Villanova still makes its opponents nervous

Posted: March 18, 2011

CLEVELAND - If you're a Villanova fan, looking for hope amid the gloom of the Wildcats' recent free fall, take a peek at the situation from the opposite end of the telescope.

Say you're a diehard George Mason fan. You still get a little buzz thinking about the Patriots' memorable run to the Final Four in 2006. Your team won the Colonial Athletic Association regular season title with a 16-2 record, then lost to Virginia Commonwealth in the conference semifinals.

The Patriots' reward: a No. 8 seed and a first-round matchup against a pedigreed program from a power conference that has made deep tournament runs routine.

Or take another step back and imagine being an ardent supporter of Ohio State. The Buckeyes are 32-2, Big Ten champions, and the top seed in the East Regional. They have their obligatory gimme game Friday in the second round (formerly known as the first round) against the University of Texas-San Antonio. On Sunday, whether it's 'Nova or George Mason, the Buckeyes face a team fully capable of pulling the upset.

That's not to say Villanova is, or should be, favored against either of these higher seeds. But it does mean that Villanova is the kind of opponent that produces very real anxiety in even the best teams. Considering the Wildcats have produced anxiety mostly in themselves and in their fans for the last month, that should be a source of some comfort.

Put another way: Nobody would go out of their way to face Villanova in this tournament. Jay Wright's team has a track record much longer than its five-game losing streak and overall 5-15 slide.

"I think we make a little bit too much of the winning streak or losing streak or what have you," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said Thursday. "Whether it's our 16-0 run or their 0-5 run at the end of the season, it's really not as significant as people would make it out to be - especially when you look at who they lost to. Four of their losses were [to] teams in the top 25. If two really good teams play, you know what? One of them is going to lose."

Villanova's most recent loss, to the University of South Florida in the Big East tournament opener, was not to a top-75 team. But it may prove to be the best thing that could have happened to the Wildcats. The early departure from New York meant a few extra days of rest for banged-up players such as Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, Antonio Pena, and Mouphtaou Yarou.

Maybe three Big East tournament games in three days, including an overtime semifinal win, didn't have anything to do with Louisville's stunning loss to Morehead State on Thursday. Ask most coaches if they'd rather have a few days to rest their players before a big game, though, and you can be sure 99 percent of them would say yes.

Meanwhile, a couple of George Mason players left practice with minor injuries this week. Larranaga said they all practiced at Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday, but as trends go, you'd prefer 'Nova's. Even if injuries weren't the sole reason Villanova has scuffled lately, the time off gives the Wildcats one more reason to believe they can return to their early-season level of play.

"Number 1 is health," Fisher said. "Me and Stokes, Antonio and other guys playing through injuries, that was number 1. Number 2: just clearing our minds, just getting back to being ourselves."

There is another element at play here, too. After being rated highly, even overrated early in the year, this team has faced some real criticism and doubt over the last month. For many of these players, it is their first real experience with that kind of adversity. The resulting Us-Against-the-World mentality has been artfully nurtured by coach Jay Wright.

"We can't control none of that," Fisher said, "what nobody is saying on the outside. We're not going to talk. We're just going to prove ourselves, and that's starting with me, Antonio, Stokes, and the coaching staff. And we know how good we are, and that's really all that matters."

There's no getting around it. The best time to follow a team is when it is coming together and exceeding expectations and playing without pressure. That is not possible for Villanova now, not after the Final Four run. It may not be possible for 'Nova as long as Wright is the coach.

It is possible to fall short of expectations, however. Villanova has done just that for the last grim month. But that entire month could be erased with one win.

"We want to take them as being the best team ever," George Mason's Cam Long said.

Villanova isn't that. It doesn't have to be. It just has to be the best team on the court Friday.

Phil Sheridan:

George Mason vs. Villanova


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