes out and tries to get his. Would I like our team to be playing better? They're responsible for that, too . . .

"I see him at the end of games sometimes, I see him hobbling, for lack of a better term," he continued. "I took him out at the end of the South Florida game [in the Big East Tournament]. I told the team I probably made a mistake. We wanted to try and get a live body in there. But him hobbled might have been better than [Dominick] Cheek having to guard a point guard [on the decisive play], healthy, in his sophomore year."

That was 8 days ago. Fisher claims to be as healthy as he's been in a while and pronounced himself raring to go. He's aware of the critics, despite the 1,652 career points. It's rarely been about what he's done, but what he hasn't. There were those who felt the same way about Reynolds, a first-team All-America as a senior. Somehow it's never quite enough.

"There are people on the outside who want us to win every game, because of how we started," Fisher said. "That's basketball. We're playing in the best league in the country. There's nothing I would do different. I know Stokes wouldn't, and neither would Tone. We've got another opportunity to play Friday. We've got to go from there.

"[The knee] was bothering me. I never had that problem, then it hit me [about a month ago]. The days off helped a lot. I got my bounce to my step back. I think Friday will show me being back, and the team being back. I love having somebody doubt us, and doubt [me]. We lost some tough games, but that's over with. It's a new tournament. The team's going to go as [the seniors] go.

"You can't worry about all the negatives, what people are saying. We're thinking about what's next. We're still playing."

Indeed they are. Yet reality would suggest that it may be a short run. Even if they survive this projected coin flip, they likely would have to face top-seed Ohio State on Sunday. But 3 years ago, after sneaking in as a 12, they advanced twice before being eliminated by top-seeded Kansas, the eventual champ.

Whatever happens, at some point it finally will be time to say goodbye. Last March, Fisher sat in the locker next to a teary-eyed Reynolds after a second-round loss to 10th-seed St. Mary's. He cried, too. And Reynolds told him it was now his turn to take the reins.

"It meant a lot, coming from him," Fisher said. "He's one of the best to ever play for Villanova. Last year was real tough. That's when it hit me. I've talked to him. I'm a competitor. I want to win. It's what we came here for."

Even though the rewards come with enormous risk.

"You can't run away from it," he said. "That's a good thing. I always wanted to go somewhere . . . [for] the challenge. We all talked about it. It's not hard [to deal with]. We're the ones out there playing. If we lose games it's on us, as a team. Not one individual. We can't control that. You just try to do the best you can.

"Everybody has an opinion. I know we've had a great 4 years. I think I did [my part]. It would mean a lot to win some more games. When you win, everybody's back on your side. That's how things go."

And smooth often has little to do with it. How's that for a legacy?

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