Villanova: The Season Is Lost, But Hope Is On The HorizonPosted by mlemaire on February 27th, 2012
Coaches often explain their team’s struggles by saying his group is “still learning to play together” all the time. And Villanova coach Jay Wright used the team’s furious comeback win over lowly Providence on February 7 as a chance to dust off the age-old coaching platitude once more. The only problem is that the season is almost over proving the Wildcats have had a more gradual learning curve than most.
Since that win over the Friars, the Wildcats have lost all four games they have played including games against Notre Dame and Connecticut in which they had a 20-point and 18-point lead respectively. Just three seasons removed from a Final Four appearance, the Wildcats now sit at 4-12 in the conference and have almost no shot at playing any postseason basketball, let alone games in the NCAA Tournament.
Needless to say it has been a trying season for Wright, his team, and Wildcat fans who had grown accustomed to annual NCAA Tournament berths and the occasional Elite Eight appearance. The Wildcats were expected to struggle when they lost Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes, and Antonio Pena off last year’s squad, but Wright seemed to have amassed enough talent to make sure the decline wouldn’t be all that steep. Unfortunately, the Wildcats would miss that trio more than anyone could have imagined.
The warning bells were sounded when they needed overtime to beat perennial stepping stone LaSalle, and they grew louder when the team lost back-to-back games to St. Louis and Santa Clara in the 76 Classic. By the time South Florida stomped them by 17 points at home in the beginning of January, the Wildcats were dead in the water. A team without the shooters or defenders to make a run and without the experience or leadership to win close games down the stretch or pick themselves back up off the floor when they lose confidence.
The drastic drop-off has caused fans to start point fingers, some at Wright, the very man who is responsible for creating these high expectations that are now being let down. But while the season has been an abject disappointment for a team that seemed to be on the cusp of becoming one of the nation’s elite, the Wildcats faithful shouldn’t be calling for anyone’s job just yet.
For starters, Villanova lost three seniors to graduation and transfers Isaiah Armwood and Taylor King, who would likely be playing integral roles for the team had they not left the program. This mass exodus has left Villanova with one of the least experienced rosters in the country (#317 according to KenPom) and very little depth, especially across the front-line.
The team has lost six games, including five conference tilts, by four points or less. They have also won their fair share of close games that could have gone either way so it would be trivial to nitpick at what Villanova’s record could look like, but the close games are indicative of Villanova’s youth and inexperience. An experienced and well-oiled machine like Syracuse knows how to win close games, but also knows how to put away an inferior opponent. The Wildcats aren’t there yet but they still might be on the right path.
Assuming no one does anything stupid and declares for the NBA Draft (we are looking at you Maalik Wayns) the Wildcats are poised to rebound in a big way next season. If you count seldom-used Dallas Ouano (and you shouldn’t) the Wildcats will graduate just one player. So basically, they returns everybody who is anybody. They also have an incomplete recruiting class that already includes Philadelphia big man Daniel Ochefu and scoring point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. Ochefu in particular is an important recruit because he gives the Wildcats one of the deeper and bigger frontcourts in the conference next season. Arcidiacono missed his entire senior season with a back injury and may need time and rehabilitation before he can play meaningful minutes for the Wildcats, but at the very least, he gives the team an accurate long-range shooter they so desperately need. Also, if they can pull of a coup and land coveted local product Amile Jefferson, they could potentially field one of the deepest teams in the conference next season.
Building quality and trustworthy depth should be Wright’s top priority, and the development of the current freshmen will be essential to building that depth. The smart money says that the Wildcats are at their best when Tyrone Johnson is playing point guard and Wayns is free to be the primary scoring option, but Johnson will need to be more consistent and judicious with the basketball if he wants to earn that role. Darrun Hilliard was a dependable role player and defensive stopper early in the season, but he has worn down and has fallen almost completely out of Wright’s rotation of late. Markus Kennedy and Achraf Yacoubou have been nothing more than bit-role players. If all four use the summer wisely, then Wright will have a slew of options when he is determining his rotation for next season.
Yes the record is terrible, but the cupboard is hardly bare. Wayns still forces too many shots and turns the ball over way too much, but when he is on, there aren’t many guards who are better at getting to the rim. Mouphtaou Yarou isn’t much of a rim-protector, but he is good rebounder and a solid interior scoring option. And JayVaughn Pinkston is a multi-talented forward who seems poised for a breakout season next year.
For Wright, the offseason will be about stressing defense, forcing turnovers, and taking better shots. Both Pinkston and Wayns are the main reason why the Wildcats rank near the bottom (#287) in effective field goal percentage. And they have been even worse at forcing turnovers this season. The pieces are there, and if the team wants to put in the work to erase some of their glaring deficiencies, the abysmal 2011 season will be just an afterthought this time next season as the Wildcats jockey for NCAA Tournament seeding.