Does Villanova's Wright have to start over?

Posted: July 06, 2012

SO WHEN EXACTLY did Jay Wright forget how to do his job?

Not that long ago, Villanova's charismatic basketball coach could have run for grand pooh-bah of the Main Line and won unanimously. These days, he might have trouble getting elected head street sweeper.

Times change. As do perspectives.

Three years ago, he guided a program that from 1989 to 2004 had won a total of three NCAA Tournament games (all in the first round) to its first Final Four since the epic 1985 run. That capped a five-season span in which the Wildcats made it to at least the Sweet 16 four times. You could count on one hand the number of other schools able to make that same claim. In that stretch, they won 11 NCAA games. Four times, they lost to the eventual national champion.

But like the Phillies, they've taken a postseason step backward every year since. In 2010, as a No. 2 seed, a team that had been 20-1 and ranked second, lost in the second round. The following March, a squad that started 19-4 ended up losing its last six, including an NCAA opening-rounder against No. 8 seed George Mason. Last season, a seniorless group with five first-year guys went 13-19, tying a school record for losses.

It was Villanova's first sub-.500 season since 1997-98.

So where to now? Well, guards Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek, the top two scorers, opted to leave early for the NBA draft. They took some 30 points a game with them. Also gone is sophomore forward Markus Kennedy, who decided to transfer after averaging almost 15 minutes a game off the bench. They've added transfer guard Tony Chennault, a Philadelphia product who's eligible to play because of a hardship waiver after spending the last two seasons at Wake Forest. And local recruits Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arciadiacono also are being touted as immediate contributors.

What does it add up to? Hard to project with much degree of certainty. But it sure doesn't sound like any kind of swift return to the Sweet 16.

More like starting over.

Nobody gets that more than Wright. The loftier the expectations, the harsher the criticism can become when for whatever reasons you don't deliver.

So how's your offseason going?

"Life is good on top," Wright readily acknowledged recently in his office. "But nobody feels sorry for you [when you fall]. And, honestly, we don't want them to.

“Anywhere you went, [it used to be] people would see you and say, ‘Hey, great year.' Now they see you and it's, ‘Hey, tough year.' I was with Father Rob Hagan the other day, and this sweet, old lady came up and said, ‘Coach, is our team going to be better this year?' He looked at me and we both kind of laughed. I said, ‘Yeah I think so.' And she went, ‘I hope so.' That's all part of it.

“Every year's a new challenge. When you're dealing with preseason Top 10, there's pressure. Now it's a different kind of pressure. But they're both a lot of pressure. I actually enjoy both of them. But given the choice, I'd rather be taking on the challenge of being a Top 10 team. No doubt. Again, I want to make sure I'm not being pollyanna about this. You never want it to start going the other way. There's a newness to this right here. There's an underdog feeling to it. Now it's the challenge of proving ourselves again."

He's realistic enough to know that this stuff happens even to the North Carolinas and Dukes of the food chain. It just doesn't hit them as often, and it's rarely prolonged. Conventional wisdom also suggests that despite the recent success, Villanova isn't North Carolina or Duke. Or even, for that matter, necessarily Syracuse or Connecticut. That doesn't mean the goals should be any less ambitious.

It didn't happen for Wright right away at Villanova. Or at Hofstra before that. Yet eventually it did. And he's convinced the Wildcats can return to that level, or at least something reasonably close, within a reasonable time frame. Not that reasonable or rational always have a lot to do with the thought process, at least when it comes to the outside world.

"I think our program's built up some credibility," Wright said. "I think there's an expectation that we'll get it back. But we still have to do it. You are what you are. That's fair.

“People are questioning us. If they're saying that I can't coach or we can't recruit, if we don't get it going in the next couple of years, then they're right. Maybe we're not getting it done right now. All of us could have done better. I've said that. We evaluate constantly, even when you're 20-1. The biggest thing is sticking to our core values. Playing hard, every day. Playing together, unselfishly. Playing smart. Having pride in playing for Villanova, more than playing for yourself. Last year, we didn't do that.

“Fans have the right to question us. They sell out the Wells Fargo Center. Without them, we don't have this [Davis Center]. And when we're not getting it done, they're not wrong. But their opinions can't affect us. As long as we stick to what we believe is right, we think good things will happen. We can't predict what that might be, whether it's Sweet 16 or Final Four, or whatever. Or how long it's going to take. Going through this is more frustrating for us."

It's something that often goes missing in the scrutiny. Was Wright a different coach 3 years ago? The team that went to the Final Four had one upperclassmen recruit who would be considered big-time (junior Scottie Reynolds, who was going to Oklahoma until coach Kelvin Sampson got caught violating recruiting rules). The class that included Wayns and Cheek was rated among the nation's best. Unless you're bringing in a bunch of lottery picks, it's often a fine line. You're dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds. Chemistry can be as elusive as it is defining. We're not there every day. So the only thing the public can judge is the results.

Wright can live with that. As if he had a choice.

"That's where you've got to keep your humility during the good times," he said. "One of the things you learn about life is don't take anything for granted, no matter what. We'd be at our banquet, and I would say we're not celebrating a Final Eight or a Final Four. We're celebrating the tradition of Villanova basketball, and how fortunate we are to be a part of this. And every year I was saying it, in the back of my mind, I know that no one's supposed to accomplish that every year. Because you know you can find yourself in the other spot any time. We all do.

“We were expecting to be good last year. Maybe not with the same kind of confidence. But you're kind of expecting it and hoping it at the same time. Now it's all about how you respond to it. I learned a lot. I thought we could play big. Because when we were losing to all those national-championship teams, we just weren't big enough. So that was our plan. But it didn't work. We got away from what we did well [which was play through the perimeter].

“I do worry that none of our players has experienced success. But they were recruited during the success. They're expecting it. They feel it. I think they're hungry because of that.

“I've been through this before," he went on. "Maybe if I hadn't, it would bother me more, but I know what it is. I think with what we have and where we are in recruiting, we can get back. I don't know how long it's going to take, but I really do believe that. I think everybody here does."

Contact Mike Kern at kernm@phillynews.com.

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