A low point in Jay Wright's Villanova tenure

Posted: January 07, 2012

As much as Villanova has struggled this season, this was new territory, losing at home by 17 points to South Florida, making every fifth three-pointer the Wildcats took, being equally ineffective at the other end.

One gray-haired fan at the Pavilion Thursday with a bullhorn voice offered encouraging words: "Guard somebody!" (at a specific player) and "Rebound the ball!" (to the group as a whole).

The worst regular-season loss of Jay Wright's Villanova tenure? Had to be - against a school that has averaged one Big East road win a year since joining the league and had been 0-6 away from home. There were dissatisfying endings to the last couple of seasons but nobody accused Villanova of being a bad basketball team, which is where things now stand.

"We've got to start this thing all over," Wright said later Thursday night, referring to the younger guys on his team, not just this one result. "We've got to teach our fundamentals. We've got to teach our core values."

As telling is what a local high school coach and big Villanova rooter said before the USF game, "I don't know what their identity is. Are they a frontcourt-oriented team? Are they a guard-oriented team?"

In a perfect world, Wright wants this group to be a mixture of the two, a balanced team. Right now, the balance is this: Villanova has the worst shooting percentage of the 16 Big East teams and are fifth-worst at defending the three. Now 0-3 in the Big East, 'Nova is 7-8, is under .500 for the first time since late in the 2003-04 season, the last time the Wildcats didn't make the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats may look better Sunday against DePaul, but that's what you expected Thursday, not seeing junior point guard Maalik Wayns of all people leading Villanova with five rebounds while not getting a single assist, for the first time since his freshman year. There weren't any assists to be had.

"We didn't do anything to get ourselves any easy baskets," Wright said afterward.

Going into the season, Villanova didn't seem too young - they could choose to start three juniors and two sophomores, which in college basketball these days is almost perfect - except the lineup is getting younger, on merit. Whatever the grouping, every player has a new role from last season.

"Really, our juniors haven't been go-to guys in this program," Wright said. "They're getting to be go-to guys now, with nobody else around them. And then the freshmen, if they were playing with three seniors, with no pressure, they'd be a lot better. That's really what it's coming down to."

The guards (other than Wayns) aren't ball handlers and they aren't making outside shots. A huge problem for any team obviously but particularly in Villanova's offense, which doesn't depend on back screens, more on ball screens and switches and dribble drives. The guards need to make shots or make plays. Quite a turn of events against the backdrop of fine guard play across the rest of the Big Five this season.

It isn't a coincidence that Wright changed his coaching staff before this season. He doesn't whistle past graveyards. Forget the suits and the image. Wright is a worrier and prone to self-examination, for himself and his program. He said before the season that he had allowed his staff to get too young, so former staffers Doug West and Bill Lange were rehired, two very important moves. Scottie Reynolds told me last year how West used to work with him during off hours on skills, that it made a huge difference. And Lange left his job as Navy's head coach to join the staff. Wayns raved about the work he put in with Lange in the preseason.

News alert: Assistant coaches are important in college hoops. Wright kept losing assistants and the results began to show. I expected the staff changes to produce results. Assuming those two new guys might be an instant fix turned out to be my mistake. Assuming the new wave was ready to take over was everybody's mistake.

"We knew it could be difficult, and we knew we were kind of starting over," Wright said after the USF game. "You don't know if one freshman is just going to step up and be great and it might carry you. You don't know if one junior is going to step up and be great. We just haven't had that yet."

Nobody is giving up on this season - "something good's going to happen," Wayns said, although he and Dominic Cheek didn't start after a "minor" practice issue, in Wright's words - but the hope on the Main Line is that current pains are similar to what Randy Foye and Allan Ray endured early in their careers, that the payoff comes ahead. Of course, a guy like Foye prided himself on his defense. Those three- and four-guard lineups gave opponents defensive problems all over the court, often dictating play.

At the other end, is it tempting to change some offensive sets to fit the current personnel?

"You have to be careful about how much you change," Wright said, "because they don't know a lot, so every time you change in the middle of a Big East season, that change for them is a lot, and then they've got DePaul coming at them or Syracuse coming at them while they're going through this change."

Right now, whatever team is coming must look like a freight train. And the theories and shouts of encouragement will continue.

"We knew it was going to be difficult this year - we don't know how difficult it's going to be yet," Wright said.

Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus.


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