As Wright coaches, the Wildcats are listening

Posted: March 16, 2011

Jay Wright is coaching. His players are on the Pavilion court, stretching and chanting and preparing for practice. Wright is off to the side, talking to a cluster of reporters.

But he is coaching. He was coaching when he did a phone interview with Mike Francesa on WFAN-AM a few minutes earlier, praising his seniors on the loudest station in their native New York market, and he is coaching now. He was coaching when he addressed his team, is coaching whenever he talks to his players informally as individuals, and he'll be coaching nonstop until the final buzzer sounds on Villanova's season.

Whenever that is.

It is times like these - five-game losing streaks, embarrassing conference tournament defeats - that really tell about a coach, about a program. We've all seen Wright shine during the bright moments that have distinguished Villanova basketball these last few years. Through deep NCAA tournament runs, he has been humble and gracious with the public and the right mix of firm and empathetic with his players.

So it was telling Tuesday afternoon, as his team prepared for a season-defining first-round game against George Mason in Cleveland on Friday. Wright talked about his three seniors - Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, Antonio Pena - with the same warmth and pride as he would talk about Randy Foye and Curtis Sumpter and Dante Cunningham at the end of their time here.

"I'm so proud of these three," Wright said. "I'm so looking forward to be going into the tournament with these three. They've had great careers. I just expect them to come up big. I really do."

Reporters captured his words with digital recorders and minicams. But they were really for Fisher, for Stokes, for Pena - and for the rest of the team, as well.

Coaching. It's all coaching. This Villanova team has been through a brutal stretch here. Its confidence appears to be as long gone as Kerry Kittles. These players need reconnection to that feeling they came to Villanova to experience, which they did get to experience for most of their time here.

"We've won a lot of games," Fisher said, and you could almost hear the words in Wright's voice. This is the mantra. These seniors aren't defined by a few bad, injury-tainted losses. They are a class that went to the Sweet 16 as freshmen and to the Final Four as sophomores. Their careers are already successful, so why not go out and continue that against George Mason?

"Coming to Villanova was a challenge," Fisher said. "Villanova was always good, playing in the best league in the country. Me, Stokes and Tone - that's what we came here for."

In great programs, each class steps into the void left by the graduating class before it. Batons are passed, roles assumed, leadership embraced. Each class wants its senior year to be a step forward, wants to give the underclassmen a standard to shoot for.

Sometimes there are off years. This has become one of them for Villanova.

Fisher noted that "the team that went to the Final Four lost six games in a row and then made a run in the tournament." Actually, it was the 2007-08 Sweet 16 team - but you suspect he borrowed this idea from his coach, as well. It is more important to Wright that his players get the spirit of his message. The facts aren't really the issue.

"Coach says and our players know, if we're out there losing games, it's on us," Fisher said. "It's on the team. It's not on one individual. We control how we play. That's all we can control."

Wright said this group hasn't given a poor effort in any game or even a single practice. There have been some injuries and some bad breaks, but no feeling sorry for themselves.

"I'm so proud of these three," Wright said. "I'm so proud of how they've kept this team together. None of them have made excuses. We've never had a bad practice. We've never had any problems. They've kept this together. The younger guys have learned a lot from how the older guys have handled it."

Wright made a point of blaming himself for lineup decisions, forced by those injuries, that didn't work out quite the way he'd hoped. It's all part of turning the page from a rough final month and seizing this one-game opportunity to reclaim the season.

"This is a different type of situation for us," Wright said. "These guys have kind of already done everything [in their careers]. Yet I know they're really hungry to prove themselves right now. I feel really good about them going into these games because they've been there and I think they're hungry. We're going to ride them. We're going to ride these three seniors."

How far? No matter how well Wright coaches, that's up to them.

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