Jay Wright, Villanova back to 'core values'

'Nova's Tony Chennault (left) and James Bell go after a loose ball along with Georgetown's Jabril Trawick. The Cats have been solid on defense. MICHAEL PEREZ / AP
'Nova's Tony Chennault (left) and James Bell go after a loose ball along with Georgetown's Jabril Trawick. The Cats have been solid on defense. MICHAEL PEREZ / AP
Posted: March 11, 2013

At the Pavilion just after this season's Villanova opener, a ho-hummer over Division II District of Columbia, a longtime Big Five stat-crew member mentioned: "This team is going to win 11 games."

The guy knew what he had been looking at and seemed prescient in the weeks just ahead as 'Nova hit bottom - forging a new bottom below the one established the year before - when the Wildcats lost at home by 18 points to Columbia, which later struggled to stay out of the cellar in the Ivy League.

So nobody saw this coming. Let's doubt Jay Wright would have believed how the downward trajectory of the last few seasons would have suddenly turned after that Columbia debacle, that Villanova would be on the cusp of returning to the NCAA tournament right now after victories over Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette, and Georgetown, propelling the Wildcats to a 10-8 Big East mark, and 19-12 overall going into this week's Big East tournament.

Give Wright (a lot of) credit: He knew what had to happen this year. At Big East media day, he talked of the need to play with intensity and unselfishness, which he hadn't seen enough of in recent seasons. Obvious intangibles, but where had they gone on the Main Line?

"I always knew how fleeting success was," Wright said that day, when Villanova was picked for 12th in the Big East. "I learned how fleeting being committed to your core values is."

Which player from Villanova belongs on the all-Big Five team? Depends on the day, if it's even obvious then. (I'd probably go for Mouphtaou Yarou, for his rebounding down the stretch, after leaning toward Darrun Hilliard early in the Big East schedule.) But there is no top dog on the Wildcats. A reverse from last season when 'Nova really needed Maalik Wayns to score or it was dead in the water.

Nobody on this team is a true defensive stopper, and Villanova has given up a lot of three-pointers - the Wildcats are last in the Big East in defensive three-point shooting percentage - but that has usually come from over-aggressiveness (and the occasional brain-lock), not passivity. Villanova's aggressiveness has also resulted in a slew of opponent turnovers, and a markedly lower shooting percentage for opponents this season from inside the three-point arc.

Let's not go overboard on where Villanova is headed. NBA scouts aren't flocking to the Pavilion to look at future pros. There is nobody on the current roster with the upside of a Randy Foye or Kyle Lowry or Dante Cunningham.

Right now, that doesn't matter. Seeing 6-foot-11 freshman Daniel Ochefu - for just one example - fully commit to trapping a guard along the sideline 30 feet from the basket . . . it's mainly baskets prevented that have fueled the turnaround.

That wasn't the case at the start, as Villanova gave up at least 75 points in four losses over the opening eight games. Since then, they've given up that many just once, in an overtime victory over St. John's on Jan. 2.

Last April, Wright sat in his office and offered explanations for how Villanova had fallen to 5-13 in the Big East last season: "There were some recruiting decisions, there were some decisions on style of play . . . there was development of players."

In other words, Wright wasn't pointing the finger away from himself.

"We tried to play big and play more of a power game, without a lot of ball movement and spacing," Wright said, explaining that had been a conscious decision after Villanova kept losing to eventual NCAA champions who had that power game.

It didn't work at either end of the court, and now 'Nova is once again often playing smaller lineups that create matchup problems. Wright figured out his rotation as this season evolved, working out how the parts mesh.

These guys don't seem like a group worried about the stat sheet. "Being committed to core values" is a nebulous term. If you're winning, people will assume you're committed.

This much is clear: Whatever its core values are, this Villanova team will be remembered for having them.

Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow @jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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