Villanova back on the Wright track

Posted: January 17, 2014

FROM 2005-09 Villanova won 11 NCAA Tournament games, or eight more than it had in the 16 preceding seasons. That run included two Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight and, of course, a Final Four.

Then, things changed.

In 2009-10, the Wildcats were 20-1 and got to No. 2 for just the second time. But they would lose six of their last nine, including a second-round matchup against 10th-seeded St. Mary's.

The next season, they were 18-2. They finished 21-12, losing their last six. In 2011-12, they tied a program record by losing 19 times.

And Jay Wright didn't know what he was doing anymore.

"We understood what it looked like," the longest-tenured coach (13th season) in the new-look Big East readily acknowledged. "We made some mistakes to get ourselves there, but we felt we could rectify them. You know people are disgruntled. You can't blame them. It was going good. There was no sign that this was going to happen. Then bang, it came to an abrupt halt. We knew we were responsible."

Last season, having lost their top two scorers to the pros a year early, expectations were minimal. And that was before a November home loss to Columbia. Yet they beat three Top 5 teams to get back into the 68-team field, where they erased a 20-point deficit before losing to North Carolina.

Now, after being unranked in the preseason they're 15-1 and up to No. 6. The blemish came at unbeaten Syracuse, where they led by 18.

Maybe Wright's way isn't so wrong after all.

"Actually, it's happening a little faster than we thought," he said. "This is still fragile. We have flaws, and they could hurt us. We haven't played the top teams in the league yet. We could have lost to Kansas, could've lost to Iowa, could've lost at Butler. But we do feel real good about the direction we're headed. We're not at all looking at the record."

Unless the wheels of the bus come off they don't figure to be worse than a 3 or 4 seed. ESPN's Bracketology currently has them as a 2. There's still half a season to play. And everyone understands it's about what you do in March anyway. Everything that comes before only puts you in position to go farther. But there's never any guarantees.

None of these players knows what it feels like to win an NCAA game. Yet they sure look like they have what it takes.

"It feels like '05," said Wright, whose team hosts DePaul (10-8, 2-3) tomorrow. "You can really sense the hunger. That's refreshing. As a coach you're thinking, 'OK, how do you sustain this?' But if you have guys who haven't done it before, it's actually easier than sustaining it.

"When you get it rolling like we did, it gets to where you're trying to prevent someone from beating you as opposed to coaching to win. And I think the guys play that way. And I think that happened a little bit to us, when you win and it's not gratifying but almost a relief. It's our job to handle that, stay committed to the process and not be afraid to lose."

The better you get, you begin to get involved with higher-level recruits. But for whatever reasons that didn't always work out for the best. Wright also tried to play bigger, to maybe match up better with some of the higher-profile teams, although that wasn't something he was most comfortable doing. And he lost assistants, which is often an inevitable part of success.

It's never one issue. And it can happen to just about every program eventually.

"That's kind of the way we're looking at it," said Wright. "We had to put some guys in bad spots, and play some guys a lot earlier than we wanted to."

In 2009-10, he had too many players. Two years later he didn't have enough.

This group can go 10 deep if necessary, without losing much. Wright can play four guards together, a concept he heartily embraces. They don't have anyone who looks like he's an NBA player. At least not yet. The rotation has two seniors and juniors, three sophomores and freshmen. Two Top 100 recruits are coming in next season, two more in 2015.

This team isn't always pretty. It is tenacious. And they don't seem to care much about who's scoring 20 and who's getting 15 minutes.

"You always trust what you're doing," Wright said. "Even when you're trying to do the right thing you can make a mistake. We're very fortunate right now, with the character of these kids. But you never take someone thinking he's a bad guy.

"I like where we are, in terms of the mindset. But that doesn't make them better kids than others. Just different. And there's a lot of luck in that, too. We have kids who think they're going to be NBA players and people just don't know it. But right now all they want is to have success at Villanova. And we're benefitting from that."

And if anyone had told him 2 months ago this is where they'd be . . . ?

"I would have said they were crazy," Wright admitted. "Some years you could say that. I thought this could be a really good team, but I'm thinking later in the year. I would never have gone for 15-1."

Last year at this time, all he was thinking was NIT.

"Getting to the NCAA was big," he said. "Even the way we played in that game. We got down, but we didn't get down. They could feel good about themselves after that. We could start the season saying, 'OK, we've been to the tournament, let's start concentrating on being the best team we can be and see where that takes us.' If we hadn't, no matter how much you try not to, in the back of their mind they would've been thinking, 'I haven't been there yet, let's just get there.' They're beyond that."

Next comes those much more significant steps.

"I gave the guys an analogy," Wright stressed. "I read them excerpts from Seth Davis' book on the UCLA teams that won all those championships in a row. Back then, they were on national TV like six times a year. Can you imagine if they did that now? They'd be on ESPN every day. That's what you have to deal with.

"It's imposible to convince other people. It's hard to convince your own team. They're kids. With all of the media and social outlets, the time that they're not with us they're spending every second hearing things that aren't going to help them be successful on the basketball court. That's just the way our society is. It's a great challenge."

As was becoming relevant again so quickly.

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