These 'Cats are 'Nova-achievers

RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: March 21, 2013

TO APPRECIATE THE depth of Jay Wright's accomplishment this season, first consider this:

Villanova lost its point guard, Maalik Wayns, as an early entrant to the NBA, after a 13-win season overall, with five wins in the Big East.

Wayns' replacement, true freshman Ryan Arcidiacono, will never play in the NBA; in fact, Arch, as he is called, missed his senior season at Neshaminy High last season due to back surgery, so playing in college never was a guarantee. And, while Arch might possess 2 percent of the team's cumulative athletic ability, he possesses about 50 percent of the team's cumulative basketball IQ.

Nevertheless, the chief marionette guided by Wright's masterful hand, Arch, as true freshman, led the Wildcats to a 20-win regular season, 10 Big East wins, a win in the Big East Tournament . . .

And, Sunday, a berth in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 9 seed against No. 8 North Carolina. The Wildcats will play the Tar Heels at 7:20 p.m. Friday in Kansas City.

Wright was elected the country's best coach in 2006. Twice, he was deemed the conference's best coach. Before that, he took two Hofstra teams to the NCAA Tournament.

Wright, 51, in 18 seasons never coached better than he coached this season.

This team was picked to finish 12th by the conference's coaches.

And 12th might have been generous. Wright not only lost Wayns but also guard Dominic Cheek, his No. 2 scorer and his leading three-point shooter, who also declared early.

There are further considerations; further evidence of Wright's superb guidance.

Guard Darrun Hilliard, is, like Arch, a local kid, out of Liberty in Bethlehem. Like Arch, Hilliard, a sophomore, could have used a year of seasoning; like Arch, he had to play. Hilliard more than doubled his scoring output, to 11.2 points per game.

"Last year was a tough year, a disappointment. This is a good step in the right direction for this program. I had blind faith in coach Wright," Hilliard said. "He's done a phenomenal job. Pushing us every day in practice, not letting us slack off. Always being there to motivate us."

JayVaughn Pinkston, who claims the best name and is the best scorer, can be a free-throw magnet. Junior guard James Bell finally was sound for a full season. Junior transfer Tony Chennault, a Ss. Neumann-Goretti High product and a starter at Wake Forest last season, made the adjustment from ACC ball.

All have limitations. For instance, the Wildcats' best forward, beefy senior Mouphtaou Yarou, a native of Benin - well, he's a bit heavy-legged. But he developed a wonderful jump shot and, at 255 pounds, he gets in the paint and he can play.

They all can play. They all play hard. They play to their capacity.

If say, Syracuse - if Temple, for that matter - played like this, their NCAA seeding would be commensurate with their talent level.

La Salle, the city's most elegant team, earned a berth in the play-in game Wednesday as a No. 13 against Boise State. It's the Explorers' first appearance in the dance since 1992 after posting a second straight 20-win season.

Temple, the city's most talented team, teased its way into the tournament as a No. 9, matched against No. 8 North Carolina State, on the backs of good wins and really good players: Big 5 MVP Khalif Wyatt and enigmatic forward Scootie Randall.

Villanova, the city's most consistent team, elbowed its way into the tournament because it was just too gutsy to keep out.

How else to explain January wins over Syracuse and Louisville, in the same week? How else to explain the season saver, a 10-point win over Georgetown on March 6?

All three were Top 5 teams in the country when Villanova beat them.

The Wildcats also beat a solid UConn team on the road and went across the state and took tough Pittsburgh to overtime.

This, from a team that lost to Providence, twice, and (gag) to Columbia, RPI 273 - a possible RIP loss.

That Columbia loss came way back in November. This is a much different team. This is a team that, coming off three straight losses, beat Louisville, the Big East Tournament champ and the overall No. 1 seed.

It was the win that carried the most weight Sunday when the NCAA selection committee deemed Villanova worthy. As such, it was the win that might have saved the program from being set back 4 or 5 years.

"That game definitely was important for us in that we were playing well but had lost some games. We knew we were getting a lot better," Wright said. "You got to get a win. Winning justifies everything you're teaching the guys. It gives the guys confidence in what you're doing. So that game was big for us."

Without it, maybe Villanova is in, anyway.

Maybe beating a flawed Syracuse team and an inconsistent Georgetown team is enough.

Maybe not.

And, if not, alumni start to screech, and recruiting to the Main Line gets that much more difficult.

Especially at a time when the Big East is tearing itself apart.

"There's always a difference between perception and reality. If we were going in the right direction, I would have been fine," Wright said. "But I'm also aware of perception out there: You go to the tournament 7 years in a row, then you don't make it; and you go another year and don't make it - people start wondering. 'Are they not as good anymore?'

"Perceptually, which affects recruiting and the fans, it's important."

Instead, the perception is that Wright isn't just a pretty face in a pretty place.

The Main Line might be a bucolic oasis on the fringes of a gritty city, and Wright's teeth might be a shade beyond perfect, but he coaches a brutal brand of basketball, even if George Clooney plays him in the movie.

Floor-burn basketball; who's-next? basketball.

Villanova basketball.

"They weren't down after we lost to Pitt [March 3], and they didn't look at the Georgetown game like, 'We need this game,' " Wright said.

It helps, of course, that Arch is a legacy kid, destined for 'Nova since birth, really. His parents went to school there and his dad, Joe, played football. He spent his life dreaming of being a Wildcat, preparing to play for Wright; and, so, he knew exactly what was expected.

Executing the expectations as a freshman in the bruising Big East, executing all the way to the dance, is another matter.

And that, of course speaks to the deft hand at the helm. It never has been more deft.

"I appreciate that thought," Wright said. "We got very lucky with Ryan being healthy. Yarou becomes a great leader. Bell gets healthy. Those three really helped our staff make this team commit to playing Villanova basketball."

Of course, those three don't demand the style of play. Wright does.

He knows what he had to work with. He knows how far he and they have come.

"This was a really enjoyable year," Wright said. "I could tell our program was going in the right direction. Guys were playing the way we wanted to play.

"Sometimes we did it, and lost. Sometimes we did it and won. We played our style consistently. I was going to be happy, whatever happened. I think this group's going to be good next year. It's been really gratifying for me."

As should any job done this well.

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