Wright reflects on Villanova's difficult homestretch

Posted: May 10, 2011

TWO YEARS AGO, Villanova's basketball program was coming off its first Final Four appearance in a quarter-century, the culmination of a five-season run in which the Wildcats got to a Final Four and a pair of Sweet 16s.

At the time, it seemed as if the only question was how high was up?

These days, that seems like quite a while ago.

Because ever since then, the endings haven't been happy. After a program-best 20-1 start in 2009-10, they dropped six of their final nine to finish 25-8, losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed.

But the more recent stretch run was somehow even harder to digest. Following a 16-1 start, they won only five more times, then lost their last six, including an opening 8-9 NCAA matchup, to wind up 21-12.

Coach Jay Wright, who a decade ago took over a program that had won three NCAA games since 1988, has had 6 weeks to contemplate what went down. That doesn't necessarily make it a whole lot easier to compute. But he's always been a glass half-full kind of leader. Maybe that's why so many youngsters want to play for him, even when the sky looks to be falling.

"At the time, you're dealing with the reality of the moment," he acknowledged. "A month or 2 after, you can look at the big picture. In a long-term scenario, if this is the down cycle, it's [still] in pretty good shape. That's from the inside. On the outside, it's, like, what happened? We can't deny that. And I have no problem with the fact that our fan base is disappointed. But we can't spend any time on that. We're already looking at next year, trying to get a young team ready for the upcoming challenge."

That's the reality of his perspective.

"It's the price you pay for setting the bar high," Wright continued. "But you want to put yourself in that position. When you play in front of 20,000 at the Wells Fargo Center, that's really nice, too. If you're going to enjoy that, [you can't complain] when things don't work out. It's all part of it. That's what happens.

"You have to give the fans and the alums the right to be passionate and excited when things are going good, and be down and question when it's not. You question from within. There's definitely a lot of things we as coaches could have done better. It was just a bizarre year. At the time, it doesn't seem that bad, because you're always focused on the next game. I mean, each loss is devastating. It's horrible in the locker room. You're like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe it happened again.' Then it's on to the next day, and you're trying to turn it around again."

Turns out a team with three senior starters but little depth never could once the train headed due south.

Injuries to Corey Stokes (toe) and Corey Fisher (knee), Villanova's top two scorers, were a factor. Yet Wright doesn't want that to be a crutch, merely a piece of the explanation.

"I think it wears you down, even though we didn't think it did when you're going through it," Wright explained. "You don't want to blame any one thing, but looking back, we had a number of days at practice where we had [assistant] Jason [Donnelly] out there on the court. [Fisher] practiced hurt every day. And never said a word.

"At this level, the margin really is so small. Sometimes it's little things. It just seemed that everything that could go wrong did. But I'm really proud how this group stuck together. That was never a problem. From within, you have to evaluate differently. I really think if Stokes didn't get hurt, who knows what it might have been? And they were still confident to the very end . . .

"That's why you've got to embrace the journey. Because you never know what it's going to be."

Perception-wise, the team obviously has taken on water. With no key seniors and four newcomers next season, the expectations figure to be much lower for a change. But JayVaughn Pinkston, who sat out as a freshman after being suspended by the university for his role in an off-campus incident involving a fight at an off-campus location, is scheduled to be reinstated June 1. And James Bell, whose first season never got going after he came back from stress fractures in both legs, should be properly healed. The Wildcats hope Mouphtaou Yarou and Dominic Cheek can get consistently better as juniors. So it might still be a good season. Of course, defining success is always relative.

Villanova and Pittsburgh are the only two Big East teams that have been to the Madness each of the past seven seasons. And the Panthers have made it past the second round only twice in that span.

"The sense I have from being out there in the basketball world is, there's still great respect for the program," Wright stressed. "Again, I think those people just look at it as cyclical. The thing is, it's more of a surprise when you don't do well. I don't see that changing. It's more of a question of what happens next. I do think we have a little bit [of credibility] in the bank.

"I don't think about it, but I think that's out there [in the public]. I realize we have to address it when we talk to the media. But it just doesn't have anything to do with what we do every day.

"This year will definitely be different. But I'd much rather be up there, worrying about that. That's what keeps you up there. With that comes a confidence level that lets you start off 18-1. It's a product of our guys being inspired by that. When that doesn't happen, you don't want your players to be affected by that. So we have to do a better job of making sure we continue to improve."

Because nobody remembers which team had only one loss in mid-January. Speaking of which, Wright wouldn't mind having to deal with that predicament again. Maybe even sooner than later, although he knows that if there is a next time, all the pertinent questions will surely pop up.

By the way, how many care that the 2007-08 team lost five straight at midseason, all by double digits, before getting to the Sweet 16 as a 12 seed?

A lot of schools would trade for that body of work. But lately, the only thing that has gotten Wright is a bunch of agita and second-guessers.

Welcome to the territory.

"I think our fans like it the other way, to be honest, when we [supposedly overachieve]," Wright said with a smile. "Right now, everyone wants to know what went wrong. Maybe we're being naive, but we know everybody had a great spring. They're working their butts off. I know people don't want to hear that. We had a lot of stuff happen to us last year. So all the things that are getting addressed out there are [valid]. But since we can't control it, we don't dwell on it."

In that case, plenty of observers are only too eager do it for him. See you in November. *

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