Villanova's misfires will bring more scrutiny to Wright

Dejected Wildcat Antonio Pena walks off the court after George Mason's game-winning basket.
Dejected Wildcat Antonio Pena walks off the court after George Mason's game-winning basket.
Posted: March 19, 2011

CLEVELAND - It's his turn now. He knows it, understands it, expects it. One late-season fold is an anomaly. Two in a row, especially the way this Villanova season ended, and well, people see a pattern.

Jay Wright can't coach. Jay Wright can't recruit capable big men. He just got really lucky when his teams reached the Elite Eight and Final Four, got all the breaks he's not getting now.

He was exposed in 2010. He was exposed this year as well. This is what it will sound like for the next 6 months at least. Maybe for the next 12, or even beyond that. Phil Martelli went through it after St. Joe's incredible run, is still going through it. John Chaney felt the doubt and vitriol after he built expectations to an unrealistic level.

Everybody knows what Temple's victory over Penn State Thursday meant for Fran Dunphy.

"Right now . . . it sucks," Wright said after 'Nova's season finally skidded over the edge with a 61-57 loss to George Mason yesterday in its first game of the NCAA Tournament. "They're really dying.

"We're all dying. And I think that's why I like being a college coach. If I was a pro coach? With what happened here? I wouldn't be talking about learning lessons. We'd all be out of here."

Well, maybe that's a little extreme. But he'd be on the clock. Truth is, without the glory days that preceded these recent disasters, Wright would be viewed no differently from his predecessor, Steve Lappas, whose teams won 20 games or more six times, but broke into rashes once the postseason appeared.

Is it fair? Hell, yeah, it is. As the coach pointed out: "We got a lot of positives when we went through the good times. And I remember saying to myself we're not that perfect. I'm not that good of a coach. So when it goes this way, you've got to take it. It's all part of it."

If it soothes you at all, know that Wright might do a few things differently if he could do it all over again. The experiment of playing big men, such as Isaiah Armwood, out of position when Corey Stokes missed games didn't work. Replacing Corey Fisher with lengthier-but-younger Dominic Cheek in the waning moments of that South Florida game probably cost the 'Cats that game.

Rethink things? Sure, he said. Maybe he could have handled Taylor King differently. What if they hadn't given 6-9 Markus Kennedy another year of prep-school seasoning? Would the swoon have occurred? Would they have earned a higher seed?

When the first half ended yesterday, Villanova held a rebounding edge equal to its edge in points. Mouphtaou Yarou had 11 rebounds and two blocked shots, Stokes and Fisher had combined to score 24 points. Asked the day before what his team needed to be successful, Wright had prescribed precisely this.

So what happened?

Stokes scored three points in the second half, missing seven of eight field-goal attempts. Fisher was 2-for-7. Yarou had two more rebounds and a block. Four of the nine players Villanova rolled into the game stand 6-6 or taller, yet George Mason outrebounded the 'Cats, 22-15, in the second half.

So what happened?

"I think from the halfway point of the first half and through the second half, they got really physical with our guards," Wright said. "They just really rode our guards off any ball screens. And early in the game, they didn't. I don't know if that was the game plan or not. But there was a point when Fish got it going. I'd say about 5 minutes to go in the first half and then the whole second half, they were real physical and did a great job."

Before Mason's Isaiah Tate dropped a fateful three to make it a one-possession game with a little less than 2 minutes left, Villanova had held the Patriots without a field goal for almost 3 minutes. Wright put Stokes, his best defender, on Luke Hancock in the final 30 seconds, and Stokes did exactly as instructed, forcing the right-minded Hancock left.

"We took away his first look, which is drive and score," Wright said. "His second look, his drive and pass, we took it away, too. His last look is step back, pull up, jumper . . .

"If you've got all three of that to your game, that's why they put the ball in his hands at the end of the game. He made a big-time shot."

Hancock's three gave Mason a 59-57 lead with 19.8 seconds left. The 'Cats had two shots to tie it, but Maalik Wayns missed a layup with 9 seconds left, and, after Villanova retained possession on a jump ball, Stokes clanked a jumper off the side of the backboard.

Both were good plays. Both were good looks.

There were also some crucial missed free throws by Yarou and Antonio Pena in those final 2 minutes, three in all.

"Things just happen sometimes," Wright said. "I told the guys, our Final Four year, our Final Eight year, those things didn't happen; the right guy goes to the foul line . . . Hancock misses that shot."

And all the little things make Wright look like a genius. That's gone now. Without a single senior, Villanova will not begin next season as the nation's sixth-ranked team or second-ranked in the Big East. Wright will be scrutinized a little more, lauded a lot less.

"I know it's not going to be as good," he said. "I know it's definitely not going to be as good as it was 2 years ago or even last year. But that's not how we judge ourselves." *

Send e-mail to

donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.

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