Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Villanova Basketball: Look to ’09 as a Blueprint for Success

Jay Wrights successful tenure on the Main Line has elevated the status of the basketball program and the expectations of the Nova Nation. The Wildcats took a hiatus from the NCAA tournament after the ’99 season, but burst back onto the scene in 2005 and have never looked back. A Final Four run in 2009 marked the program’s high point in recent years. However, the Villanova faithful have been left disappointed by a second round exit in 2010 and a first round exit in 2011. More unsettling than the losses themselves was deterioration of overall team chemistry. Simply put, it seemed as though the team lost track of itself. Many felt that the ‘Cats were not playing up to their potential, that they weren’t exactly sure who they were on the court.

The 2009 squad was characterized by fantastic team basketball. That team featured a balanced lineup. Dante Cunningham, Shane Clark, Dwayne Anderson and Antonio Pena provided size and presence inside; Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes formed a formidable backcourt of guards. Yet these players didn’t have to carry the team by themselves. They won because of cohesiveness and their ability to play as one. The important thing was that that team was balanced and they weren’t reliant on one player or one facet of the game.

By the middle of last season it became apparent that the 2011 ‘Cats lacked balance. They were overly reliant on Fisher, Stokes and Maalik Wayns. A legitimate post presence on the offensive end was rare and the team struggled to compete if the three guards weren’t hitting their shots. Wright was put in a difficult position: the inability of the bench players to provide offensive production forced him to keep Fisher and Wayns together on the floor most of the time, which wouldn’t be an issue…but they’re both small and share a similar style of play. Opposing defenses would clog the lane and force Villanova to make jump shots. Offensively, the Cats clearly struggled when the three main guards couldn’t hit shots because there was no legitimate post game to help open up the floor.

Last year’s setbacks shouldn’t dampen Villanova’s spirits. Established seniors Fisher, Stokes and Pena are gone, but no one can deny that the remaining roster has the talent to compete—it depends on whether or not they pull it all together. Wayns has become another product of “Guard U” and seems ready to step up and become the leader of this team. Like UConn’s Kemba Walker did this year, Wayns is poised to have a breakout junior campaign as the lead guard for Wright’s offense. Center Mouphtaou Yarou has made great strides in each of his years and could possibly establish himself as one of the nation’s top post players. Scottie Reynold’s heroics made him the face of the team, but most forget that it was Cunningham who led the team in scoring and rebounds. His post play on both ends of the court alleviated the pressure on Reynolds. Hopefully, Wayns and Yarou can form a similar one-two combo this coming year.

Beyond those two, Villanova is looking for certain players to step up to the plate. Dom Cheek and Isaiah Armwood have only scratched the surface of their talent and Coach Wright will surely anticipate improved production from both. With time in the weight room, and a little more confidence, both could become exceptional players. The rising juniors came in as the most-hyped recruiting class in the history of Villanova—it’s time for them to show why. If the coaching staff and the players prepared diligently in the offseason, this team could surprise some people in 2012. James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston and Maurice Sutton can all provide quality bench minutes if they find their niche and develop their skills. With proper focus and preparation, this group of players can hopefully hit the ground running in the fall—and play up to the standards that the Nova Nation has come to expect from them.

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