Friday Preview: Wildcats look for hot start against Firebirds

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Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)

Jay Wright and the Villanova men’s basketball team spent the better part of the offseason taking part in some communal soul-searching.

Somewhere along the way to a program-worst 19 losses, the first season in the last eight without an NCAA Tournament berth, and rumors that Wright’s seat was rapidly heating beneath him, the Wildcats lost their identity. For the first time in almost a decade, they were average- below it, even.

Somewhere along the way, they stopped playing the brand of basketball- aggressive, confident, unselfish- that had taken the program to two Sweet Sixteens, an Elite Eight, a Final Four, and 176 wins over the previous seven years, the one to which their fans had become so accustomed during Wright’s 11 seasons at the helm. In short, the Wildcats stopped playing Villanova basketball. They lost sight, they say, of their ‘core values.’

“It’s crazy,” said senior center Maurice Sutton, the only holdover from the ’09 Final Four squad. “It’s like, you clean up your room and you can tear it up in five seconds.”

Those core values- an intelligent aggression, a healthy swagger, and playing for the name on the front of the jersey- were lost along the way. So too were Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek, who left behind the wreckage of a lost season to turn pro. Now, the time has come to pick up the pieces. The Wildcats believe they have them in place to be competitive again. After all, someone once said the more things change, the more they stay the same. After a year of upheaval, Wright hopes the basketball the Wildcats play this weekend, when they tip off the regular season and the 2012 2K Sports Classic with games against the University of the District of Columbia on Friday night and Sunday afternoon against Marshall, is the same one he’s spent the last decade cultivating.

“Taking a step from the Carleton game and just doing a better job of playing Villanova basketball,” Wright said when asked what he hopes to see from his team Friday night. “I was very pleased with the Carleton game in terms of our commitment to Villanova basketball. We have a lot of work to do, but I like the direction we’re going.”

After an offseason rife with hard work and lost weight, the new-look Wildcats are salivating at the chance to show their fans that this year will be different. With several new faces, Villanova, picked 12th in the Big East preseason poll, is ready for its first chance put the sting of last season firmly in the rearview mirror.

“Last year wasn’t the type of year that any team wants to go through, but at the same time you want to forget about it,” said sophomore Darrun Hilliard, who earned the starting nod at shooting guard for the opener. “This year is a new year with new guys and everything. We use last year as some type of motivation, but we also want to forget about it.

“We’re not too worried about proving anything to the fans. We know what we can bring. If we play Villanova basketball, it’s going to be fine and everything will work out.”

With a Thundering Herd squad that won 21 games a year ago looming on Sunday, it would be easy for the Wildcats to look past Division-II UDC to their first real test. Not so fast. The Firebirds were 22-6 last year (13-3 in the East Coast Conference), and are the league’s second choice fresh off their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 25 years. After winning just 13 games last season, Villanova is desperate to start this one on the right foot–and the Wildcats aren’t focused on anything else.

“We’re just focused on tomorrow,” Hilliard told CoBL. “We hear Marshall is a pretty good team, but we’re not too worried about that right now. We’ve got UDC coming in tomorrow and we’ll just worry about that right now. When Sunday presents itself, we’ll be ready.”

In Brandon Herbert (19.5 ppg), Nigel Munson (19.4), and Dishawn Bradshaw (14.6), UDC graduated 65 percent of its scoring from a year ago. The Firebirds, however, aren’t short on talent, some of it hailing from the City of Brotherly Love. Eight of their 12 players are transfers, including Philadelphia natives Quasim Jones and Michael Terry. Terry joins UDC from Boston University by way of North Catholic High, where he led the Falcons to a Catholic League crown in 2008 and was a McDonald’s All-America nominee. Jones, a product of John Bartrom High, spent a year each at Blinn Junior College (where Cam Newton played before transferring to Auburn) and Johnson County College (KS), where he was named a Juco All-American, before heading to the capitol.

The Firebirds also bring back senior forward Keith Brooks (5.9 ppg), leading rebounder Dyrek Jones (5.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and junior forward Ziad Ashmawy (6.5, 5.6) from last year’s 22-win squad. Still, the Wildcats are heavy favorites to start the season 1-0. While Wright knows getting off to a fast start is imperative, he also hopes his squad approaches the season one game at a time.

“I want them to look at it as the next step on getting better from the Carleton game,” Wright said. “They could be over-hyped about making up for last season with one game.”

Villanova’s knowledge of the Firebirds is limited, but Wright does have a scout within his ranks. Brandon Ennis, the older brother of Wildcat transfer Dylan Ennis, is a senior guard for UDC. He averaged 3.2 points per game in almost 12 minutes of action a year ago, and figures to see an expanded role when he takes the court against his brother’s new team.

“The coaching staff is handling all of that,” Hilliard said when asked if Dylan had been giving the Wildcats an in-depth scouting report on his older sibling. “It’s just kind of cool that Dylan’s older brother plays for them.”

Jones, who ranked fourth in the nation on blocks last year, is listed as UDC’s tallest player at 6-8, so the Wildcats have a distinct advantage in the middle. With Mouphtaou Yarou, Sutton, Daniel Ochefu, and JayVaughn Pinkston patrolling the paint, Villanova’s skilled, slimmed-down frontcourt could be in for a field day against the undersized Firebirds. For a team that finished 16th in the nation in rebounding a year ago, controlling the boards shouldn’t be a problem. After that, the Wildcats hope to improve upon last season’s shooting numbers, which ranked at or near the bottom of the conference in several categories. Thanks to the additions of freshman phenom Ryan Arcidiacono and Wake Forest transfer Tony Chennault, Wright is confident those improvements will come. Just not right away.

“I want to see us make improvement defensively and rebounding-wise,” he told CoBL on Thursday. “The shooting is where we need the most improvement. I don’t think that’s going to come so quickly. That’s going to come with us playing together and guys getting to know each other. That’s going to take some time. I am concerned about that, but I’m not looking for that right away.”

Take a glance at the Wildcats’ roster, and you’ll notice seven new names. That group of transfers and incoming freshmen weren’t around to witness the glowing success of the last decade. Instead, they spent the last year watching a 13-19 team struggle to stay relevant. Now, they see an opportunity to turn it around and pen a new legacy on the Main Line.

“Last year was a great learning lesson,” Wright said. “The seven new guys came into this program watching last year. They didn’t come in watching a few years ago and thinking, ‘I’ll just show up there and it just happens.’ That’s the challenge you get. They think, ‘I’ll pick Villanova and I’ll go to the Sweet Sixteen every year.’

“A season is a marathon, and you’re either getting better or you’re not…If you’re not there at the end of the year, it’s going to show.”

No one knows the peaks and valleys of a college basketball season that Sutton, who was treated to a Final Four in his first year at Villanova before watching it all come crumbling down just three years later. He’s seen it all, from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the barrel. This year, he sees it all coming full circle.

“I have a reading,” Sutton told CoBL. “I think greatness is definitely reachable. We can be the best team. We can be a great defensive team, a great Villanova basketball team.”

“Last year I felt like we had all the pieces,” Hilliard added. “This year, I feel like we have all the pieces, too. As long as we come out and play Villanova basketball, play hard, smart, and with pride, we can be really good.”

When asked where he thinks this edition of the Villanova program will be at the end of the season, Wright admitted he doesn’t know. Of one thing, however, he is certain: the Wildcats will stick to their core values, regardless of the outcome. Where they go from there is anyone’s guess.

“There’s a wide range of possibilities this year,” Wright said. “I do think we’ll be true to our core values. I really do. This group has learned a lot, and seven new players are coming in with a different perspective.

It’s almost like we’re starting over,” he added. “And that’s not a bad thing.”

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