Can Villanova match, or exceed, previous highs under Jay Wright?

Coach Jay Wright with Ryan Arcidiacono (left) and Dylan Ennis. The Wildcats are known for their toughness, work ethic, and selflessness.
Coach Jay Wright with Ryan Arcidiacono (left) and Dylan Ennis. The Wildcats are known for their toughness, work ethic, and selflessness. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 17, 2014

Once he completed his media obligations after Villanova's loss to Florida in the finals of the 2006 NCAA Minneapolis regional, Jay Wright entered the locker room at the Metrodome and swelled with pride at seeing how much his players had given in defeat.

"It wasn't a bunch of guys sitting around crying," the Wildcats coach recalled a few days ago. "It was guys laying down dehydrated with IVs in their arms. They were just shot. I know it sounds sick, but I just felt so good about our guys and that they played until they had nothing left to give."

That season marked the second NCAA team of Wright's tenure, featuring senior guards Randy Foye and Allan Ray, but it was surpassed in the postseason in 2009, when the unit led by Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham reached the Final Four in Detroit before losing to North Carolina in the national semifinals.

Now we come to 2014. Entering the Big Dance with a 28-4 record, Villanova will find out its NCAA assignment Sunday evening, probably as a No. 2 seed. In a season of no dominant teams, the Cats are lumped in a group of 10 or 12 teams that have a legitimate chance to go 6-0 and cut down the nets April 7 at Cowboys Stadium.

So how far can they go?

The tools do appear to be there for a long run, but a lot depends on matchups, something the Wildcats showed by getting thrashed twice by Creighton in an otherwise-successful season.

Despite playing against a weakened Big East, there are parallels among the three Villanova squads. Each of the teams had, and have, strong leadership in the senior class. They scrap, claw, and dive at both ends. Their strengths are found at the guard position. Their role players have bought into Wright's philosophy. And their toughness is admired by opponents and observers.

"Those two teams had so many tough kids, and so does this one," said longtime television commentator Bill Raftery, of Fox and CBS. "I don't know how far this team is going to go. But they play together, which is what all good teams do, or are supposed to do. Back then and now, it didn't matter who scored."

The relationship of success to toughness first surfaced in 2005, when the Wildcats were knocked out in the Sweet 16 with the help of a controversial traveling call on Ray. Ray and Foye were back in 2006, complemented by guards Kyle Lowry and Mike Nardi; forward Will Sheridan; and Cunningham, a promising freshman who would become a stalwart of the 2009 team.

Patrick Chambers, now the head coach at Penn State and an assistant on the 2005-06 and 2008-09 teams, thought the Foye/Ray squad established the template for Villanova recruits - tough, competitive, team-oriented guys who didn't care about statistics.

"We really believed in style of play," Chambers said. "We really believed in the type of player that we wanted to bring to Villanova. I think [Wright] really loved that model, and we tried to stick with that.

"That continued with the 2009 team. I think we learned a lot about the type of kid we wanted. They didn't have to be McDonald's All-Americans, but they had to want to compete. We wanted winners, and Jay wanted winners. He wanted guys that were tough competitors."

Wright enjoyed playing three and often four guards on the 2005-06 team. Both seniors that year, Foye and Ray scored 20.5 and 18.5 points per game, respectively. The sturdy 6-foot-4 Foye, who often played at the 4 position, averaged 23.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in the NCAA tournament.

"The way we played was unique," said Foye, now of the Denver Nuggets. "We brought toughness to the table every night no matter who we were playing against. We played together.

"I remember Coach and I having a conversation about just blocking a guy out, not really worrying about getting the rebound but working so my teammates could get the rebound. When we were on offense, there were mismatches everywhere, and we took advantage."

The Wildcats defeated Monmouth and Arizona at what was then the First Union Center, then outlasted Boston College, 60-59, in an overtime thriller. That game drained the Villanova players, and they went out and shot 24.7 percent in a 75-62 loss two days later to Joakim Noah and the Gators.

"If we didn't have to put so much into that game [against Boston College], we'd have won the national championship that year," Foye said. "The way we were playing, no one could really stop us."

The 6-foot-9 Cunningham learned lessons from that '06 squad and put them into practice in '09, along with fellow seniors Dwayne Anderson, Shane Clark, and Frank Tchuisi. And that wasn't just on the court, where he led the Wildcats with averages of 16.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.

"Your captains, your leaders, your seniors, really run the show," said Cunningham, a forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves. "Coach tells them what he wants done on the court. It's up to the seniors to enforce the rules and make sure everyone is buying in. We took as much responsibility as possible. Coach Wright told us what he wanted, and we tried to guide the guys in that direction."

As in 2006, the Wildcats won their first two games in South Philadelphia before defeating Duke in the Sweet 16. Then Reynolds, the second-leading scorer, provided a signature moment for the ages by weaving through Pittsburgh defenders and hitting a short jumper in the lane with 0.5 seconds left in the 78-76 victory over the Panthers in Boston.

"It was like it was in slow motion," Cunningham recalled. "I was running right alongside of him, ready for anything."

But the bubble burst the following week, when the Wildcats lost, 83-69, to a North Carolina team that won the national title and wound up sending five players to the NBA. That was the last game for Cunningham and the seniors - and for Chambers, who became the head coach at Boston University.

"I was only with Randy and those guys in 2006 for two years," Chambers said. "I was with this group the entire time, and it hurt. For me, there was a chance I was leaving and going on to another place.

"Both losses were devastating. I put myself back in that situation, and I'm starting to get emotional just thinking about it because they worked so hard. Even though you make it to the Final Four or the Elite Eight, you're just crushed when it's over. You want so much more for these kids."

Like these two teams before them, the 2013-14 Wildcats are known for their toughness, work ethic, and selflessness. They have reached this point with a solid nine-man rotation that includes only two seniors - James Bell and Tony Chennault - and just three players - JayVaughn Pinkston, Daniel Ochefu, and Kris Jenkins - who are considered solely frontcourt men.

Bell is the acknowledged overall leader, like Foye and Cunningham. Sophomore point guard Ryan Arcidiacono leads the team on the court and sets the tone for toughness and physical play, the same as Lowry and Reynolds.

Wright thinks this year's team is not as explosive offensively as the 2006 group or as stifling defensively as the 2009 bunch. Still, the 2014 Wildcats have a game - or six - to achieve both levels, and to show how deep down they will reach, physically and emotionally, when needed.

"One of the things I know about the '06 team and the '09 team, but I don't know . . . about this group yet, is both of those teams made it to their limit," he said. "When they got beat, they had nothing left. They didn't lose a clunker; I think both just got beat by a better team. But they gave it everything they had."

Not surprisingly, Foye and Cunningham think the Wildcats can survive deep into the tournament.

"They're a very hungry group of guys," Cunningham said. "They play similar to us; they play hard and play defense and have a great attitude. Every time you see them, you kind of get the philosophies that I was brought up with in college, and it brings you back to your time on the court."

A link from 2006 to 2009 to 2014 is present. Now the current group must apply those lessons game by game to be successful in the NCAA tournament.


Comparing the Cats

Going into the NCAA tournament, Villanova has its best team since the 2009 squad went to the Final Four. How do this year's Wildcats stack up against Jay Wright's previous two best 'Nova teams, from 2005-06 and 2008-09? The top statistic in each category is in bold.

Category   2005-06   2008-09   2013-14   

Record   28-5   30-8    28-4   

Points per game   74.2   76.8    78.5   

Opponent points per game    63.8   67.4   66.6   

Field-goal pct.   41.7   45.1    45.9   

Opponent field-goal pct.   42.1    40.3   40.8   

Three-point pct.    37.5   35.2   36.1   

Opponent three-point pct.    33.7    33.7   35.4   

Asst.-turnover ratio   1.1   1.1    1.3   

Opponent asst.-turnover ratio    0.9   0.9   0.9   

Rebounding margin per game   +0.9    +4.9   +3.8   

Top scorer    Randy Foye   Dante Cunningham   James Bell   

    20.5   16.1   14.5   

NCAA result   Lost regional final    Lost Final Four   -   

   as No. 1 seed    as No.3 seed   


The Ones

Who will get the four No. 1 seeds when the NCAA selection committee reveals its bracket on Sunday? And who is ready to step up if a team falters before then? Our Joe Juliano takes his best guess:

No. 1s

Florida, 31-2 (Lock; the Gators play Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference final.)

Arizona, 30-4 (Lock)

Wichita State, 34-0 (Lock)

Michigan, 25-7 (The Wolverines play Michigan State in the Big Ten final.)

Next up

If Michigan loses Sunday:

Duke, 26-7 (The Blue Devils play Virginia in the ACC title game.)

If Duke and Michigan both lose:

Villanova, 28-4.

Louisville, 29-5.


jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq

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