Long break may be best medicine for Villanova

Before a Villanova practice, Maalik Wayns (center) and his teammates limber up. The Wildcats play George Mason on Friday.
Before a Villanova practice, Maalik Wayns (center) and his teammates limber up. The Wildcats play George Mason on Friday.
Posted: March 17, 2011

With two of his star players fighting nagging injuries over the last month or so, coach Jay Wright has juggled the Villanova lineup to fill in the gaps with varying degrees of success.

Some moves have worked, such as getting freshman James Bell on the floor for a career-high 21 points in a win over Seton Hall. Some haven't, such as Wright's decision to take Corey Fisher out for the closing moments of the shocking 70-69 Big East tournament loss to South Florida.

But when Villanova takes the floor for its NCAA second-round game Friday against No. 8 George Mason in the East Regional in Cleveland, its players will have had nine days off between games, an ideal period to heal the aches and pains that plagued the Wildcats during their current 2-7 stretch.

According to Wright, Fisher is 100 percent after his bout with right-knee tendinitis, and fellow senior Corey Stokes is back to full strength from his twice-pulled left hamstring and a sprained left big toe. By Friday, sophomore Mouphtaou Yarou, who suffered a nasty fall against USF, should no longer be sore.

Wright said that entering Friday, "we know what we are" - a rotation of five guards and four forwards in which all players "know what spot they play, who to defend, and how we play ball screens.

"When Stokes was hurt and when we were struggling with [Fisher] a little bit, I was trying to manipulate the lineup," Wright said. "We went big with [Isaiah] Armwood, but it didn't work. Sometimes you try things as a coach that don't work, and you take responsibility.

"It did work in some games. Seton Hall, it worked some. It pulled us through the DePaul game a little bit when we didn't have Stokes. But it didn't work in other games. In the St. John's game, I think it hurt us playing big. They got a lot of threes. But this [now] is the way we played all year, and I know everyone is comfortable with that."

The Wildcats labored against the big front line of South Florida after an injured Yarou left late in the first half. With their backup big men eventually fouling out, Antonio Pena, their 6-foot-8 power forward, had to contend with opponents two and three inches taller, and the 6-5 Stokes had to guard 6-10 Augustus Gilchrist in the final minute.

"He doesn't have good habits at the [power forward] position," Wright said of Stokes.

"Whatever Coach asks me to do, I'll do," Stokes said. "I'm a competitor. I was up for the challenge.

"But it's much easier having everybody at the right positions. I normally don't play the 4, so when Coach throws me in there, I'm kind of off guard. We don't really feel comfortable. We'll do whatever Coach asks us to do. But it does show a difference with everybody in the right position and everybody healthy."

Wright hopes the combination of rest, health, and good practices helps the Wildcats get closer to the form they showed in mid-January, when they were 16-1.

At that point in the season, Stokes had just pulled his hamstring the first time but played through it while not always being a full practice participant. Fisher's problem worsened after he poured in a career-high 34 points in the Cats' overtime win over DePaul on Feb. 19, the date of their last victory.

In the Wildcats' five games - all losses - since then, Fisher has averaged 10.8 points while shooting 29 percent from the field and 13.9 percent (5 of 36) from three-point range.

After Fisher scored 11 points in the first half against South Florida, his knee stiffened, and Wright decided to lift him down the stretch. His replacement, Dominic Cheek, was beaten on a drive by USF's Anthony Crater for the game-winning layup.

"I told the team I probably made a mistake," Wright said.

Injuries have contributed to the losses, which have contributed to the drop in the Wildcats' confidence. But Wright said the long time off will help heal his players' bodies and psyche.

"You've seen the different lineups we've tried and the different things we've tried," he said. "Now we've gotten back to our normal lineup, and it's good."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano

at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.


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