Off Campus: Villanova's Jay Wright working on foundation for future success

Jay Wright talks to scoring leader Maalik Wayns, who has decided to enter the NBA draft. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Jay Wright talks to scoring leader Maalik Wayns, who has decided to enter the NBA draft. RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 25, 2012

Jay Wright knows that last season wasn't just a failure on paper for Villanova, but an unwatchable debacle. When Wright's past teams made deep NCAA runs, "the stars all aligned," as the Wildcats coach put it. This time, it was more like space junk falling from the sky.

"There were some recruiting decisions, there were some decisions on style of play for this year, there was development of players . . . a little bit of each," Wright said of what led to the Big Thud, a 13-19 season, 5-13 in the Big East Conference.

Since 'Nova's top two scorers - Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek - just announced they were turning pro with a year of eligibility remaining, you can't argue that Villanova is a work in progress, ready to break out. Wright is starting over. There's a reason he got in the market for transfers, especially strong ballhandlers.

Development alone won't resurrect Villanova, at this point.

The weeks and months just ahead - the time before Villanova takes the court again - look crucial as Wright tries to dig out. They may define whether he has a strong second act.

"That junior class is real important for us, real important," Wright said during a long conversation in his office last week. He was talking about players who are finishing their junior year of high school, the group that will sign letters of intent in November.

A number of blue-chippers, locally and nationally, still have Villanova on their list. They may represent the last group of recruits who began considering Villanova soon after the Wildcats were in the 2009 Final Four, who will remember 'Nova had one of the stronger runs of postseason successes in Big Five history, getting to at least the Sweet 16 four times in five years, culminating in '09.

The window is closing fast on Villanova's past success' having any bearing on its future. The Villanova students who come back to campus next fall for their senior year have seen the Wildcats win one NCAA tournament game. To them, Rollie Massimino might as well have coached those earlier teams.

"If you're a freshman at Villanova right now, you came in and the team was 13-19," Wright said. "That's [the start] of your four years. I truly understand that."

There is a theory – one I partially buy, and Wright doesn't exactly deny – that some of 'Nova's problems stemmed from its earlier success, or at least decisions made after that success.

In reaching at least the Sweet 16 four times from 2005-09, the Wildcats won with skilled - and tough - guards, but eventually lost each year in the NCAA tournament to bigger guards, and more physical teams overall. Think North Carolina, Florida, Kansas, and North Carolina again . . . as 'Nova kept losing to eventual national champions.

In trying to get to the mountaintop, Villanova partially lost its identity. The Wildcats got bigger but not scrappier, losing the edge that's required to win not just in the Big East but in any decent conference.

"We tried to play big and play more of a power game, without a lot of ball movement and spacing," Wright said.

He wasn't just talking about his big guys. Villanova didn't have enough ballhandlers. Sometimes, it was Wayns or bust. Or just bust. Wayns scored 39 at Cincinnati, and Villanova still lost.

"We realized that we had young guys and we had big guards, which was different than we'd always had," Wright said. "We tried to change what we do, to try to adapt to our players. I think all of us understand, let's just get back to who we are, let's teach our players how we play, rather than adjust to what our players' weaknesses are."

Wright didn't say they should adjust to strengths, just away from weaknesses. That's as much of a self-indictment as you're going to hear from a big-time coach in regard to recruiting and development.

One aspect of all this: Wright could have started over at another school. He's had opportunities, been on all the hot lists. Last summer, a veteran coach (and a big Jay Wright fan) told me he was surprised Wright didn't go after and get the Maryland job. Wright would have had the same recruiting territory, a big-time program, and time to get going without alumni being all over him.

Instead, he's basically starting over at Villanova and bearing the weight of the recent struggles under his watch. For the last decade, largely through Wright's efforts, Villanova has been a destination school for East Coast blue-chippers. He's also developed enough of the second-rung recruits that 'Nova typically found itself with strong role players. (Think Will Sheridan, Dwayne Anderson, Dante Cunningham, Shane Clark.)

Back to that closing window: When Villanova failed to make it to the Sweet 16 under Steve Lappas in the '90s, the blue-chippers stopped coming. When the window shut on Massimino, it never reopened.

Wright claims that recruiting hasn't been affected yet. Of course, being a finalist for blue-chippers means nothing.

"Recruiting isn't about who you get involved with, it's about who you get," Wright said.

A pair of twin blue-chippers, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, from near Houston, reportedly are visiting Villanova this week. They have Baltimore family ties and also are considering Kentucky, Maryland, and Baylor. Tony Chennault, from Neumann-Goretti High School, is transferring from Wake Forest, and Villanova appears to be his destination. Rice transfer Dylan Ennis, a point guard, announced Tuesday he was transferring to Villanova, choosing the Wildcats over Cincinnati. Getting guys like these seems like an important bridge. Getting a blue-chipper or two is always crucial, assuming they also carry a chip on their shoulder.

In recent years, Wright wasn't able to turn Cheek into a ballhandler or any kind of lock-down defender. For his part, Wayns said this season's struggles didn't have an impact on his decision.

"If we would have won the national championship, I think I would have made the same decision," Wayns said Friday in a telephone interview.

Adding that he has faith in his younger teammates, Wayns said, "They know what it's going to take to win, and how to handle losing."

For the first time in a long time, there aren't any expectations, only questions attached to the Wildcats.

"We've got to re-create it," Wright said of a leadership structure that builds accountability within the team. "That goes to your point of kind of starting over. I know that's an ugly term to fans, and probably to anybody, but it's not something we're afraid of. That is where we are."

Jay Wright is not being run out of town. Next season isn't in any way a hot-seat year. He's obviously earned the start-over, and the Wright era of Villanova remains one of the high points in the school's history.

But nobody can know how this will play out, whether Villanova's program can return to its earlier orbit.

"We're back where we know we have to prove ourselves again," Wright said.


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

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