Wright, Wildcats look for bounce-back season

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Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)

For anyone who has watched the Villanova men’s basketball team during the last decade, the 2011-12 season must have looked out of place.

Turnovers and blown leads. Poor shooting, and worse defense. A prospective assistant who resigned during the summer when a university investigation uncovered inaccuracies on his resume. Ultimately, a program-record 19 losses and no postseason. No one who watched head coach Jay Wright guide the Wildcats to two Elite Eights, a Final Four, and seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances could have seen it coming. Including, of course, Wright himself, who had spent the last 11 years rebuilding a stagnant program into a perennial contender in the Big East.

(Villanova Primer: For CoBL’s player-by-player look at the Wildcats, click here)

Times were hard on the Main Line, where Villanova fans witnessed the worst season since the program started playing in 1920. For Wright, the reason the Wildcats didn’t look like a Villanova team was simple: They weren’t playing ‘Villanova basketball.’

“It was disappointing for us, more in terms of how we played and how we represented Villanova basketball more so than our record,” Wright said at Big East Media Day. “We were in a lot of games . . . You could be a team that played true to your core values and lost close games, and still feel good about yourself. We weren’t true to our core values…”

Which are?

“We’ve got to play more aggressively and more confidently,” the 12th-year head man told CoBL. “We have to have more of a swagger. And we have to play unselfishly. This team is doing it so far. The great challenge is always doing it in the games.”

The Wildcats lost games in every fashion imaginable a year ago. They blew big leads, like a 20-point first-half bulge against Notre Dame, or the 18-point strangleholds on Marquette and Connecticut. They lost them late, like a 65-64 setback against Santa Clara in which Villanova went the final 3:35 without a point. Often, they were never in games at all, double-digit blowouts littered throughout the schedule.

Yet when this year’s Wildcats take a look in the mirror, they see a face different and familiar at the same time staring back at them. Different, they say, because it will look nothing like the squad that set a program record for futility last season. Familiar, then, in its resemblance to the product to which Villanova fans had grown so accustomed over the previous seven.

“Coach Wright wants us to get back to that core of playing hard, together, and with pride,” said center Maurice Sutton, one of just two seniors on this Wildcat team. “Last year wasn’t our best year; everybody knows that. We have to go back to the basics now to win the way that we want to win.

“We have the potential to be a great team this year.”

Potential is one thing. The Wildcats seemed to have it in spades a year ago, with juniors Maalik Wayns, Dominic Cheek, and Mouphtaou Yarou headlining a seemingly explosive outfit. Production is another, as Wright’s charges learned quickly before the season fell apart, before 19 losses and before Wayns and Cheek decided to forego their final year of eligibility to enter the NBA draft. So why all the optimism?

“We could be a good defensive team and a good rebounding team,” Wright said Thursday, moments after the Wildcats defeated Carleton in their first and only exhibition game. “We have to shoot the ball a lot better, but defensive rebounding will keep you in a lot of games. We have some versatility on defense, so that I like. We need to get a lot better, but I like that a lot.”

When the Wildcats take the floor on Nov. 9 for the regular-season opener against District of Columbia, their fans might have a hard time recognizing them. They’ll remember the players, most of them at least, and the familiar sound of the ball reverberating off the Pavilion hardwood. But unlike the vast majority of Wright’s last 11 teams, this one will be strongest in the frontcourt.

“Our experience is up front, with the forwards, and we want to utilize them,” said Wright, who has guided a bevy of prolific guards to the professional ranks in his time on the Main Line. “They’ve been in big games, they’ve got good size. We still want to use our guards, but we’re going to rely heavily on our forwards this year.”

Those bigs, most of whom have been with the program for several years, will look quite a bit different, too. Sophomore JayVaughn Pinkston watched 25 pounds disappear with plenty of hard offseason work after a first season spent averaging 9.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Yarou (11.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg) lost 10 pounds entering his senior year. So did junior James Bell (7.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg), a 6-6 wing ready to make a splash in a newfound leadership role. Mix in Sutton, who acquitted himself quite well down the stretch a year ago, and freshman Daniel Ochefu, a 6-10 bruiser from Westtown High School, and the new-look Villanova frontcourt has a chance to be one of the best in the Big East.

“I think that’s going to help our quickness and our perimeter defense,” Wright said of his forwards’ weight loss. “They have really improved in their perimeter skills, their quickness, and their conditioning, as well as their ability to run the floor. That’s really helped because of getting into better shape.”

“Lighter and quicker,” added Sutton, who averaged 7 points and 5 rebounds over the last 11 games a year ago. “That’s what we want. We want to get up and down the floor, and losing weight is a great way to do that.”

With the go-to scorers stationed in the frontcourt, a strange departure from the Wildcats’ guard-centric heyday, most of the question marks are in the backcourt. Gone are Wayns and Cheek, who combined for almost 40 percent of the scoring a year ago. In their place are a highly-touted freshman, an inexperienced sophomore, and a major-conference transfer.

Ryan Arcidiacono missed his entire senior season at Neshaminy High School with a back injury, but the freshman phenom, who earned the starting point guard gig during the summer, says he is 100 percent and ready to get back on the court. Darrun Hilliard averaged 4.8 points per game last season as a freshman, starting nine games early in the season before seeing his minutes disappear down the stretch. He got the start at shooting guard in Thursday’s exhibition, however, scoring 15 points in a strong all-around performance. The decision to tab Hilliard over Wake Forest transfer Tony Chennault was something of a surprise, given that Chennault started 30 games last season and has already established himself as the team’s leader. But Hilliard’s marked offseason improvement was too much for Wright to ignore.

“Probably Darrun,” Wright said when asked who had made the biggest leap heading into the new season. “JayVaughn has in terms of his body; he’s in great shape. In terms of his confidence and how he’s playing, it’s probably Darrun.

“Tony is a guy that can play multiple positions, so we liked him coming off the bench. Plus, he’s the most unselfish, humble guy on the team. He’s told me, ‘I’ll do whatever you need. Come off the bench, start, whatever you need me to do.’ We really value that.

“We’re going to play nine or 10 guys…We have a lot of versatility, and that’s what I was hoping we would have.”

With sophomore Achraf Yacoubou as well as Chennault coming off the bench, Wright expects to have a backcourt with some depth, although the announcement of combo guard Ty Johnson’s transfer will hurt in that department.

“We were short at guards last year with Tyrone’s injury, and Maalik got injured at one point,” Wright said. “I think now, the freshmen are sophomores, and Ryan was a great addition, Tony’s a great addition, so I think we have more depth at the guard position.”

“It’s good,” Arcidiacono told CoBL. “Tony, Ty, or me, we can all bring up the ball and we can all shoot. We can really space out the floor, roll and drive and kick for threes to Darrun and Ach, anything like that. I think we’re doing well, and we definitely have some depth at the guard position.”

Thanks to a talented frontcourt and a balanced backcourt, Wright expects to see the Wildcats’ shooting improve significantly. Villanova ranked last in the Big East in field-goal percentage (41.2 percent) and 14th in three-point shooting (30.5 percent) a year ago, but a greater variety of scoring options could work wonders. So too, he hopes, will the departure of Wayns, who was fourth in the conference in scoring (17.4 ppg) but was forced to shoulder a heavy offensive burden for last year’s young group.

“When you have a player like Maalik, you want to make sure you take advantage of him,” Wright said. “He had young people around him and a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, and I think it was difficult for him. Now the other guys around him have gotten a year older, and he’s not here to benefit from that, but I think our shot selection will be better because of that.”

Where Wright’s bunch will miss Wayns most, however, is in crunch time. Wayns took all the big shots a year ago, and made his fair share of them. Now, it remains to be seen who gets the ball in the clutch.

“We’re going to miss that end-of-the-game situation where we put the ball in his hands,” Wright said of Wayns. “That’s probably what we’re going to miss.”

The Wildcats shot just 30.5 percent from the field Thursday, including 3-of-20 from beyond the arc. Wright knows the shooting woes won’t go away overnight. He liked the effort, especially the 21-point, 13-rebound performance turned in by Yarou. And after all the sleepless nights and anxious moments a 19-loss season can bring, a win is certainly a win. If Yarou and Pinkston can become double-double threats inside, Arcidiacono pans out as advertised, and the Wildcats get consistent contributions from a deep bench, a postseason tournament of some kind is well within their reach. A lot of ifs, but a lot of promise, too. What to expect when the season tips off on Friday is anyone’s guess.

“I don’t know,” Wright told CoBL. “I honestly don’t know. A good, unselfish group. How good we’re going to be, I don’t know yet. We have a lot to prove and we have a lot of work to do. By the end of the year we have a chance to be a good team. That’s all I can honestly say. What to expect, I don’t know.”

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