Mon Sep 06 09:00am EDT
Jay Wright suspected last season's bewildering March collapse would provide ample motivation for his team this summer, but the Villanova coach didn't see tangible proof until he walked by an on-campus pool a couple months ago.
There were seniors Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena sacrificing part of a rare off day to teach a few of the underclassmen how to swim so that the team's offseason aquatic workouts would be smoother and more productive.
"I'm really impressed with the leadership from our seniors," Wright said. "I see great chemistry on this team, a real commitment to working hard as opposed to a bunch of first-year guys coming into a program that just went to the Final Four and thinking it just happens. I see a maturity, an understanding of how hard you have to work. I really like what I've seen so far."
The level of determination from Villanova's returners reflects their dissatisfaction with the way a once-promising season fizzled last spring. A scintillating 22-2 start disintegrated quickly during the final month of the season when the Wildcats lost six of their final nine games, narrowly avoided a monumental first-round NCAA tourney upset against Robert Morris and then fell meekly in the second round to Saint Mary's.
It's difficult to pinpoint one reason for the Wildcats' late-season struggles last spring, so Wright blames a combination of factors. They had more flaws than their sparkling record suggested, they started believing their own hype at roughly the same time as the Big East schedule stiffened and they ultimately entered the postseason short on confidence and momentum.
To ensure that next season has a more palatable conclusion, Fisher, Pena and fellow senior Corey Stokes have tried to fill the leadership void left by the graduation of Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding. They put up a few hundred extra shots apiece each day this summer, showed more discipline in the weight room and organized daily team-wide runs at Villanova's football stadium every morning at 7 a.m.
"Me being the go-to guy and the leader of this team, I can only doing it by setting a good example," Fisher said. "I've learned from Scottie Reynolds and Reggie Redding, seniors who played a big role to getting us to the Final Four. I feel I'm ready to be a leader and I feel we're going to show people we're one of the best teams in the country."
If Villanova is going to fulfill Fisher's bold prediction, the Wildcats will have to correct some of the defensive flaws that contributed to last season turning sour. They surrendered 73 points a night and allowed opponents to shoot 27.5 free throws per game, an obscene number that Wright attributes more to over-aggressiveness and immaturity than anything else.
Villanova won't be able to blame inexperience for any rough patches next season considering the veteran makeup of its talented roster.
Unlike past seasons when the Wildcats were almost exclusively perimeter oriented, they have a frontcourt capable of providing balance led by Pena and sophomores Mouphtaou Yarou and Isaiah Armwood. And even with Reynolds missing from the backcourt, Stokes is a reliable perimeter shooter, sophomore Maalik Wayns could blossom with consistent playing time and Fisher hopes to build on his well-publicized 105-point summer league game and take over the go-to scorer role.
"The best thing about the 105-point game, believe it or not, is we've always had to push Corey to be more aggressive offensively," Wright said. "He holds off until he thinks we need it. He really has done a lot this summer, getting hundreds and hundreds of shots, which was never one of his strong points in the past. He would play forever, but getting in the gym and putting up 300 shots was never something he enjoyed."
Villanova has the talent, motivation and experience to contend once more in the Big East, but the conference is projected to be as formidable as ever again this season. Pittsburgh returns the core of an 25-win team, Syracuse has freshmen capable of making up for the loss of Wesley Johnson and Andy Rautins and Georgetown and West Virginia have too much returning talent to be counted out.
Maybe the ultimate sign of Villanova's mature approach to that challenge is the way Fisher answers a question about his expectations for the season.
"We're going to be the best team we can be at the end of the year," he said. "Whether that takes us to the national championship, the Final Four or the NIT, we can live with that."